Junior Lake will be a reason to watch the Cubs

Junior Lake will be a reason to watch the Cubs

July 20, 2013, 12:00 am
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DENVER – Junior Lake will be a reason to watch this team. 

The Cubs don’t have much star-power or name recognition now, and another big personality will be gone in the inevitable Matt Garza trade. Instead of driving out to Kane County or scanning the Class-A box scores for signs of hope, the fans will be able to see Lake in high definition.  

Lake made his big-league debut in front of 43,976 on Friday night at Coors Field and gave the Cubs a shot of adrenaline in a 3-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies.

This is a fast-twitch player who ran into the wall and all around the bases. He aggressively covered the wide-open space with almost zero experience in center field. He even told Dale Sveum he was going to swing at the first pitch when the manager thought about batting him leadoff.

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“Since I’ve been here, that’s the first kid that’s come up and really looked like a major-leaguer,” Sveum said after watching Lake hit sixth and go 3-for-4 with a stolen base.

The Cubs (43-51) got a strong start from Jeff Samardzija (one run in 7.1 innings), Alfonso Soriano’s 389th career home run (tying him with Johnny Bench for No. 57 all-time) and Kevin Gregg’s 18th save. But afterward Sveum was talking about a 23-year-old kid who could “bring life to a team.”

This bounce may not last, because Lake has only played 40 games above the Double-A level, and David DeJesus (shoulder) is about a week away from coming off the disabled list. The front office didn’t want to rush Lake, and would probably prefer he played every day at Triple-A Iowa, but someone had to come up after Brian Bogusevic (hamstring) became the latest Cubs outfielder to go on the DL.  

So Lake will get a taste of “The Show” and see if he can force the issue.

“We’ve seen it before, where guys wow you too much to send them back down, and then you have to make room for them somewhere,” Sveum said. “But the plan now is he’ll probably be here until DeJesus gets back and gets healthy.” 

Lake hammered the first pitch he saw in the majors – a 90 mph fastball from Jorge De La Rosa – into left field for a double. He stole third base on the very next pitch. He then got caught after sprinting on contact toward home plate on a ball hit back to the pitcher. He made a heads-up play by drawing out the rundown and waving Dave Sappelt to second base.

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Lake also crashed into the wall, knocking off his glove as he chased Dexter Fowler’s home-run ball in the fourth inning. He kept moving, singling into left field in the sixth and going first-to-third on a ball that bounced off Todd Helton’s glove.

Born three days after Starlin Castro in the Dominican Republic, Lake has played in the shadows of the All-Star shortstop with the $60 million contract.  

They played together on the same Dominican summer league team in 2007 and became roommates in Arizona for rookie ball in 2008. Castro remembered playing one half of a season at second base, with Lake at shortstop, and the two switching positions for the second half. 

“I retired from short,” Lake joked in English.

Lake had never played center field before in the minors, according to the database at Baseball-Reference.com, and only got six games in right with Iowa. He’s so athletic that the Cubs view him as a potential super-utility guy.

“I can play anywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Through interpreter/teammate Julio Borbon, Lake called this a “dream come true” and said he was happy to wear the same No. 21 as Sammy Sosa.

[MORE: Cubs' prospects continue to draw acclaim]

“It’s something to be proud of,” Lake said. “He’s one of my countrymen, a guy I grew up watching play. I wanted No. 22, but with Garza having that one, there was no chance.”

Check back on Garza’s number, because it should be available soon, and Lake will have the chance to be a big part of the future.

“I knew he could play,” Samardzija said. “(With) those young guys, you come up, keep your mouth shut and do your work. He was great today. I know for a fact he hasn’t played a lot of center field. He’s been an infielder his whole career.

“For him to come in and be a spark for us and bring some speed and a strong arm – you just expect to see him keep growing and go from there.”

[RELATED: Second-half spotlight will be put on Cubs' core]

Cubs fans are going to be alternately frustrated and entertained by Lake, who’s 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and still pretty raw as a prospect. A broken rib cut short his audition in spring training, and he played only 40 games with Iowa, hitting .295 with four homers, 18 RBI and 14 stolen bases.

“From all the reports, he’s making a change,” Sveum said. “He’s getting more patient at the plate, but obviously this comes with development. That’s why you play A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A and then, hopefully, you’re ready for the big leagues with those kind of tools.”

Ready or not, the Cubs are going to find out about Lake.