Whether he wants to admit it or not, this is a big year for Anthony Rizzo, who got $41 million guaranteed before his first full season in the big leagues.
The Cubs have a brutal early schedule and a patchwork lineup that will put pressure on Rizzo to produce. It won’t get any easier after losing 5-4 to No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs left Wrigley Field on Thursday knowing they’d face Joe Kelly, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha this weekend at Busch Stadium. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to start Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
The Cubs made Rizzo a No. 3 hitter and a face-of-the-franchise focus, the kind of instant responsibility that doesn’t happen with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Even if the Pirates did have Francisco Liriano on the mound, a brutal Opening Day performance (0-for-4, three strikeouts) brought back those questions about facing left-handers and hitting with men in scoring position (.191 last season) and how Rizzo would handle it all.
Rizzo responded during this homestand, putting together a five-game hitting streak (11-for-18) and riding a hot streak that has lifted his average to .371 and boosted his OPS to .978.
“It’s a long season,” Rizzo said. “We went through a long season last year and another two weeks isn’t going to make or break your season. But it’s just nice to rack up some hits early.”
Rizzo is 24 years old and has already been traded twice, playing for three different managers and working with at least four different hitting coaches in the last year. He still doesn’t get as much heat as All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, the other core player dissected in the Dale Sveum firing.
“Even in batting practice, you see (Rizzo) working the other side of the diamond,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with two strikes. (Offensively), they have peaks and valleys. Right now, he’s in a pretty good place. The shift doesn’t hurt him. He’s hitting the ball the other way. He’s able to take advantage of it.”
Rizzo can defend last year’s 23-homer, 80-RBI, 76-walk season, but it didn’t live up to expectations. The first baseman is trying to keep it all in perspective.
“It’s just really not doing too much,” Rizzo said. “The first few games, I was hitting balls right at guys and it was very frustrating. I learned from (that) in years past. You can’t press. It’s early. It’s a long season. You just got to keep going through the grind and get into your routine.”
A road trip through St. Louis and New York will show the Cubs what sustained success looks like up close.
“We’ll see where we’re at,” Castro said. “We’ll see what we can do and where we can be better. It’s good (for us). When you play a good team like the Yankees and St. Louis, you have to put up 200 percent to win the game.”