Starlin Castro has gone through the helmet-throwing, bat-slamming phases. He has tried to absorb the organization’s ideas about seeing more pitches and grinding out at-bats. He has stood in front of his locker and taken responsibility for the mental mistakes and a season-long offensive slump.
But after finding out he would be batting eighth on Tuesday night, Castro essentially said: Forget it.
A 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals looked familiar to the crowd of 30,975 at Wrigley Field. Castro and Anthony Rizzo went 0-for-8 combined in what’s going to be another year written off as a learning experience.
But if the Cubs are going to bump Castro back to the spot he had as a rookie in 2010, then he’s going to remember what made him a .300 hitter. That kid made it look easy with natural hand-eye coordination, waves of confidence and a clear head.
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“See the ball and hit it – don’t think about it,” Castro said. “This year it’s too many things to think about (and) I’m not supposed to think (up there). Sometimes you have like a tough season and you want to please everybody. But it’s not right. You have to listen to the things that can help you – not everything.
“When you come to the home plate, you don’t have any idea, because you listen to too many things. That’s what I do. There’s six weeks left. Just be aggressive and be me.”
Castro wasn’t pointing fingers. He’s just trying to make sense of the first extended struggle in his professional career, a 1-for-23 homestand sinking his average to .242 when Dale Sveum constructed this lineup. Castro’s .618 OPS ranked 16th out of the 19 qualified shortstops in the majors.
The manager talked up Darwin Barney (.218 average) in the No. 2 hole and Donnie Murphy and Brian Bogusevic batting fifth/sixth. They will be 31 and 30 years old next season, but generated all the offense with two solo home runs, one off almost-Cub Dan Haren (8-11, 4.64 ERA), who went six innings to earn the victory for the Nationals (61-64).
Batting No. 8 for a team that fell to 54-71 and last place in the division was the National League’s hits leader in 2011, a core player with a $60 million commitment.
“I don’t like it,” Castro said. “(But) I’m happy to be in there every day. No matter where, I’m going to keep going and finish strong.”
Castro said a change in hitting coaches – the Cubs fired Rudy Jaramillo in June 2012 and promoted James Rowson – hasn’t made a huge difference. At that press conference, team president Theo Epstein insisted: “We’re not trying to cookie-cutter our hitters.”
“People try to help you,” Castro said. “It’s not anything wrong. J-Ro does a very good job.”
[MORE: Castro takes responsibility for mental gaffe]
The Cubs are years away from changing their offensive identity, knocking out starting pitchers in the fifth inning, feasting on middle relievers and playing four-hour games like the Boston Red Sox.
In the meantime, it’s lazy to call Castro mentally weak or say he doesn’t “get it.” It’s not like he had famous bloodlines or first-round pedigree or the can’t-miss label after signing for $45,000 as a teenager in the Dominican Republic in October 2006.
Castro speaks English far better than anyone covering the team understands Spanish. His internal drive allowed him to rocket through the system after only 264 games in the minors – zero at the Triple-A level – and become a two-time All-Star shortstop.
Even if Castro is only 23 years old, he still has almost 2,500 plate appearances on his big-league resume. It’s time for Castro and Rizzo – who’s hitting .177 with runners in scoring position – to figure it out.
“We’re all in this together,” Sveum said. “But I don’t care who you are: The bottom line is it’s (on) the player (and) the adjustments they have to make, whether they’re suggested by myself or J-Ro or defensively (with coach) David Bell. Whatever. It’s still up to the player to be able to apply all those things you talk about.”
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Another fire sale has created a leadership void in the clubhouse (even if the media has overplayed that narrative). The Cubs still lost 101 games with David DeJesus and Alfonso Soriano last season and could still finish in last place this season with or without them.
But Rizzo and Castro, in particular, developed their routines by watching DeJesus and Soriano work every day.
“The bottom line is we’re grown men at this point in our lives,” Sveum said. “We got to do things ourselves and improve and get through adversity. A lot of people don’t have guys patting them on the back all the time or whatever. But there comes a point where you have to do things yourself.”
Castro – who has stayed in touch with Soriano since the $136 million man was traded to the New York Yankees last month – recognizes that and understands it’s on his shoulders.
“I’m on my own now,” Castro said. “I’m a man. (Sori) taught me a lot when he was here. Now it’s time I do it myself."