Cubs: Alfonso Soriano helps Junior Lake stay ahead of the curve

Cubs: Alfonso Soriano helps Junior Lake stay ahead of the curve

August 11, 2013, 4:15 pm
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Cubs vs. Reds, 7 p.m.
on Comcast SportsNet-Plus

On the hill: Travis Wood (7-8, 3.04 ERA); Mat Latos (11-3, 3.21 ERA)

Reds at at a glance: 65-52 (3rd in National League Central, 5 GB Pirates) ... +72 run differential ... 28-32 on the road.

Reds pitching leaders: Wins - Mat Latos (11); ERA - Mike Leake (2.86); WHIP - Bronson Arroyo (1.14) Strikeouts - Homer Bailey (148); Saves - Aroldis Chapman (27)

Reds batting leaders: Average - Joey Votto (.322); Home runs - Jay Bruce (24); RBIs - Brandon Phillips (87); OPS - Votto (.946); Stolen bases - Shin-Soo Choo (13)

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ST. LOUIS – Before Alfonso Soriano said goodbye in a Cubs clubhouse filled with emotions and took a red-eye flight from Phoenix to New York, Dave McKay made sure he got through to Junior Lake.

In Lake, Soriano saw the same 40/40 potential, another kid from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic who started his career as an infielder before transitioning to the outfield. McKay – who spent 16 seasons on Tony La Russa’s coaching staff in St. Louis – leaned on Soriano’s bilingual skills to send the message.

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“We’re just staying on top of him, making sure we don’t wander off and start doing the things that Soriano was doing,” McKay said Sunday at Busch Stadium. “I had some words with (Soriano) before he departed and (for Junior) it was: You have a program, stay with it.”

When McKay joined Dale Sveum’s staff as the first-base/outfield coach before the 2012 season, he had the wrong impression of Soriano. Unless you were around the $136 million man every day, it was hard to see what he did to get his body ready, how he played through pain, how much teammates respected him.

McKay noticed how Soriano didn’t go hard after every ball (his legs were never the same after signing that megadeal), how he would hold onto the ball too long and miss the cutoff man. They developed a routine, taking a certain amount of groundballs each day and practicing the throws to second base over and over.

Now McKay says: “There’s absolutely zero doubt in my mind that if he had the right instruction, he would have been a Gold Glove outfielder.”

That’s why McKay feels the Cubs are so far ahead of the curve with Lake, who only 23 years old, or seven years younger than Soriano when he made the switch. This is a Soriano 2.0 project.  

“(Soriano) started realizing the results he was getting by doing all these things,” McKay said. “He said he hadn’t been told these things and I think it changed his game a lot. He took (Lake) under his wing and pretty much told him: ‘You’re an infielder, like I was. You’re now an outfielder. You’ve got a good arm. You got the speed. You got everything it takes to be a very good outfielder. But you have to focus on your instruction each day and don’t ignore that.’”

Now back wearing the Yankee pinstripes, Soriano notched his 2,000th career hit on Sunday by homering off Justin Verlander, Detroit’s Cy Young winner. Soriano recently spoke with catcher Welington Castillo, and had become a mentor to Starlin Castro from the moment the shortstop arrived in 2010.

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“Before I left, I just talked to them: I’m not going to be around anymore,” Soriano recalled. “I said to (Castro): Now you’re a grown man. You have like three years in the big leagues. Now take care of yourself and keep working hard and get better every day.

“I said to Junior: Keep working hard because they gave you an opportunity now. Just keep working and do your thing.”

Over the weekend, Lake showed that he should be a part of this Cubs-Cardinals rivalry for years to come, getting the game-winning RBI on Friday, making a diving catch in left field and throwing out a runner at second base.

“What I’ve been really impressed with are the things you don’t (see),” McKay said. “A pitcher gets ahead of a guy 0-2 and I see him coming in on his own without me calling him in. All of a sudden, the count starts to go back in the hitter’s favor and I see him backing up. Those are heads-up plays. That shows me he’s a smart player.”

Lake hasn’t spent a full month in the big leagues yet, but he’s notched 32 hits in his first 23 games, proving he doesn’t belong at Triple-A Iowa.

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Darnell McDonald, who played with Lake in Des Moines, knows what’s it like when you're supposed to be the next big thing.

McDonald signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Texas, became a first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1997 and turned down NFL opportunities when Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis needed a running back/kick returner. Lake is that kind of freakish athlete.

“He’s an exciting player,” McDonald said. “He’s a fun player to watch. He can do a lot of things on the baseball field. It’s scary to think that he’s just starting out. Man, he’s going to do some special things.”