MESA, Ariz. – Junior Lake tried to bunt during a three-homer game. That’s the power/speed combination that once made Alfonso Soriano see 40/40 potential in another converted infielder.
It’s also a sign Lake is still trying to figure everything out and sharpen his instincts. He’s struck out 14 times in 40 Cactus League at-bats and needed something to get himself going. So even if the Cubs outfielder wasn’t on the roster bubble, he’ll take those three homers in his last three at-bats during Sunday’s 10-6 win over the Oakland A’s.
“Yeah, I needed that,” Lake said. “That’s why I work every day. I need to be prepared for the league and get ready.”
Reliever Pedro Strop ducked behind reporters and popped up to give Lake a high-five after the group interview. After giving the team a burst of energy last season and drawing comparisons to Los Angeles Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, maybe Lake will be a center of attention in 2014.
The Cubs signed Lake and Starlin Castro within four months of each other. The teenagers played together in the Dominican Republic on the same summer-league team in 2007. They became roommates during rookie ball in Arizona.
But when Castro made the leap from Double-A Tennessee in 2010 – into the big leagues and toward the All-Star Game and a $60 million contract – Lake was still at Class-A Peoria.
Castro turned 24 on Monday, while Lake’s 24th birthday is coming Thursday. It clicked for Lake at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where he drove one ball that bounced off the top of the left-field wall, crushed another that easily cleared the fence in left and absolutely hammered the last one that slammed off the green batter’s eye in center.
“Last year they compared him a little bit to Puig when he came up, but I think he has a way cooler head,” pitcher Carlos Villanueva said. “Puig’s just going all the time and it gets to a point that you don’t want to be expecting: When is this guy going to be making a mistake?
“You want him to learn. You want him to see a guy like Puig, who has super talent but maybe tries to do too much and makes those mistakes that’s going to cost your team an extra base, an extra run.
“But I think Junior’s a little more advanced mentally when it comes to that. And I think he has the right people now to guide him through that. He came up hot last year, and then he kind of slowed down a little bit. The league adjusts to you, so you got to adjust back. But he’s just shown a glimpse of what he’s got.”
Lake earned an Opening Day spot by hitting .284 with six homers and 16 doubles in a 64-game audition. The Cubs want to see what a full season might look like now.
“He’s got talent,” Villanueva said. “He just needs to put it all together when it comes to just a little more patience, and that takes time.”