Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface

Leading off, Castro only scratching the surface
April 3, 2011, 7:54 pm
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Sunday, April 3, 2011Posted: 3:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Starlin Castro glided to his left and leaned down to grab the bouncing ball. The shortstop spun and had one foot planted on the edge of the outfield, his momentum carrying him past second base.

Castro had trouble gripping the ball in the 41-degree cool of Wrigley Field. But he saw first base and made an accurate throw. Carlos Pena swiped it out of the air after one hop, just before the runner stepped on the bag.

The Cubs still have to account for more than 4,000 outs this season. But the first play on Opening Day a chopper up the middle reinforced everything the Cubs think about their 21-year-old shortstop.

For Castro, there will be many ups and downs across these 162 games. Sundays 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates was a microcosm, filled with moments that can be electrifying and easy to second-guess.

Initially, Mike Quade didnt want to overload Castro with leadoff responsibilities. It took two games before the manager changed his mind. From the top of Sundays lineup, Castro went 3-for-4 with two triples. He crushed one 400 feet off the top of the brick wall in center, and smashed the other up the third-base line.

Anywhere you put him, he looks good, Alfonso Soriano said, because hes got so much talent.

That makes it hard to rip Castro for the split-second decision he made with one out in Sundays ninth inning. The Cubs were clinging to a one-run lead and the Pirates had runners on second and third when Castro charged a soft groundball hit by Pedro Alvarez.

Castro didnt go home and he didnt hang onto it. His throw to first pulled Pena off the bag, allowing two runs to score. Quade reserved judgment on that play, saying that hed have to take another look.

The manager also admitted that he doesnt see leadoff as a regular thing for Castro, who will likely hit second on Monday. But its a clear sign of how much the shortstop has grown.

He acts like hes been here for years and I mean that in a good way, Pena said. Im talking about the way he goes about his at-bat, (how) he is so calm, regardless of the situation. (He) takes his pitches and when he gets a good (one) he takes an aggressive swing with an incredible confidence.

Yet Im also impressed with the fact that he doesnt seem to know how good he is. (I) like that humility in him, (how) hes working out there every day. Hes here early. He respects everyone (and) he respects the game, (yet) we all know the potential this kid has.

The Cubs are trying to find the balance in Castros rookie season a .300 average weighed against 27 errors. They want him to slow the game down, to know how fast the runner is and realize how much time he has on each play.

Quade benched Castro for a few games last September. The manager also met with the shortstop about his practice habits in early March. Castro hasnt tuned out his coaches, or backed down from the challenge.

Once again, were talking about a 21-year-old kid, Quade said. I cant lose sight of that fact. Instead of me getting irritated all the time, I probably ought to recognize that hes still a very young player.

Castros birth certificate shouldnt be an excuse for mental lapses, but it is good for an occasional reminder. While his game matures, his English has improved to the point where hes doing some interviews without an interpreter at his side.

You also noticed Castro sitting in a laundry cart on Sunday morning in the clubhouse, chatting with Soriano and Marcos Mateo. He didnt exactly feel out of place last year, but now he knows he belongs.

I feel really comfortable because they look at me as a player, not a rookie, Castro said. (I get) a little more respect.

The Cubs are stuck with players getting paid for past performance and not necessarily future results. That doesnt make them unique. Thats how compensation works in professional sports.

But for the Cubs to contend, they will need players to exceed expectations. A huge year from Castro could change their offensive profile. Maybe this is foreshadowing he went 8-for-13 (.615) and scored four runs in the opening series.

You can wonder whether Castro will hit first or second, but thats probably missing the point. He has the potential to be a No. 3 hitter, an anchor in the lineup, almost everything out of the marketing departments dreams.

The skys the limit, Pena said. We may be seeing one of the best up-and-coming shortstops in the game. Im just happy to have a good seat to watch him play.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.