Cubs: It’s not the contract, but Rizzo feeling pressure to produce

Cubs: It’s not the contract, but Rizzo feeling pressure to produce
May 25, 2013, 6:30 pm
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CINCINNATI – Anthony Rizzo’s face-of-the-franchise contract has become part of the narrative. If the Cubs first baseman had been crushing the ball, everyone would be talking about the weight off his shoulders; how he can now just go out and play.

But that’s not how Rizzo’s wired, and he hasn’t been performing at that level. The 0-for-23 stretch that ended during Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds showed his over-analytical approach and helmet-slamming frustration.

“I don’t know what more pressure I can put on myself,” said Rizzo, who went 3-for-3 with a walk and two doubles. “That doesn’t matter at all. You think this game would come a lot easier when you get that financial security and it’s amazing that your instincts stay the same. You still get mad when you get out.

“Everyone in here is a competitor. Whether you’re making $10 an hour or $5 an hour or whatever you’re making, you get mad when you lose and you get mad when you fail. That’s part of the game.”

The curls were back on top of Rizzo’s head after he straightened out his hair on Friday, drawing laughs and weird looks in the clubhouse while trying to keep the atmosphere loose.

Driving Homer Bailey’s 93 mph fastball into left field for an RBI double at Great American Ball Park marked Rizzo’s first hit in a week, breaking an 0-for-23 streak in which he struck out nine times.

If this had dragged out to Monday – two weeks since the Cubs announced the Rizzo deal and the start of four straight games against the White Sox – you know it would be a storyline.

How will Rizzo handle being “The Man?”

“That’s stuff you think about, but that’s why we gave him that kind of contract, because we believe in him,” manager Dale Sveum said. “We believe in his mentality and his leadership abilities and those things, but they don’t come overnight either.

“It just doesn’t work that way. Those great young hitters that produce on a daily basis – that’s not reality. You think of the positives and the things in there that we’ve all seen before, and they come out again.”

At the age of 23, Rizzo has a seven-year, $41 million contract that contains club options that could make it run through 2021 and raise the total value to around $70 million. If he had just put together five good games…

“We would not be talking right now,” Rizzo said. “I’d be going about my business and everything would be great. But that’s what comes with it. I’m going to struggle (and) have great stretches and weeks like this. … This is what we signed up for.”

Rizzo believes he’s the bellwether that the offense will trend in whatever direction he’s going. He’s used to that responsibility after supposedly being the first baseman of the future for the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres.

“Everything spirals when you try to do too much,” Rizzo said. “We just need to start stepping up. It starts not just with me – everyone in our lineup. Our pitchers (15 RBI in May) are carrying the weight in too many different ways right now and I think enough is enough. We need to start performing to our abilities.”

It’s probably too early to tell whether Rizzo is truly a streaky hitter or more like someone who’s still figuring it out during his first full season in the big leagues. For all the talk about the contract, he seemed to heat up along with the negotiations and after Sveum’s Triple-A Iowa threat.

Between April 26 and May 18, Rizzo hit .390 with 10 doubles, four homers, 16 RBI and a 1.103 OPS in 21 games. Sveum described his No. 3 hitter as someone who “thinks himself out of so many at-bats” after processing all the scouting reports and video analysis and making too many adjustments to the pitchers. This is all part of the learning curve.

“You handle it because it’s your job to handle it,” Sveum said. “I don’t care who you are, it weighs on you when you’re in a 0-for-20 slump or whatever. That’s part of this game – adversity. It ain’t much fun. It’ll humble you. As quick as you think you’re a star, it’ll humble you that much quicker.”