Amid losing, Castro and Rizzo shining for Cubs

Amid losing, Castro and Rizzo shining for Cubs
April 21, 2014, 1:00 am
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Tony Andracki

It's only April 21, and Cubs fans are already growing frustrated.

The Cubs wake up Monday morning tied for last in Major League Baseball with five wins and only two teams (Houston and San Diego) have scored fewer than the Cubs' 58 runs.

But here are two reasons to fill Cubs fans with hope: Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

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The two franchise cornerstones came under fire after disappointing 2013 seasons, but they've bounced back under first-year manager Rick Renteria.

Rizzo, who was pretty unlucky last year, has rebounded in a big way. After reaching base four times (two singles and two walks) in the Cubs' loss to the Reds Sunday, the 24-year-old first baseman is hitting .349/.440/.508. That on-base percentage is tied for seventh in MLB, right behind Reds superstar Joey Votto.

Even though both of his homers have come on the road, Rizzo has been especially hot at home, hitting .484 (15-for-31) with seven walks through nine games after hitting .252 at Wrigley Field last year.

"He continues to move forward in a consistent manner," Renteria said. "They're all striving to get better, but he's certainly showing that he's having a nice start to the season."

The Cubs weren't expected to contend at all in 2014, so progression from Rizzo and Castro was viewed as a vital part of the season, a stepping stone to provide the fanbase with hope.

A vital part of that development is hitting with two strikes, and Renteria is happy with the approach he's seen from the two young players. Rizzo picked up his 12th two-strike hit Sunday on a bloop to left field in the first inning.

"Their two-strike approaches are actually pretty good," Renteria said. "They're starting to lay off certain pitches. Rizzo, in particular with two strikes, choking up a little and trying not to be so pull-conscious. He takes what they give him, which is more of a mindset.

"I think you have to make an adjustment and as you continue to improve as big-league players, you know there are certain things that you have to work on. He's coming to the conclusion that some of the things he's doing are helping him. They were things that were talked about and worked on in spring. So far, he's maintained a pretty consistent approach."

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Castro had a rough day Sunday - expanding the zone to strike out twice and pop out - but managed a single and has a 12-game hitting streak at Wrigley Field dating back to last season. He's hitting .395 at home in nine games this year, including his first career two-homer game April 8.

After starting out in the two-hole, Renteria moved Castro down to sixth to give him the opportunity to drive in runs, hoping to jumpstart a silent offense. In the nine games since, Castro has hit either fifth or sixth and leads the team with nine RBI to go with a .286 average and .706 OPS.

"He's done a nice job there. I don't know if it's any different than what he would be doing in the two-hole, but he's been doing a nice job," Renteria said. "We'll keep him in a place that seems to give him some comfort. If that works, we'll continue to do it."

Renteria admitted that even though Castro has found success hitting lower in the order, it doesn't mean the young shortstop won't be moved back up to second or leadoff. The first-year manager hopes Castro is advanced enough as a hitter to be productive no matter where he hits in the order.

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"But it sure is nice to have him out there just in case there are runners on base to drive in some runs," Renteria said. "Fortunately for us, we have the flexibility with a lot of guys that can hit in that one-two slot.

"[Castro] has led off and done well in the leadoff hole, but fortunately for us right now, we can slot him in that five/six hole."

The offensive results haven't been there yet for the team, but three weeks into the season, Castro and Rizzo aren't to blame for that.

Last season, most people pointed to the duo's struggles as the main reason for the lackluster lineup. This year, they rank at or near the top of every offensive category on the Cubs.

There hasn't been much for fans to be positive about in the early going, but the two pieces of The Core certainly seem to be back on track.