Dale Sveum wanted to boost Starlin Castro’s confidence and “get his so-called swagger back.” The Cubs manager didn’t want Anthony Rizzo to feel the pressure of being “The Guy.”
So Castro and Rizzo hit one-two in Wednesday night’s lineup after their early batting practice session inside an empty Wrigley Field, slamming fastballs spit from a machine.
There are fewer than six weeks left in this season, and the Cubs hope their young core players use that time as a springboard to head home to the Dominican Republic and South Florida in a better frame of mind.
Wednesday, Rizzo went out and blasted his 19th and 20th home runs, both off Ross Ohlendorf, with one disappearing onto Sheffield Avenue. It wasn’t nearly enough in an 11-6 loss to the Washington Nationals, but at least the crowd of 31,936 sitting through the humidity saw some signs of life.
The day after being dropped to No. 8 for the first time since his breakout rookie season in 2010 — and promising to go back to what made him a .300 hitter — Castro went 1-for-5 in the leadoff spot while lining out and hustling to keep alive what turned out to be a five-run inning in the sixth.
“I don’t put my head down,” Castro said. “I have to stay aggressive.”
When asked, Castro told Sveum he didn’t like hitting eighth, but the manager called that “a rhetorical question,” downplaying any perceived friction with the All-Star shortstop.
“You know he’s not going to be pleased about it,” Sveum said. “I explained my thought process to him. I just wanted to make clear to him it wasn’t about being punished or anything like that.”
Castro — who’s seeing 3.87 pitches per plate appearance but still hitting only .240 — believes he will be stronger for the experience after taking heat from Cubs fans and the Chicago media.
“When you come to the big leagues and get 200 hits, you become a focal point right away. You play in a big market for the Chicago Cubs,” Sveum said. “Like I told Rizzo today: Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s part of the gig. And one thing you don’t want to have happen is not being the focal point.
“Because that means something’s fizzled away. You always want to be the focal point when you’re in a big market, and the good and the bad comes with that. When you’re not doing well, you got to hear it.”
Rizzo hasn’t been under the same microscope, but he hasn’t taken a step forward either this season. The first baseman’s hitting .232 overall and .173 with runners in scoring position. Even with 60 walks and 68 RBIs, he still hasn’t been the middle-of-the-order force the Cubs projected in their best-case scenarios for 2013.
Jake Arrieta — who gave up six runs in four innings — didn’t look sharp in another audition for the 2014 rotation. And ex-Cub Scott Hairston finally crushed a lefty with a pinch-hit, three-run homer off reliever James Russell that broke the game open in the seventh inning.
But for now, it all goes back to Castro and Rizzo, who didn’t want to put in perspective a down year potentially being 25-plus homers and 80-something RBIs after his struggles with the San Diego Padres in 2011 (one homer and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats).
“Not yet,” Rizzo said. “I haven’t really thought about that yet. It’s going to be a great year, no matter where I end up, in my opinion, from a learning standpoint.”