Anthony Rizzo didn't launch any tape-measure bombs into the crisp Chicago air on Wednesday night, but his 4-for-5 performance at the plate in a 7-5 Cubs win over the Pittsburgh Pirates was exciting nonetheless. In addition to raising his batting average by nearly 80 points, this was Rizzo's 4th straight multi-hit game, a career best.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the feat was the fact that all 4 hits were to the opposite field, including a screaming double into the gap in left center that scored Emilio Bonifacio and Justin Ruggiano. He didn't let a flailing strikeout in the opening frame get him down, but rather, Rizzo's failure appeared to fuel him.
Unlike the times last year when the cornerstone corner infielder seemed to be pressing, his swings last night appeared to be nice and easy. Rather than trying to force things, he took what the pitchers gave and found holes in the defense.
Of course, those holes are easier to find when you can beat the shift, like Rizzo did with his final hit of the night, a double to shallow left that shot right through the evacuated spot at third base. But make no mistake, these weren't cheap hits; there were no duck snorts or seeing-eye singles to be found. Heck, I know guys who can't even go oppo in beer league softball, let alone in the majors.
I'm not going so far as to compare Rizz directly to The Splendid Splinter, but the great Ted Williams certainly faced more than a few defensive shifts in his storied career. Listen to what he once told Bob Costas about how he beat them:
I remember reading in Leigh Montville's "Ted Williams: Biography of an American Hero" about another shift-busting method The Kid used later in his career. Early in the season, Williams actually used a heavier bat, which caused his swing to be just slightly slower, helping him to drive the ball to left and left center.
Then, as teams started to play him straight up and the temperatures rose in the summer, he transitioned to a lighter stick and started pulling the ball again. If Rizzo can continue to burn the shift like he did last night, opposing defenses are going to have to be more honest with him, which will give him more room to his pull field.
Anthony Rizzo's hot start this season is welcome news to Cubs fans even if taken in a vacuum, but when combined with a resurgent Starlin Castro, it's starting to make Cubs fans feel great about more than just the minor leaguers again. Maybe Javy Baez will have to move off of SS after all.
The two highly-paid young guns aren't just putting up meaning numbers either; their hot bats are only part of what has been a pretty exciting offense over the past few games. Consider that through the first 5 games of the season, the Cubs had scored a total of only 8 runs, and had been shut out twice while hitting only 3 home runs.
In the 3 games since, the Cubs have scored 21 runs and have parked 4 balls in the yard. Two of those drives came from the aforementioned shortstop, a man whose recent struggles have been chronicled ad nauseam. The other 2 came Wednesday on back-to-back ABs from players whose lack of playing time has brought scrutiny to manager Ricky Renteria's platoons.
But with two outs in the 5th and Rizzo on first, Mike Olt deposited a Wandy Rodriguez pitch into the bleachers in left. Then Junior Lake stepped up and smoked a ball that left the yard and landed on Waveland before his flipped bat hit the dirt around home plate.
Now, at only 3-5, the Chicago Cubs aren't exactly setting the world on fire. But performances like those from Rizzo and Castro, not to mention unheralded pick-ups like Emilio Bonifacio (who's only batting .500 after a pedestrian 2-for-5 night at the plate), Ryan Kalish (Tom Loxas told you so!), and even the $6 Million Man, Jason Hammel, are actually starting to make the Cubs kinda fun again.
Okay, maybe I don't need to go putting the cart ahead of the horse quite yet. But despite some pretty lousy efforts out of the gate, this is starting to look like a team that has some personality and a little, dare I say, swagger. Now if they can just score some runs for Shark or buy Jose Veras some Rick Vaughn glasses.
The thing about good teams, or at least improving teams, is that the breaks go their way more often than not. That was certainly true for instant replay on Wednesday evening. Renteria got himself kicked out for arguing balls and strikes on Tuesday night, but correctly asked for a review of a bad call at first that was subsequently overturned, allowing another Cubs run to score.
The Cubs still don't have the makings of a playoff team, but they're certainly showing us that they have a core of young talent that will be around to drive the team to success in the not-so-distant future. Of course, we've still got 154 games left this season, so there's no need to go ga-ga over a mid-April contest.
But I still just can't help feeling that something is different about this team than those of the past couple of seasons. It's just, I don't know, more fun. Here's to hoping they keep that up, because I sure could get used to more nights like Wednesday.
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