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Rizzo's 'clutch' play leading Cubs

6/7/2014

CHICAGO -- You might not really know why you’re liking this season's version of Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo more than last season's, but you know you do.

It’s not just the rise in his batting average -- it’s at .276 after a 2-for-6 effort Friday against the Miami Marlins. And it’s not just the on-base percentage, which has skyrocketed to .402. It’s that simple but inexplicable notion of being "clutch." The Cubs' leader on offense is finally coming through when it matters most.

“It’s the game of baseball taking care of itself,” Rizzo said after hitting the winning home run in the 13th inning of the Cubs' 5-3 victory over the Marlins on Friday.

Rizzo referenced his two clutch home runs over the past two days. Friday’s was a walk-off and gave the Cubs a fourth consecutive victory; Thursday’s seventh-inning blast broke a 4-4 tie with the New York Mets. But the 24-year-old is also referring to the notion that players don’t always come through in those situations.

Baseball is funny that way, especially in the much-debated category of “clutch play.” Does it exist or is it all random? Whatever the answer, Rizzo is thriving this season in an area where he bottomed out last year.

Consider these statistics: In games deemed late and close -- basically meaning after the seventh inning with the game tied or a one-run affair -- Rizzo already has three home runs and eight RBIs to go with eight walks and a .412 on-base percentage. His batting average in those situations is .269 and his OPS is 1.066. It’s a dramatic turnaround from last season, when he hit one long ball all year while driving in 11 and producing a .329 on-base percentage and an OPS of just .658. Think about that: Rizzo has already hit two more “clutch” home runs than he did all last season.

“Every time I’m up there I’m confident,” Rizzo said. “Whether I’m 0-for-5, 0-for-6, 0-for-10 or 5-for-5. In those situations I want to be up there. I want my teammates to want me to be up there.”

That’s a Rizzo we didn’t hear last season. More confident and even-keeled. He’s no longer trying to get five hits in one at-bat or jack everything out to right field. And when he gets help in the Cubs' lineup, he might really take off. The best stats to illustrate his maturing process are his lefty/righty splits. He’s hitting .328 off lefties, .255 against righties. Last season he hit just .189 versus lefties. Rizzo looked lost last season, but now he’s taking what the pitcher is giving him -- an essential approach against left-handers -- while hitting more mistakes like the one he saw in Friday's 13th inning.

“I’m just glad he’s staying in on lefties,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s [also] having good at-bats against right-handers. All in all he’s putting together a pretty solid season.”

And it feels even better when he comes through in the clutch.