Change is in the air
Wind helped the Cubs on Monday, but Anthony Rizzo could provide further lift
CHICAGO -- With the wind swirling at U.S. Cellular Field at 25 mph, with gusts up to 41, Alfonso Soriano stepped out of the visiting dugout before the game and offered his weather report.
"What the [bleep]?" said Soriano, who served as designated hitter. "I'm glad I'm not out there in left today."
Soriano wound up taking advantage of the wind, hitting one of the Chicago Cubs' season-high five home runs in their 12-3 win over the Chicago White Sox. Soriano didn't need too much wind. His two-run shot went 440 feet to dead-center.
But it wasn't just the actual wind blowing around the Cell. The "Wind of Change" was howling too. And no, the Scorpions didn't play a pregame concert.
While Soriano served as designated hitter, Bryan LaHair went from first base to right field for the first time this season. He homered in the second inning after making a nice running catch in the first. LaHair hadn't played the outfield since appearing there in 14 games last season, but he could find himself there often soon.
That's right, Anthony Rizzo, the major league-ready first baseman wreaking havoc on the corners of the Pacific Coast League. He can be called up after June 22 and the Cubs get an extra year out of him before free agency. Too bad he wasn't up on Monday as the second leg of the crosstown series started. My conservative estimate: Rizzo would've hit eight home runs. He would've been like Hurricane Ditka with a bat.
While some wondered about LaHair playing outfield with the wind, it was the Sox who gambled by pushing back Chris Sale and inserting not-for-long man Zach Stewart, who got shelled by long flyballs. It shows how the Sox could certainly use the dangling Cubs ace Ryan Dempster, who was surprisingly placed on the 15-day disabled list with tightness in his right lat. They probably won't get him -- the Cubs will want better prospects -- but it's a nice thought.
And if you think no one will trade for an injured pitcher, you forget that Sox GM Kenny Williams traded for an injured Jake Peavy in 2009. Dempster was deactivated, in part, to be proactive and make sure the tightness didn't turn into a strain, Cubs president Theo Epstein said. A strain would be bad for business. Epstein said trade talks are in preliminary stages across baseball, but I hope the Cubs can move guys soon. Then we can cross off "Rizzo Watch" and "Trade Watch" and just get comfortable watching the Cubs lose two out of three until October.
But hey, the Cubs actually won Monday. The Sox are the ones who could've used Rizzo. Only three runs and six hits on a night when the 2012 Cubs turned into the 2008 Cubs?
The wind made the game a bit of a mockery, but the Sox's starting pitching woes are real and could really shelve their playoff hopes. Not only did the Sox (35-32) lose their season sweep hopes against the Cubs, but more importantly, their division lead over Cleveland is down to a half-game and just 2 1/2 over the Detroit Tigers. The Sox have lost four straight series and look vulnerable.
But Sale's health is paramount to a bad two weeks, and the Sox think an extra two days of rest are beneficial. Sale, Peavy and fill-in Jose Quintana are all the Sox have right now. John Danks was waiting for MRI results on his sore left shoulder before the game. Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber have been largely ineffective.
"No matter if [the current injured players] were here or not, we're still going to look at potential places where we can improve the club," Williams said. "But you've got to be careful with that because once guys start to believe in themselves as a unit, once they rally around one another you've got to be careful to disrupt that chemistry. Right now, it's pretty good."
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Chemistry is not a problem for the Cubs, who improved to a league-worst 23-42 with the rare win. The players have known Rizzo is the favored child of the new regime all season. LaHair said his move to the outfield has been in the back of his mind for months. Rizzo is the lucky charm of the Theo Trio. They've drafted him, traded him and traded for him. Dale Sveum watches tape of him like he's stalking a girl on Facebook.
Epstein doesn't want Rizzo to be seen as the savior, but since they've left him in Triple-A, he's put up Triple Crown numbers, inflaming Cubs fans' hopes even more. As of June 17, Rizzo was hitting .364 (1.107 OPS) with 23 home runs and 59 RBIs. Even in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League that's pretty good.
Epstein said they'll bring up Rizzo when "the time is right," but he wasn't being very coy about what LaHair's presence in right augurs for the near future.
"First of all, [LaHair] adds versatility, so it's nice to take advantage of it," Epstein said. "Second of all, we're mindful of moves that might happen the rest of the season, so it's important when you're going to try players in new positions that they have time."
LaHair acquitted himself well, but really, though, no one's worried about his defense. They just want Rizzo to succeed. There's no question the slugger could've helped earlier, but the Cubs have slow-played his arrival for a reason and it's probably for the best. Better to be too ready than not ready enough in a game that hinges on mental strength.
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But while most Cubs fans are smart enough to know there is no season to save, Rizzo will at least be interesting to follow. Fans already track his minor league numbers like a day trader on 5-hour Energy. And despite everyone's focus on the future, it shouldn't be forgotten that baseball is entertainment, not a high-stakes game of international intrigue.
There's nothing wrong with Cubs fans getting someone to cheer about. It's either that or mindlessly boo Alfonso Soriano for not false-hustling to first on a bad knee.
"He's one that you go to the computer every day to see what he did," Sveum said. "Yesterday I think he hit one of the longest home runs in Iowa history. He's having one of those years. He had it last year too in Triple-A. I think lowering his hands had a lot to do with it. Confidence, obviously."
Cubs catcher Geovany Soto just came back from a rehab stint at Iowa and was impressed.
"Yeah, I got to see Rizzo hit like four, he was destroying down there," he said. "He's got some pop. He's doing it right down there. He's coming along pretty good. He slid into a wall one day, so he's playing aggressive too. It's good to see."
Rizzo Watch is almost over. Time to actually see him.