7:29 PM CDT, April 2, 2013
PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have a new tactic, and so far it's working. They have decided to try leading every inning because that's a lot more fun than being behind every inning, as it seemed they were a year ago.
One game down, only 161 to go.
Because reality isn't like their opening day, the Cubs know they're going to face disappointment often in the next six months. There will be blown saves. Comebacks that fall short. Losing streaks. It's a part of the gig for every team. Manager Dale Sveum learned it the hard way, first-hand as a shortstop with the Brewers. President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had it ingrained into their New England psyches by osmosis, living and dying with the Red Sox.
That's why Epstein, Hoyer and Sveum have to be especially happy about how the Cubs jumped ahead of the Pirates on Monday. It was 23-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo who delivered the monstrous home run to center field off A.J. Burnett, on the first pitch he saw on his first opening day in the big leagues.
By the time Rizzo stepped into the batter's box in the first inning, his heart had been racing for at least a half hour. This wasn't just another game and he didn't try to trick himself into believing it after lining up alongside the first base line and witnessing a tribute to a double amputee soldier and a soaring version of the national anthem performed by a violinist with the Pittsburgh symphony, wearing a Pirates jersey, of course.
"The game speeds up,'' Rizzo said. "It's opening day, there's a lot of emotion. You're trying to keep it all under control, keep your composure. … You try to downplay it as much as possible but it's my first opening day, a lot of guys' first opening day.''
For Rizzo, the moment wasn't too big. He even found a way to joke about how he had gone 48 at-bats in the Cactus League and another 17 with Team Italy without hitting a home run.
Never mind that he had hit one with the Italians on March 5. It came in an unofficial game against the A's and would require an Internet search to find. So Rizzo understood why his teammates "were chirping'' and calling him Campy, a reference to the slap-hitting Tony Campana, who stands more than half a foot shorter than Rizzo and weighs at least 75 pounds less.
Rather than bristle at questions about his underwhelming spring, he told those stories on himself. That might be the best sign of all for Epstein. He is looking to Rizzo to carry the legacy of the homegrown players that he, Hoyer, Jason McLeod and their co-workers chose and then developed to help the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series — guys such as Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The 5-foot-8 Pedroia, then in his first full season in the major leagues, was denied entrance to the Red Sox clubhouse by a Coors Field staffer before Game 3.
"Hey, man,'' Pedroia finally snapped to the security guard. "Go ask (Rockies pitcher) Jeff Francis who I am! I'm the guy that leads off the World Series hitting a homer!''
That's the swagger that Epstein dreams of one day having with the survivors from the Cubs' team that lost 101 games last year. He traded for Rizzo only 10 weeks after Chairman Tom Ricketts hired him because he was already an Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod guy as the Red Sox drafted him out of a Fort Lauderdale high school in 2007 and then traded him to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez after Hoyer had been hired as the GM in San Diego.
Rizzo climbed to the big leagues despite being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma a year after he was drafted. He needed chemotherapy before he could get back on the field and responded by starting the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation to raise money for cancer research and help children and their families fighting the disease.
Rizzo isn't expected just to hit 25-plus home runs and drive in 90-plus runs every year. He's also the guy who is supposed to be a leader on future teams built around Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo (maybe) and kids like Javy Baez, Jorge Soler and Albertico Almora.
When Rizzo took advantage of his Sicilian ancestry to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic, he talked hitting with Mike Piazza and exchanged caps with Canada's Joey Votto and Team USA's Ryan Braun. Piazza, who was Team Italy's hitting coach, praised Rizzo's "beautiful, very picturesque swing'' that he compared to the one Will Clark used to break the Cubs' hearts in the 1989 NLCS.
He and Rizzo talked about how power hitters can use the whole field — "there's a fence out there too,'' Piazza said about the opposite field — and Rizzo wasn't trying to pull Burnett's 93-mph fastball over the short right-field porch at PNC. He was trying to hit it hard, and he did (the ball sailed over the center-field bleachers), even if his own memory of the experience is foggy.
"To be honest, it was nice to get the win,'' Rizzo said. "I don't really remember the pitch (from Burnett).''
Rizzo praised the defense of Castro and others behind Jeff Samardzija, saying a focus of the spring for him and Castro has been "concentrating on every single pitch.'' His ability to see the big picture didn't go unnoticed by former big leaguer Frank Catalanotto, another of Italy's coaches.
"This kid is going to be a superstar,'' Catalanotto told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. "I've told Piazza that a bunch of times already. It's not only his baseball skills, but his whole makeup. When I was 23 years old and in the big leagues, I was scared and nervous as could be. … I love the way he carries himself. He's young, but very confident about himself. He walks around with an air about him, but he seems so chill and doesn't let any situation rattle him.''
The Cubs have so far to go that you need the Hubble telescope to see from here to there. But it's nice knowing that Rizzo will play a leading role on the journey.
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