In the Wake of the News
10:23 PM CDT, July 29, 2013
Two hours before Monday night's Cubs-Brewers game at Wrigley Field, rookie revelation Junior Lake stood in left field listening attentively for nearly 15 minutes as Cubs coach Dave McKay pointed out the peculiarities of playing fly balls in this ballpark.
As if his world wasn't spinning enough since being called up July 19, Lake slowly rotated his head from left to right as his eyes stared into the sky and followed the imaginary line of wind patterns McKay described before Lake's home debut.
"He told me it's definitely one of the toughest stadiums to play the outfield," Lake said through teammate and interpreter Julio Borbon. "The key is looking at the ivy and the wall and the angles and getting a good read on the ball coming off the bat before it plays tricks."
Under the right conditions, the lake can wreak havoc at Clark and Addison.
Same goes for the Lake wearing No. 21.
Of all the reasons the National League's fourth-best team since Memorial Day has become more watchable lately — only the Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates have been better — Lake represents the biggest. No player in the city has been more captivating in July — and Lake has been a major leaguer all of 11 days. Who else in town makes you stay in your seat during an at-bat?
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Lake possesses the strength of a power hitter and the speed of a base-stealer, resembling a young Alfonso Soriano. He carries himself confidently, like a guy who finished third in MVP voting in the Dominican League. He exuded pride describing people back home in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, gathering to watch him on satellite television. He smiled widely being asked what he liked about Chicago.
"What's not to like?'' Lake said.
Funny, I said the same thing to someone debating Lake's ability to last.
As the 23-year-old outfielder produced the best start in Cubs history with 15 hits in his first seven games, it became easier to see why the Cubs once had Lake rated ahead of Starlin Castro — who is three days older. Castro matured quicker as a hitter in the minors while Lake struggled with inconsistency but maintained the explosive athleticism that gives a tantalizing glimpse of the future. While the Cubs' prized prospects work their way up, Lake teases Cubs fans with enough raw talent to think he will be established once they arrive.
Sure, Lake could struggle mightily as he did during the slump that brought the streaky hitter back to earth. But an organization whose plan revolves around potential has nothing to lose by playing Lake every day the remaining 58 games that suddenly seem more interesting than they did.
"I'm definitely not surprised by any of this,'' said Lake, humbler than the last Cubs No. 21 from his hometown. "I'm not going to get comfortable. I'm going to continue to improve at everything. I've worked hard at every level and have improved in every aspect so I expect to have success.''
Count the successful recent road trip among Lake's ripple effect on a Cubs team nobody expected to be this compelling or competitive this late in July. Not after unloading their hottest pitcher, Matt Garza, and hitter, Soriano. Yet the emergence of guys such as Lake and lefty starter Chris Rusin and reliever Pedro Strop has made it much easier for everyone to change the subject. Soriano's baseball card remains taped to Anthony Rizzo's locker and his professional influence lingers, but a road sweep of the defending World Series champs kept the focus on who's here more than who left.
"You definitely sense a lot more energy in the dugout and clubhouse,'' manager Dale Sveum said.
You sense the Cubs are building something sustainable just as Theo Epstein promised. Epstein has been more active than your co-worker obsessed with rotisserie baseball, making five trades in his most significant month on the job — and counting. There has been much debate in Wrigleyville about views, but even the orneriest rooftop owner would agree this looks like progress.
Sure sounded like it too when Sveum was asked what finishing .500 would mean.
"It's a number,'' Sveum said. "Now that we see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel it's something to shoot for, but it's not a goal you want to have in this organization because those kind of things hold things back.''
As Sveum was talking about keeping the Cubs sharp, Lake disappeared to see the team barber knowing Monday's TV audience would include his family.
"Just needed to clean it up so I look good,'' Lake said.
Since he joined a team on the rise, no Cub has looked better.
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