When Rick Renteria was hired to manage the Cubs, it wasn’t with the expectation to win right away. Sure, that would be a nice bonus, but one of his main tasks was to create a better environment for the team’s young players — namely Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro — and get more out of them.

Though the Cubs only improved to 34-44 with their 7-2 victory Friday over the Nationals, Renteria’s tenure has seen the franchise’s young cornerstones get back on track after disappointing seasons in 2013.

“He’s doing a nice job; we challenged him,” team president Theo Epstein said. “When we hired him, we were pretty transparent about this with you guys that we wanted him to try to create an environment where young players could be themselves, continue to grow, fight through their struggles and thrive. He and the coaching staff have done a nice job of creating that.”

That might not have been the case last season. Manager Dale Sveum was dismissed, in part, for the perceived stalling in the development of young players.

Coincidentally or not, they’ve re-established themselves. Rizzo has a .525 slugging percentage and .400 on-base percentage. Castro has three more RBI than last year and has raised his on-base percentage to .331 for a team that improved to 21-17 in its last 38 games.

“It’s sometimes more important why you’re playing well than if you’re playing well,” Epstein said. “I’m encouraged by a couple of 24-year-olds playing at an All-Star level in Rizzo and Castro, guys who are going to be here until they’re 30, and a couple of guys that we need to be veteran leaders when the next generation of good young players comes up.”

Castro and Rizzo aren’t quite there yet, though possible trades of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (7-5) might force them to get there quicker. Hammel went 61/3 innings and gave up two runs for his first win in June.

It also appears that Rizzo and Castro enjoy working with Renteria in their limited time together. Castro said, “No matter what, if we lose or win, [Renteria] is still positive,” which is something he has clearly responded to.

“It’s pretty good,’’ Castro said. ‘‘He’s a fun guy, a guy that trusts the players. He’s done a great job.”

Rizzo’s sentiments were similar.

“It’s his first year, so he’s still learning on the job, too,” Rizzo said. “But great so far. It’s been a good atmosphere here.”

That atmosphere hasn’t translated into a winning record, and Renteria has been questioned on his bullpen use and reliance on bunting, but the Cubs’ play has improved, and the two young stars have stepped up.

“I’ll reserve judgment on myself,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘I’ll wait until it’s all said and done to see where we’re all at, but I’m very critical of myself, to be honest. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

If Renteria’s being evaluated on Rizzo and Castro, he probably knows how he’ll be judged.

Notes

Theo Epstein said adding padding to the metal doors in the outfield is “something we probably should talk about” in the wake of Junior Lake’s crash Thursday.

◆ Epstein praised Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod, saying, “If it’s now or if it’s a few years down the line, I expect him to do a great job as a [general manager].” McLeod has been linked to the Padres’ GM vacancy.

cubs 7, nationals 2

Washington AB R H BI BB SO Avg.

Span cf 4 0 0 0 0 2 .264

Rendon 3b 4 0 2 0 0 0 .276

Werth rf 4 0 0 0 0 0 .268

LaRoche 1b 4 2 2 1 0 1 .309

Zimmerman lf 4 0 1 1 0 1 .246

W.Ramos c 3 0 1 0 1 0 .276

Desmond ss 3 0 0 0 0 1 .234

Espinosa 2b 3 0 0 0 0 2 .219

Roark p 2 0 0 0 0 0 .154

Blevins p 0 0 0 0 0 0 —

Barrett p 0 0 0 0 0 0 —

a-Frandsen ph 1 0 1 0 0 0 .238

T.Hill p 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000

Totals 32 2 7 2 1 7

CUBS AB R H BI BB SO Avg.

Sweeney rf 5 0 2 2 0 0 .202

Ruggiano cf 5 1 2 0 0 1 .248

Rizzo 1b 5 0 1 0 0 0 .289

S.Castro ss 3 1 0 0 1 0 .284

Valbuena 3b 3 2 1 0 1 0 .267

Coghlan lf 4 2 2 0 0 1 .207

Jo.Baker c 3 1 3 4 1 0 .186

Barney 2b 4 0 1 1 0 1 .205

Hammel p 3 0 1 0 0 1 .125

Schlitter p 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.000

W.Wright p 0 0 0 0 0 0 —

b-Schierholtz ph 1 0 0 0 0 0 .199

Grimm p 0 0 0 0 0 0 —

Totals 36 7 13 7 3 4

Washington 010 100 000 — 2 7 0

CUBS 020 200 30x — 7 13 0

a-singled for Barrett in the 8th. b-popped out for W.Wright in the 8th.

LOB—Washington 4, CUBS 8. 2B—Zimmerman (11), Ruggiano (7), Valbuena (20), Jo.Baker (3). HR—LaRoche (10), off Hammel. RBI—LaRoche (40), Zimmerman (19), Sweeney 2 (8), Jo.Baker 4 (8), Barney (15). CS—Rendon (1).

Runners left in scoring position—Washington 3 (Roark 2, Werth); CUBS 3 (Ruggiano, Rizzo, Barney). RISP—Washington 0 for 4; CUBS 5 for 14.

Runners moved up—Barney. GIDP—Desmond.

DP—Washington 1 (Espinosa, LaRoche); CUBS 1 (S.Castro, Barney, Rizzo).

Washington IP H R ER BB SO NP ERA

Roark L, 7-5 6 10 4 4 1 2 101 2.98

Blevins2/32 3 3 2 1 26 5.34

Barrett1/30 0 0 0 1 5 1.67

T.Hill 1 1 0 0 0 0 13 4.15

CUBS IP H R ER BB SO NP ERA

Hammel W, 7-5 61/35 2 2 1 6 101 2.98

Schlitter H, 112/30 0 0 0 0 3 2.78

W.Wright 1 2 0 0 0 1 19 2.45

Grimm 1 0 0 0 0 0 9 3.03

Inherited runners-scored—Barrett 1-0, Schlitter 1-0. IBB—off Blevins (S.Castro). WP—Blevins, Hammel.

Umpires—Home, Mike Estabrook; First, Jerry Layne; Second, Hunter Wendelstedt; Third, Mike DiMuro. T—2:49. A—30,683 (41,072).

HOW THEY SCORED

Nationals second LaRoche singled. Zimmerman doubled, LaRoche scored. One run. Nationals 1, Cubs 0.

Cubs second Valbuena doubled. Coghlan infield single. Jo.Baker infield single, Valbuena scored, Coghlan to third. Barney singled, Coghlan scored, Jo.Baker to second. Two runs. Cubs 2, Nationals 1.

Nationals fourth LaRoche homered to right on a 2-0 count. One run. Nationals 2, Cubs 2.

Cubs fourth Coghlan singled. Jo.Baker singled, Coghlan to second. Barney grounded out, Coghlan to third, Jo.Baker to second. Hammel struck out. Sweeney singled, Coghlan scored, Jo.Baker scored. Two runs. Cubs 4, Nationals 2.

Cubs seventh Blevins pitching. Ruggiano doubled. On Blevins’ wild pitch, Ruggiano to third. Rizzo popped out. S.Castro was intentionally walked. Valbuena walked on a full count, S.Castro to second. Coghlan struck out. Jo.Baker doubled , Ruggiano scored, S.Castro scored, Valbuena scored. Three runs. Cubs 7, Nationals 2.

saTURDAY

NATIONALS AT CUBS

The Facts: Game 1: 12:05 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM. Game 2: 6:15 p.m., Fox-32, 720-AM.

The pitchers: Game 1: Gio Gonzalez (4-4, 4.38 ERA) vs. Dallas Beeler (MLB debut). Game 2: Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 2.95) vs. Jeff Samardzija (2-6, 2.53).