Anthony Rizzo is the left man for the job

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SHARE Anthony Rizzo is the left man for the job

MESA, Ariz. — If you want to have a great team, you need a great first baseman.

Oh, you can get by without one, but the man at first exists to catch the ball that gets the other side out and to hit the living snot out of the ball.

You don’t need a shortstop/gymnast or a center-field sprinter at first base.

You need power offense.

And because of its location on the diamond, first base is best manned by a left-handed thrower, who — if God is smiling on your club — is also a left-handed hitter.

And so we give you Anthony Rizzo, the young Cubs first baseman who might be taking the first steps toward greatness on a team that threatens greatness.

“I’m really excited,” Rizzo said before practice Monday. “Everyone that’s a part of the team right now thinks that this is a special group — it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do together as a team, to have that success.”

He could be leading the march.

Only 25, Rizzo signed a contract with the Cubs two years ago that goes through 2019 and averages $6 million.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer expect him to be the guy, the big-hitting team-builder right there at the critical corner.

And if Rizzo builds on what he did last season, he’s on track. Not only did he hit 32 home runs in 2014 (compared to 23 in 2013), he had a higher slugging percentage (.527) and on-base percentage (.386) than the year before.

He finished with a very decent .286 batting average and 78 RBI (not bad, when nobody is on base), but most startling was that he hit left-handed pitchers incredibly well.

His average against lefties was .300, compared to .281 against righties. That’s crazy. I’m sure you’re aware of the lefty-lefty thing, wherein baseball lore says curveballs and sliders and maybe eephus pitches can’t be hit by a batter facing a pitcher throwing with the near arm because the things tail away, etc.

You also know there are not a plethora of lefties on this planet, right? Just 10 percent of babies come out left-handed. Those toddlers are going to have trouble using scissors and chain saws, but get them on a ballfield, and they’re virtual gods.

As batters, their purported downfall is in facing another lefty (those equally rare and yet often amazingly highly paid pitchers such as, say, the Cubs’ Jon Lester). So when Rizzo can face lefties and eat them up, it’s a gift of startling value.

What made Rizzo blossom in 2014 against southpaws? Was it patience, crowding the plate, going to the opposite field, batting-cage practice?

“I don’t know,” he said when those suggestions were lobbed like a non-breaking curve. “A lot of it’s mental, too. So many people made a big deal out of it — ‘Lefties can’t hit lefties’ — that’s what people say. And it gets in your head a little bit.

‘‘But it’s just a pitcher now. Doesn’t matter if it’s righty, lefty or underhand. It’s a pitcher, and you gotta do your job. Just keep it simple like that.’’

If simplicity works, then it should stay that way for Rizzo.

He’ll likely be batting third or fourth in the Cubs’ order, and if the rebuilding is progressing as well as people want to believe, then there should be lots more runners on base when Rizzo brings his lumber to the plate.

Rizzo is a big dude, by the way. He’s 6-3, 240 with broad shoulders, middle-linebacker size.

He was voted to the National League All-Star team last year, his first such honor.

Only in his fourth full big-league season, Rizzo could be a repeat All-Star, the NL’s next great first baseman after the Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Ryan Howard.

Though a little scattered at first, Rizzo is now clearly a team leader, something he reluctantly acknowledges, saying that it’s not a function of seeking something but of being true to a cause.

“It just comes with being yourself, really,” he said. “Show up every day, do the hard work, do the things you need to do to prepare for the game — have the guys respect you. Be in the same place — level — whether you’re in a hitting streak or a terrible slump, set an example. That’s how I feel.”

What about phony leaders?

“In life, they just weed out the people who aren’t true to themselves,” Rizzo said.

He thought about his mission with the Cubs.

“When I was growing up,’’ he said, ‘‘I always wanted a team, a team to be on. I wanted to make everyone better.”

Why?

“It comes from my family, my brother, the way my parents raised me,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Keep it simple then. It works.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander

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