PITTSBURGH – This is a start. This is a glimpse of what the payoff for three years of hot mess at the big league level was supposed to look like.
Even if it didn’t look like it for much of a night in which the Cubs reminded everybody that pitching still matters – overcoming bullpen breakdowns to come back in the ninth inning to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-8 Tuesday night at PNC Park.
Ugly as the game looked at times Tuesday for the Cubs, the three-run rally in the ninth featured, in order, a leadoff single by 25-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, double by 23-year-old rookie Jorge Soler, walk by 23-year-old rookie Kris Bryant and two-run single by 25-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro.
That sequence underscored the youthful focus for the Cubs on a day they debuted shortstop-turned-second baseman Addison Russell, who at 21 became the youngest player in the National League. (Russell lined out to short for the final out of that ninth, finishing 0-for-5 with three strikeouts from the No. 9 spot in the order.)
With Russell, the Cubs unveiled for the first time a 25-and-under core-player infield that could play together for years.
That included Bryant, the third baseman, who in just his fifth big-league game Tuesday delivered his third multi-hit game and his fifth and sixth RBIs. Castro, who homered in the sixth, drove in four runs and pumped his early average to .352.
The Cubs’ change in manager, personnel, attitude and early results this season are especially sweet to Castro, who endured five straight losing seasons, four different managers, countless groups of teammates and 448 losses in nearly five full seasons before this year.
Tuesday night was the first time in his big-league career his team was as many as three games over .500.
“We tried really hard to get better every year,” Castro said. “I think now we’ve got the people that we want. We’ve got the people that everybody was waiting for to be here with us. Russell, Bryant, Rizzo, me, Soler. … I think it’s awesome.”
“These are good times right now for us,” said first baseman Rizzo, who also set a franchise record Tuesday by getting hit by a pitch for the sixth time in April.
“We’ve got a good feeling in this clubhouse, a good thing going. So let’s just keep grinding it out.”
Rizzo, of course, was the guy in January who predicted the Cubs would win the National League Central. But even with the reinforcements and the 8-5 start to the season, he dodged that subject Tuesday.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
And that’s the point of any process like this. Whether it’s Soler’s 6-for-10 start to the Pirates series, Russell’s first day in the majors, Bryant’s fifth – or the improved but work-in-progress pitching staff.
“It’s all still theory,” manager Joe Maddon said, surveying the new look of his youthful lineup. “Theory and reality are kind of coming together. My point is they have to get out there and play.
“It’s one thing to look good on a piece of paper. It’s another thing to go out there and perform. I have a lot of faith in this group .I think we are going to perform. But be patient. They are young. They’re going to make mistakes and have some bad days. It’s not going to be an oil painting every night.
“But if you have a creative mind’s eye, you could see over the next couple of years, keeping these guys healthy, what it’s going to possibly look like.”
Russell, who said his callup caught him off guard after he’d settled into a realization he’d probably play all season at AAA, seems to have a strong grasp of the context of his debut.
“I’m excited to be here. Things are coming [together] here,” said the third-ranked prospect in the game, according to Baseball America. “It’s just an honor to be here.
“I’m ready to perform with these guys and hopefully when someone else is in my shoes, you’ll be asking them the same question about me. That’s kind of the goal right now, just go out there and have some fun and hopefully produce and help contribute.”
Who’s next? Albert Almora? Kyle Schwarber? C.J. Edwards? (Maybe another free agent pitcher?)
“We have a lot of nice kids, man. We do,” Maddon said.
“It’s a great place, a unique place, to be on a major league level right now professionally.”
NOTE – Infield prospect Javy Baez still has not reported to AAA Iowa since taking a leave after the death of his young sister two weeks ago. He has yet to play a game this season. “I was told he’s getting close,” Maddon said. “From our perspective we want him to take as much time as he felt necessary. I’ve heard there’s rumblings of him coming back relatively soon. The kid was crushed by the moment, man. We all grieve in different manners. I’m not one in any way, shape or form to say, `Listen, it’s about time; the grieving time is over.’ … We just respect that process and then when he comes back we’ll welcome him back openly