PITTSBURGH – Starlin Castro was reminded Wednesday that it was the first day of his sixth-year, big-league career that he woke up playing for a team as many as three games over .500.
“Yeah, unbelievable,” the Cub shortstop said.
Perhaps the only thing less believable about that five-year run of Cub futility is that a kid who spent his early 20s playing for four different managers with five different hitting coaches and a revolving door on the roster managed to accumulate 846 hits and three All-Star appearances before he turned 25.
And now that the front office has raised the stakes with his team for the first time in his career?
“I’ve seen his game go to another level that I didn’t see,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “He’s playing phenomenal.”
It’s why kid-phenom shortstop Addison Russell made his big league debut at second base instead of short on Tuesday and why the Cubs aren’t rushing to make any changes with their incumbent anytime soon – and definitely are in no mood to listen to kneejerk suggestions from the outside to trade him.
“He’s been playing great,” said manager Joe Maddon, who has seen a particularly different sharpness and energy level in the field since the opening series of the season. “And beyond that he’s playing his typical offense. I’ve been really impressed by his overall game at shortstop”
On a Wednesday night in Pittsburgh that wasn’t his best, Castro still drove in the Cubs’ only run before the eighth inning, and hit an infield single to the shortstop hole to load the bases in the Cubs’ two-run eighth. The Cubs lost 4-3 to the Pirates.
Castro’s hitting .345 with two homers and 11 RBIs in the Cubs’ first 14 games and despite his second error of the season Wednesday has been playing sharp, aggressive defense that has drawn unsolicited raves from his new manager and teammates.
“It’s not going to be good every day. But we try,” Castro said. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
Castro said he’s thinking Gold Glove these days with a more aggressive approach in the field. He also sees the realistic chance to win – and the role he can play in that, as a productive player and an example for the flow of prospects starting to arrive on the roster.
“If you don’t play defense you can’t win,” he said. “If everybody’s making the plays and I don’t make the play because I’m lazy, that’s not supposed to happen. That’s why I work so much to get better and better.”
His error on a dropped exchange on a clean hopper led to an unearned run Wednesday, and he was visibly angry at himself. Maddon found him in the clubhouse after the game and gave him a pat and told him to shake it off.
“I don’t want to be a joke anymore,” Castro said after an especially good game Monday night, referring to a reputation – likely exaggerated in part because of the poor teams he played on in recent years – that began with Bobby Valentine’s innings-long critique of Castro’s body language and focus (complete with split screens) during a nationally televised game four years ago.
“I don’t think I was lazy,” Castro said of occasional lapses earlier in his career. “I don’t know what happened. The only thing I know is to make myself ready to play every day.”
Longtime teammates and front office people who have been around Castro talk of his work ethic and his genuine ambition to become a great player and a winning one.
He also happens to be under contract through his 20s without a salary higher than Edwin Jackson money ($11 million in 2019).
“I see Starlin different from a lot of people,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He and I have kind of a special relationship. I know he’s good. I know it’s just about staying on him all the time, which I do. And he stays on me all the time. Whether it’s defensively or offensively.
“I’m one of his biggest supporters. I love playing with him. He’s a great person.”