Fifteen innings into the season, the Cubs had yet to score a run, and on this day, Jake Arrieta had survived a couple of jams and was at his pitch limit in the seventh inning of a scoreless game against the Cardinals.
“He tells us every time he goes out there, `Don’t worry about it guys, we got it, we got it,’ “ Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro said of Arrieta. “So that’s what I told him that inning, exactly the same: `We’ve got your back now. You got our back, and I got yours now.’ “
Anthony Rizzo got hit by a Lance Lynn pitch leading off that seventh Wednesday, and after an errant pickoff throw, Castro lined a single to left for the Cubs first run of the season – taking second on the throw home, third on a bunt and then scoring on a sacrifice fly.
“He ended up coming up big for us,” Arrieta said. “Those are the things that might not have happened last year. And just seeing some of the maturity from a guy like Castro, and some of the other guys, is what we need to take this thing to the next level.”
It’s only two games into this Cubs season of renewed expectations. Top prospect Kris Bryant is likely at least 10 days from a big-league debut, and $155 million free agent savior Jon Lester is at least three more days from his first good start for his new team.
But something that went largely under the radar during a spring that was all about the promise of new guys figures to start becoming clearer as the season gets underway: As Lester said early in camp, this is still Starlin Castro’s and Anthony Rizzo’s team.
And if the Cubs are going to make things happen with a refurbished lineup, it still has to start with the pair of 25-year-old All-Stars in the third and fourth spots in the lineup.
The expectation among teammates for that pair this year?
“It’s high. It’s high, for sure,” said Travis Wood, who opens this weekend’s series against the Rockies on the mound for the Cubs Friday in Colorado. “We definitely need them to have the same if not better seasons than they did last year and carry us to a lot of victories.”
Said Rizzo: “Castro and I are ready to go. I think everyone in here is ready to go, so it doesn’t matter who is going to be who on this team. We’ve all got to do it together.”
Some more than others. Castro and Rizzo, the two young cornerstone guys who got the first seven-year deals from this front office, were coming off disappointing seasons at this time a year ago and were under the microscope to rebound.
Rizzo said little has changed in his mind.
“Every year you’ve got to prove yourself in this game,” he said.
Castro, already a three-time All-Star, senses it’s a lot different this time around, personally and as a team.
“I feel a lot better now than I felt last year,” said Castro, who for the first time in three years was not limited to half or less of the spring games because of leg injuries. “I think it’s going to be one of my best seasons.”
If he’s right, particularly when it comes to his fielding, he might even influence a position move for near-ready shortstop prospect Addison Russell, who is scheduled to share second and short with Javy Baez early this season at AAA Iowa.
Castro also said the chance to presumably play in significant games with a competitive team for the first time in six big-league seasons should help raise the level of his game.
“It’s different when we’re playing loose all the time and playing to win all the time,” he said. “I don’t really know that, because I’ve never been on a winning team. But I think it’s going to be a fun year.”
NOTE — Baez has left the Iowa Cubs to be with family after the death of his sister. Columnist Rick Morrissey profiled Noely Baez, 21, who suffered from spina bifida and was confined to a wheelchair, in a column last August. It has been republished here.