MINNEAPOLIS – It was just one game. And at the end of the day it wasn’t even a close one.
But a sloppy defensive tone set in the bottom of the first – triggered by a head-hanging, back-turning lapse by shortstop Starlin Castro – served just one more reminder of how far this young Cubs team is from being a factor in September, much less October.
“That’s bad, that’s really bad,” Castro said of a routine double-play grounder he turned into a two-run mistake on the way to a 7-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins in the opener of a three-game series at Target Field.
“It’s really embarrassing. I apologize for my teammates and the other guys,” he said. “That’s not supposed to happen. I have no excuse for that. … That’s not supposed to happen. None. Not even one time. None.”
The most troubling part for a Cubs team trying to survive the hackers and the Pirates in the most perilous division in baseball is that it’s not even close to the first time the sixth-year shortstop has taken his mind off a play before it was over. Never mind the 14 official errors — 11 in the last seven weeks.
In this case, he allowed the grounder, with the bases loaded, to squirt through him for an error as one run scored, then slowly picked up the ball and turned his back in self-disgust as another run scored.
Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant missed his own turn at a double play on the next ball – scooping a grounder, touching third, then throwing wide of first – and the tone was set.
“Obviously, to win ballgames you’ve got to pitch well and play defense. That’s pretty clear,” said starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who made a point to add he’s criticizing no one. “But the first part of that’s pitching well. I can only do what I can. And regardless of a couple of those plays, you still can’t give up 11 hits in five innings.
“I just didn’t have it today.”
The bigger question is whether the Cubs have it in them to be the kind of winner this year they claim to be. Whether their three-time All-Star shortstop can find the kind of focus for nine innings he seemed to rediscover for eight after the gaffe.
More than five years into his career, that might be the biggest head scratcher.
“He is young, not even relatively – he’s young,” Maddon said, defending the 25-year-old shortstop – and the notion he can clean that part of his game even at this point in his career.
“We have to just keep working on that. That’s why you’ve got coaches and managers. If these guys were perfect they wouldn’t need us.”
Castro said he approached Hendricks to apologize. Hendricks said he told Castro and Bryant both to keep their heads up. “There’s going to be plenty more coming at you,” he told them.
Maybe that kind of communication will keep the mistakes down, the strain of a shaky infield on the pitching staff from growing, the desire to strangle a shortstop to a minimum. More than one veteran teammate has gotten in Castro’s face this year after a gaffe, clubhouse sources say.
“It’s huge,” Hendricks said. “You have to be able to communicate. That’s part of being a team. We have to pick each other up.”
NOTES – Third baseman Mike Olt, whose hand injury opened the way for Kris Bryant’s debut April 17, began a minor-league rehab assignment Friday with Class AA Tennessee. Despite Bryant having locked down third base since Olt’s absence, team officials say there are no immediate plans to have Olt move around to other positions, at least not until he is more settled physically. Olt, who went 1-for-2 with a walk Friday, has minor league options.
–Bryant went 0-for-4, ending at 14 games what had been the longest active hitting streak in the majors. He was 20-for-47 (.351) with seven extra-base hits, six walks and six runs batted in during the streak.
–Anthony Rizzo provided both Cub runs with a pair of solo home runs, the ninth multi homer game of his career.