ST. LOUIS – It’s part of what works for Anthony Rizzo. Part of what makes him the Cubs’ most dangerous hitter – definitely what has made him one of baseball’s best left-handed hitters against left-handed pitching.
But is all that crowding the plate, especially against lefties, and all that up-close-and-personal intimacy with the strike zone, also putting Rizzo in a danger zone the Cubs can’t afford to risk?
Rizzo, who has been the one, productive constant in the Cubs’ lineup during this up-and-coming season, already has been hit by pitches a career-high 15 times – which leads the majors and is just two off the franchise record.
If he keeps up that pace, it will mean getting hit 33 times – more than anyone in the majors in 18 years. It would be the fourth-highest total since 1900.
“Honestly, it is what it is. I can’t control it,” Rizzo said, who on Friday was drilled high on his right arm by John Lackey – one of the few he admitted hurt. “I don’t like getting hit. I don’t like getting hit with the first pitch up and in, but what am I going to do about it?
“There’s only been one or two that stung a little bit.”
Rizzo is fearless enough that he wears no protective gear on his arms or legs when he bats. He said he doesn’t worry about a 92-mph fastball that finds the wrong part of his hand or wrist – and he has done a good job of keeping his hands out of harm’s way.
But even he knows it only takes one. And that’s a point not lost on the rest of the Cubs, who watched prospect Corey Black put Giants All-Star Hunter Pence on the DL with an errant pitch that broke Pence’s wrist in spring training.
Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ young star, wears a facemask on his helmet because of the pitch in September that broke facial bones and wiped out the last 17 games of his season. Stanton’s latest injury – a broken hamate bone from a swing Friday night – turned the Marlins from wait-and-see hopefuls to bona fide trade-deadline sellers in one fell swoop.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon acknowledged he sometimes is concerned for the safety of the hitter he calls the “linchpin” of his lineup.
“Of course you are,” Maddon said. “But I never want any of these guys to worry about getting hurt. I think that’s when you do get hurt, and that’s when you mentally do something different that causes you to get hurt.
“I’ve known a lot of guys that got hit a lot. It’s part of the game sometimes. And I trust his instincts that he’ll react properly. Of course, not only him but you worry about anybody getting injured or hurt [by an HBP]. But he’s a pretty tough guy.”
Of course, no loss of a player would have a more devastating effect on the Cubs’ ability to compete and score runs than Rizzo, who is producing at an even higher level than last year’s All-Star season.
“He’s really critical,” Maddon said. “Every team needs that [guy], at least one. You have to have that one guy that can play or can hit at that level and he has.”
He’s been protection and a catalyst for Kris Bryant’s strong career start, a hitter who – in part because he will take walks – seems impervious to whatever quality of hitter is providing him protection.
“To envision a lineup without him out there would be very difficult,” Maddon said. “He hits righties, hits lefties, plays really good first base, has been a really good base runner for us – has played a really complete game. It’d be hard to imagine us playing without him.”
Rizzo is not as dismissive about the subject as he sometimes tries to suggest.
“I usually do a pretty good job of bracing and getting hit in good spots and recognizing it’s going to come for me and brace for it,” he said. “I don’t dive, so I’m not ever worried about getting hit in the head, or lunging over and not being able to get out of the way.
“I mean, it’s baseball. It’s an athletic, competitive sport. I’m not worried about getting hit.”
Said Maddon: “He’s on the plate a lot, and people try to get in. And then when they don’t, he hits the ball pretty good, too. It’s his choice to be where he wants to be in the batter’s box, and I’m all for it.”