One of Starlin Castro’s first calls when he got demoted from his starting shortstop job last month was to former Cubs teammate and mentor Aramis Ramirez.
“We always talk,” said Castro, who suddenly added shock and humility to an already ironically frustrating season: The Cubs had never been better in his career, and he had never been worse over a three-month stretch.
“It was really tough,” he said. “But I just try to stay ready to play every day.”
That has been part of the message during Castro’s roller-coaster month from Ramirez, the veteran third baseman now in the final weeks of an 18-year career as he returns to Wrigley Field with the Pirates for a potentially pivotal three-game series.
Ramirez also reminded Castro how young he is, how talented he is, how much he has always cared about getting better and how much time he has left to show it – even for this team this year. And to fight back to become a multi-year All-Star again – wherever he might end up.
“Especially for a young guy, it’s not easy to come off the bench,” said Ramirez, whose return Wrigley likely will mark his final three games in the place he called home for nine seasons – including three playoff runs.
“But he’s only 25,” Ramirez said. “People forget that because he’s been in the league for five, six years. He’s been an All-Star and the kid’s only 25. How old is Bryant – 24 [in January]? He’s got a year in the league.
“When I got traded [to the Cubs in 2003] I was only 25, and I got better when I got to Chicago. When you’re 25 and you work – and Castro wants to be good – you get even better. The talent’s there. And he’s proved that over the years.”
“I mean, he’s a three-time All-Star. And he’s just a kid.”
Ramirez, who was traded from the Brewers to his original team in July, has kept in touch through Castro’s adjustment. They went to dinner during last week’s series in Pittsburgh and likely will again this weekend, during what could be a decisive series – for both the Pirates’ chances to catch St. Louis for the division title, and the Cubs’ chances to catch the Pirates for home field in the wild-card game.
Castro, who said Ramirez’s encouragement helps, looks like he has emerged emotionally – and productively on the field – since the demotion, earning increasing playing time, and a bigger role for a playoff-bound team, over the past month at second base.
And if that has anything to do with Ramirez’s influence, the former Cubs’ cleanup hitter might have just made his last shot at a World Series championship an even taller task in what he swears will be his final seaso.
Because the way Castro has hit for more than a month, and the way Cubs manager Joe Maddon uses his roster, Castro could become an overlooked weapon for the Cubs as they try to pick off the likes of the Pirates and Cardinals in October – not to mention this weekend.
“As of right now he’s swinging the bat as good as anybody on this team,” Maddon said. “So we need to attempt to auger out that moment for him right now.”
In other words: make a place in the lineup for a guy hitting .376 (38-for-101) with a .604 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS since his Aug. 7 reassignment.
And he’s been especially torrid down the stretch as the Cubs have closed on their first playoff berth in his career. And as a bonus: He’s done most of his best hitting this year against the Pirates (.333 with 11 RBIs in 15 starts) and Cardinals (.310, three homers, 19 RBIs in 19 games).
“Right now Starlin is remarkably into the moment, and I love it,” Maddon said.
“Ever since we’ve done that, moved him to second base, he’s played really well,” the manager said, adding Castro never seemed to hang his head of complain. “He doesn’t make excuses. He’s accountable to everything. How could you not like him?”
Where he goes from here – whatever the length of this season winds up being for this team – Castro won’t speculate. He said he’s only thinking about being part of something with the Cubs he has envisioned since his six-RBI debut in 2010.
The Cubs shopped him hard at the trade deadline with little return interest. But that could change this winter with a strong finish.
“I wouldn’t trade him,” Ramirez said. “I’d take him on my team.”
Castro said he’s certain in his ability to be an everyday starter again – including at shortstop. But he shies away from talking about the potential value of a change of scenery.
“I know I can play every day. I know that,” said Castro, who has a guaranteed four years and $38 million left on his seven-year contract. “And I know I can do a lot of things, but I don’t really think about other teams or going somewhere else.
“I’m just thinking now. Just trying to win now. Just playing hard here and keep winning games.”