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Kid at the heart of Cubs order: Young veteran Rizzo sets tone

Anthony Rizzo when the Cubs clinched their first pennant since 1945 on Saturday.

CLEVELAND – The spotlight’s sure to follow Kyle Schwarber’s every move Tuesday in Cleveland.

But as the Cubs open their first World Series in 71 years, the left-handed power-hitting star of this big stage is still Anthony Rizzo.

The first cornerstone locked into place during Theo Epstein’s organizational rebuilding effort, Rizzo is just four years removed from a 101-loss season, three weeks removed from closing out a 103-win season – and four wins away from doing what only Frank Chance has done as a Cubs first baseman.

“It was definitely a process, but it was a process that sure benefitted me, in a bigger way than a lot of these guys,” Rizzo said of the five-season rise toward Tuesday night’s World Series opener in Cleveland against Indians ace Corey Kluber.

“I give [the front office] a lot of credit, and everything they’ve done to this point is huge.”

The trade for Rizzo in January 2012 certainly has proved to be huge, if not predictable. The original Red Sox draftee under Epstein and Jed Hoyer already had been traded from Epstein to Hoyer after Hoyer took over as general manager in San Diego, before eventually being acquired for the third time by Hoyer when they front office team moved to Chicago.

Now he’s the 27-year-old MVP-candidate veteran on a team of early-20-somethings. The fact he might be more of a kid than any of them is a big part of the influence teammates say has helped this team get so far.

“His personality is what this team’s all about really,” said World Series veteran catcher David Ross. “Just being able to have fun our there and embrace the moment and still have fun says a lot about him.”

Rizzo kissed his bat for a national magazine cover. He kissed the baseball from the last out of Saturday night’s pennant clincher against the Dodgers. And then he said he was going to sleep with the ball that night.

“The ball stayed in my car overnight because I couldn’t drive home [Saturday],” he said. “I was really nervous about that. The ball’s safe now.”

The guy who routinely stops at locker stalls in all corners of the clubhouse for chats with teammates before games decided in Los Angeles to take a bat belonging to Matt Szczur – who wasn’t even on the playoff roster – and turned Szczur into a celebrity by hitting a home run in a Game 4 Cubs win. He’s 7-for-12 since then – and now goes from the lefty-heavy Dodgers to the right-leaning Indians pitching staff.

“I just hope he uses the same bat,” teammate Jake Arrieta said.

He and second baseman Javy Baez have turned into the NL’s version of Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre on infield popups twice in the last two games, with Baez cutting in front of Rizzo to try to steal the catch – Rizzo playfully tossing the ball into Baez’s chest after the first one.

“We just have fun,” Rizzo said. “It’s a way of slowing the game down, especially on popups. I know he can handle it, and he knows I can handle it.”

Said Arrieta: “To see those guys be able to do that kind of a thing in such a big game means a lot. They’re not uptight. These guys are still having fun even though it’s the biggest game of their career.”

What looks especially big is Rizzo’s potential impact on a series in which he’ll bat third against a team whose only real threat for trying to neutralize him from the left side is reliever Andrew Miller.

“Righty, lefty, ambidextrous, whatever they are, we’ve got to be ready to face them,” Rizzo said. “As long as we get the wins, it’s not individual now.”

But even Rizzo sees the individual potential Schwarber might have for impacting this series as another big lefty bat against all that Cleveland right-handed pitching.

“If he’s ready, he’s a huge part of this team,” Rizzo said. “He’s worked really hard to put himself in a position to even be able to do this. If he’s ready, it’ll be a huge boost for us, for sure.”

But first thing’s first with this team, as in the impact the MVP-caliber first baseman has.

Crabby pitcher John Lackey brought an edge to the team this year. World Series winners Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist and Ross have brought veteran calm. But Rizzo balances that workmanlike tone with his own play-hard, laugh-hard influence.

“He’s a great teammate. And he’s still learning, still maturing,” playoff veteran Miguel Montero said. “Especially this time of year, as he gets to play in the playoffs, it’s helping him grow even more on an even bigger stage. And he’s going to become an even better player.”