PITTSBURGH — By the time Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate in the seventh inning after three more hitless at-bats Friday his season average was at a four-month low of .227, and about the only reason for optimism was the fact nobody was in scoring position.
(Rizzo’s .179 average with men in scoring position is the worst in the majors for anyone with 130 or more plate appearances in that situation).
But by the time he let go of the bat after swinging at a 1-0 pitch from Jason Grilli in that seventh inning, the ball was headed out of PNC Park toward the Allegheny River.
It was a two-run shot that gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead in a game they eventually would win by that score – and gave Rizzo what seemed to be a much-needed shot of confidence.
He even added a single in his next at-bat.
“I think it’s huge for him, and hopefully it carries these last couple weeks here,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He came right back up and hit another line drive. Back-to-back at-bats, I don’t know if he’s had that in a little while. Hopefully, that confidence builds.”
“It felt good,” Rizzo said of his first homer of the month – and one of just two since Aug. 6. “Definitely one of the better home runs this year.”
Until the end of Friday’s game, the talk surrounding Rizzo for weeks – months, really – was the struggles, especially in the context of the seven-year, $41 million contract the front office gave him in May.
“I could say it’s frustrating,” Rizzo said this week in Pittsburgh. “But I’ve also hit a lot of balls hard. I just haven’t found holes, and sometimes that’s the difference between a good season and a bad season.”
Nobody who’s been watching him believes that’s the difference in this case.
Whether it’s too much selectivity and not enough aggressiveness in his approach, a mechanics issue, fading confidence, some combination of those – or something altogether different – Rizzo’s first full season in the majors has been defined by ups and downs. And mostly downs.
“That’s where we are in his career and development,” manager Dale Sveum said. “Whether it’s the sophomore jinx or whatever you want to call it, the fact of the matter is he has  home runs and 70-something [RBIs]. The average isn’t there with men in scoring position. …
“It’s a learning process.”
One Sveum is willing to let him work out on his own in the off-season and start emotionally and mentally fresh next spring.
“He might want to get away from it [instead of working on hitting with the staff],” Sveum said. “It might be a mental block anyway. You get mentally beat down. Sometimes you can blame it on mechanics or this and that, and it’s really just your confidence level is so low that it’s tough to hit in that situation.”
Rizzo steadfastly refuses to try to grade or sum up his season right now, or to predict what kind of effect the adversity will have on his career going forward.
“Whatever happens at the end of the year, I’m going to look back at a lot of positives,” he said. “In a couple weeks, we’ll be talking about the same thing, and we’ll assess it then.”