Matt Szczur hopes his time in Arizona will give him the edge in proving he's the Cubs' future leadoff man. On Wednesday, he showcased just about all the skills needed to be a top-of-the-order spark plug.
Szczur went 2-for-3 with a triple, two RBIs, a walk and a stolen base as the last-place Mesa Solar Sox held off the Scottsdale Scorpions, 4-3, in the Arizona Fall League.
"My approach is just trying to get a good pitch to hit," he said. "I'm being selective and taking good swings at the same time, so I think it's helping me out a lot."
Szczur, the Cubs' No. 6 prospect, singled, stole second and scored in the first inning, drew a bases-loaded walk in the second and delivered an RBI triple in the fourth to help the Solar Sox build a 4-0 lead for starter Luke Putkonen.
It was his second triple and eighth steal in 20 games this fall.
"Obviously, it's great to have a hit in your first AB of the game and, honestly, I'm just trying to hit my pitch and hit it hard," said Szczur, who turned 23 in July. "I've been working on that, trying to get the best pitches of each at-bat and drive it. The past couple weeks, I've been doing all right with that approach."
His triple off Indians left-hander T.J. House produced the decisive run as Scottsdale clawed back on homers by Ricky Oropesa (Giants) and Randal Grichuk (Angels).
"I had three at-bats against [House], so I kind of knew what he'd throw," Szczur said. "The first pitch was a fastball in the dirt, so I thought there's a good chance he'll throw another fastball. He left it up and I drove it out to left-center."
A 2010 first-round Draft pick, Szczur is batting .273 in 20 games for Mesa as he looks to position himself for a Major League debut in 2013. A leadoff man who passed up a chance to enter the NFL Draft, Szczur finished the 2012 season on Chicago's 40-man roster after a promotion to Double-A Tennessee. His speed -- he stole 42 bases -- defense and plate discipline have the Cubs excited about his future, and his time in Arizona has been an opportunity for extra development.
Asked if he felt the Fall League could improve his chances of reaching the big leagues next year, he was optimistic.
"I think so," the Villanova product said. "It's a stepping stone. The more at-bats you get, the better you are, and that's the biggest thing for me -- to see as many pitches and get as many AB's as I can. To get comfortable hitting with two strikes, to see the ball well and hit to both sides of the field."
Szczur, who won a Florida State League championship with Class A Advanced Daytona in 2011, began this season back in Florida before a 35-game stint at Double-A debut. Overall, he hit .267 with four homers, 40 RBIs, 42 steals and 92 runs scored in 113 games.
His numbers dipped after moving up to the Southern League. Mesa has been a chance for him to remove some stress from that stat line and focus on staying more consistent in his approach to hitting.
"What's been big for me is when I was in Double-A and I slumped, I felt like I had to start swinging at the first pitch every time. I get anxious," he explained. "Here, I worked the counts and try to have a good at-bat and it helped me out. I've slumped a lot less here, so I'm doing all right with that approach."
Part of the charm, or challenge, of the Arizona Fall League is playing against a variety of players from other organizations every day. For Szczur, he rarely has a chance to get used to anyone on the mound.
"It's kind of hard to describe. You face a new pitcher almost every at-bat and you face awesome competition," he said. "It's good to compete against your own players. You have a chance to showcase yourself and I love the guys here, it's been awesome."
Szczur's background is unique. He played football and baseball at Villanova and was MVP of the championship game when he led the school to the 2009 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) title.
Now, he's using his skills as a wide receiver and quarterback in the outfield.
"You work on defense every day, getting reads on balls," he said. "The biggest problem for me, and most guys, is on balls hit right at you. But the more you're out there, the better you are."
Another bright spot for Mesa on Wednesday was Putkonen (1-1), who held the Scorpions to three hits and a walk over four scoreless innings for his first win. The 26-year-old right-hander, who appeared in 12 games for Detroit this year, struck out four in his fifth AFL start.
"Luke has been great," Szczur said. "He's a big leaguer and comes out and works every day, and he's a very classy guy, traditional. He's always shagging fly balls and having fun talking to the guys, so he deserves it. He's a great guy."