Rizzo essential to Cubs' recipe for success

April 12th, 2016

CHICAGO -- An offhanded remark by Jim Deshaies last week sparked a lively exchange with his partner on Cubs broadcasts, Len Kasper. They wound up trying to pin a nickname on Anthony Rizzo.

Deshaies had pointed out that Rizzo is the player who most makes the Cubs such a dangerous team. He said he is to his team what eggs are to an omelet. There are a lot of things you can do to add flavor, but you don't get out of the pan without the eggs.

Kasper suggested that perhaps they should start calling the All-Star first baseman "The Key Ingredient." Or maybe, he said, they should go with "Eggs" Rizzo, in the style of Catfish Hunter, Ducky Medwick, Goose Goslin, Yogi Berra and "The Georgia Peach."

Works for me.

Kyle Schwarber received the biggest hand when players were introduced before Monday night's home opener against the Reds, which the Cubs won, 5-3, on a three-run homer by Addison Russell in the eighth inning. Schwarber was hobbling on one crutch when he came out from the dugout, having had what was to be his first full Major League season ended when he wrecked his left knee and ankle in a collision with Dexter Fowler on Friday.

Rizzo got a pretty good hand, too, and rightly so. He has played a huge role in the Cubs' 6-1 start, driving in runs in four games and helping keep his younger teammates on track.

Rizzo had been sickened when Schwarber was carted away from the Chase Field outfield on a play that ended as an inside-the-park homer for Jean Segura. Arizona led, 4-2, and you couldn't have blamed the Cubs if they lost their focus.

But Rizzo did what he does. He had a run-scoring single in the next inning and then broke for second when D-backs catcher Welington Castillo stumbled catching Kris Bryant's towering pop behind home plate, near the seats. Castillo recovered just enough to throw the ball into center field, which let the tying run score.

Rizzo had a two-run triple his next time up. He finished his night with a three-run homer in the ninth inning. Instead of suffering a nasty loss, the Cubs won, 14-6, showing why they're a popular pick to win the National League pennant.

Joe Maddon wouldn't single out Rizzo for helping the Cubs handle the loss of Schwarber, who hit five postseason home runs last year.

"There are so many guys in the group," Maddon said Monday. "We have this wonderful combination of youthful veterans with actual veterans. So when you lose a guy like Schwarb -- a devastating blow, no question -- these guys are of the ilk, been around long enough to know that we can survive this. They know that people are going to have to pick each other up."

And they have Rizzo to count on.

"Anthony is the kind of guy, he's going to help the rest by just being the way he is, performing like he can," Maddon said. "The conversation within the clubhouse, all these little things that nobody's ever privy to that guys like him do."

Jason Heyward and Rizzo were both born in 1989, only one day apart. But while Heyward reached the big leagues to stay as a 20-year-old, with the team that drafted him, Rizzo was traded by the Red Sox and Padres before establishing himself with the Cubs.

Such real-world experiences can toughen a guy up, not that Rizzo needed toughening up. He had to beat Hodgkin's lymphoma before he could start climbing the ladder as a pro.

To Heyward, it's Rizzo's "resiliency" that stands out.

"It's not easy being traded, especially young," Heyward said. "That and obviously his battle with cancer off the field. It's not anything he boasts about, but obviously it's not easy."

Some Chicagoans will always remember where they were when they heard the Cubs had acquired Rizzo after the 2011 season, when he had hit .141 in a 49-game audition with the Padres.

It wasn't that fans envisioned how central Rizzo would become to the franchise's success that made the Andrew Cashner-for-Rizzo deal so memorable. But this was Theo Epstein's first truly bold move after leaving the Red Sox to join the Cubs, and it forever would be an early litmus test for the new regime.

Cubs senior vice president for scouting and player development Jason McLeod had worked alongside Epstein and Jed Hoyer when the Red Sox drafted Rizzo in the sixth round in 2007. He says Rizzo has the best makeup of any prospect he's scouted, and both his determination and intelligence have been on display as he's made himself a better hitter in each of his five seasons with the Cubs.

There was a time when Rizzo had trouble against lefties but not anymore. Likewise there was a time when he got a little jumpy with runners in scoring position but not anymore. Rizzo is a complete hitter. A complete player, really. The perfect guy to build a team around.

Rizzo talks a lot about his team but not so much about himself. His loudest praise Monday was for Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and the people who designed Wrigley Field's new home clubhouse.

"Now we're in a country club," Rizzo said. "Simple as that."

This wasn't a memorable night for Rizzo. He was held in check by Brandon Finnegan, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Rizzo wound up 0-for-3 with a walk and is hitting only .240 so far. But he's got two homers, 10 RBIs and a .984 OPS.

Rizzo used some of his downtime in Arizona to take piano lessons. He didn't flinch when Maddon shined a spotlight on him before a workout in late March, placing a keyboard outside the training facility so that Rizzo could do a recital for teammates.

With a smile on his face, Rizzo played what he could of Adele's "Hello" as well as a song by Train. He was on the bench at one point by Bryant, who hits next to him in a lineup that could wind up as the best one in the NL.

"He's one of those leaders he'll take any blow," Heyward said. "We roast on him all day. We get on him in the clubhouse. But when it's game time, he's ready to go, and we know he is. He's just one of those guys you love to see every day in the clubhouse."

Eggs Rizzo? That nickname probably isn't going to stick, but Deshaies was on to something. This is the one guy Maddon must have for the omelet he's whipping up at Wrigley Field.