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Cheers! Cubs fans appreciate Castro's growth

Infielder's move to second base key to club's postseason run

CHICAGO -- Word of advice for anyone who is only now paying attention to the Cubs' remarkable postseason run: Keep your eyes and ears open when Starlin Castro comes to the plate on Tuesday night.

As wild as Wrigley Field will be for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series (air time 7:30 p.m. ET, game time 8 p.m. ET on TBS), something special happens when it's Castro's turn to bat. The new video board and sound system blares his walk-up song, "Ando En La Versace,'' a meringue number from Dominican artist Omega El Fuerte, and suddenly it's like the Caribbean World Series has come to the North Side, with a side order of the Women's College World Series thrown in as a bonus.

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Players seated down the left-field line in the Cubs' bullpen, as well as seemingly everyone on the bench, claps along with the music. Fans follow suit and for a moment or two it's fiesta time. If Castro can follow suit with a smash off his bat, it's like Phil Mickelson has hit a ball off the pine straw and onto the green on No. 13 at Augusta National.

"Yeah, that's a fun thing we've been doing for a while, since the beginning of the year,'' said Game 3 starter Kyle Hendricks. "With his walk-up song, everybody starts clapping, and I think it resonates with the crowd now. It's just a fun thing, and another reason these fans, why we love them so much. They really pick up on what we're doing.''

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No one loves it more than Castro, who has heard both cheers and boos during his six seasons in Chicago.

"It is such a good feeling,'' Castro said. "I can't describe what that is like. It makes me very, very happy.''

Many players have done their part to get the Cubs this close to their first World Series since 1945. But you can argue that Addison Russell's move to shortstop and Castro's willingness to reinvent himself as a second baseman had as much to do with the run to 97 wins and postseason success against the Pirates and Cardinals as any development other than the winning streak in Jake Arrieta's starts, which had lasted 85 days before the loss to the Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday.

The Cubs went 39-17 in the regular season after manager Joe Maddon moved skilled defender Russell from second base to shortstop. Some felt this would be a case of addition by subtraction, as Castro had been a two-way liability for long stretches of May, June and July. But instead, Castro provided real value by earning the job at second base.

Castro hit .353 with six home runs and a .961 OPS in his last 47 regular-season games, including 31 starts. This was the player that former GM Jim Hendry and manager Lou Piniella hoped Castro would evolve into after earning the first of three trips to the All-Star Game in 2011, at age 21.

But Castro's development is about much more than numbers. He's become a team player, which has made it easy for his teammates to embrace him, especially the young players from Latin America. Maddon watched with interest as Castro interacted with Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and others in Spring Training, while at the same time the 25-year-old was trying to create a lasting role for himself in his original organization.

"I think he knows how to win now,'' Maddon said. "He knows what it takes to win. He knows how important the complete game is -- that it's not just about hitting. He's turned into a good baserunner, running well to first base. His defense has been outstanding at second base. ... I've seen the transformation of a young man from a really nice Major League shortstop to a real winning kind of a baseball player. That's where I come from.''

Not that Castro still can't be maddening.

He put Cubs fans back on their emotional roller coaster in Game 1 of the NLCS, costing his team a run by standing at the plate too long admiring a run-scoring drive over Juan Lagares' head. He had two chances to get to third on what wound up as a double, by either running hard out of the box or going second to third when the Mets threw home trying to stop Anthony Rizzo from scoring, and that proved expensive when left fielder Yoenis Cespedes nailed Castro at the plate on Baez's single.

Castro also missed a pickoff play in the field, almost allowing a throw to sail into center field. Maybe he was having a hard time believing that he was playing in the NLCS after so many years when the Cubs were constantly shuffling the cast around him and Rizzo.

"I feel pretty good that we're still playing,'' Castro said. "It's really unbelievable. Five years here, last game of [regular] season we go home. Now we're still playing. It's pretty awesome.''

Castro was only 1-for-8 in the two games against the Mets, dropping his postseason average to .192. But his Game 1 double was one of only three extra-base hits for the Cubs at Citi Field, and Castro has been making hard contact without striking out.

While Maddon said on Monday that he's considering ways to sneak another left-handed bat into the lineup against Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom, Maddon indicated Castro is "swinging the bat extremely well,'' and doesn't have to worry about getting a night off. He joins Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Dexter Fowler as the only Cubs who have started all seven games in the postseason.

Only a little more than two months ago, Castro looked like a discard. Maddon and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein decided they couldn't stick with Castro's fielding inconsistency -- he had 18 errors at short this season and a minus-4 Defensive Runs Saves figure, which ranked 27th among 38 shortstops with at least 400 innings -- when they had an attractive option in Russell.

But Maddon said Castro looked him "right in the eyes'' when they met to discuss that change, showing he was intent in adapting to regain his value in the organization's eye. Maddon spoke words that encouraged him.

Castro remembers Maddon telling him "how important I'm going to be for the team'' and to keep his head up. He took a couple days off to process the disappointment and then suddenly began working with infield coach Gary Jones on the intricacies of second base while spending time in the cage with first-year hitting coach John Mallee, who came to the Cubs after helping Jose Altuve win the 2014 American League batting title in Houston.

Over the years, Castro's stance had become more and more open, suggesting he was either afraid of getting hit with the ball or was just trying to launch balls into the seats. It wasn't working and, inch by inch, Mallee got him to take a more traditional, square stance and one day, Castro said, he found the swing that had helped him lead the NL with 211 hits in 2011, his first full season.

"That helped me a lot,'' he said of working with Mallee and also Manny Ramirez, who the Cubs call their culture coach for his work with Latin players. "I get my front left open too much. I get closer to the home plate, close my leg a little bit and just swing the bat. It's been pretty good.''

The Cubs face a decision with Castro as they go forward.

With Baez and 18-year-old prospect Gleyber Torres in the organization, they could trade Castro to shed his contract. He's due $41.4 million over the next four seasons, and they are looking at a cost of about $110 million for their 13 signed and arbitration-eligible players, including the $13 million they sent to the Braves with Edwin Jackson.

At the end of the day, the question could come down to whether Chicago trusts Castro to put his head down and play hard, as he has the last few months.

Maddon can see Castro staying in the mix, although it's Epstein who will make the call.

"Words are beautiful, but at the end of the day, you want a bunch of guys who come here to win, daily,'' Maddon said before the start of the NLCS. "When you get that group of guys, Stage 5 guys, that all they want to do is win, this is the kind of stuff that happens.''

If you're at Wrigley on Tuesday, go ahead, clap your hands. Maybe Castro is, after all, part of the plans.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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