Starlin Castro, a Star Without Patience, Can’t Wait for Wrigley Return


So it is that when Castro, now in his second season with the Yankees, returns to Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon, two of his current teammates — relief pitchers Aroldis Chapman and Adam Warren, who each spent several months with the Cubs last season — will be belatedly presented with World Series rings, while Castro will probably be showered with the most applause.

“I can’t wait to go over there and hear from the fans the first time they announce me,” said Castro, who has looked forward to this series for months, relishing his memories of day baseball, the ivy-covered walls and — especially, he added with a smile — the wind blowing out, not in.

Last week, when the Cubs had a day off in Boston while the Yankees finished a series there, Castro lunched with a good friend, the Cubs reliever Pedro Strop.

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Castro’s two-run, ninth-inning homer for the Yankees last Friday helped them rally to beat the Orioles. He is batting .362 with 16 R.B.I.

Credit
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

“Right when I left, I was the old guy on the team, so I knew everybody,” said Castro, who will be feted with a video tribute on Friday. “I want to say hi to all my old teammates, the staff — even the trainers and clubbies. It’s going to be fun. I’m going to enjoy it.”

Castro returns at an opportune moment. The Yankees (17-9) have the second-best record in the American League, and aside from the rookie sensation Aaron Judge, few on the team have had a greater impact in this surprising season than Castro, who is batting .362 (second in the A.L. going into Thursday’s games), has 16 R.B.I. and has been stationed recently in the cleanup spot.

Other than his transition to second base from shortstop, which began with the Cubs late in 2015, it is hard to say Castro has evolved much. He is simply a better version of himself. His high batting average comes even as Castro is being thrown fewer strikes than ever — a career low 43.7 percent, according to FanGraphs.

“I try to not get myself out and to see more pitches, but that’s baseball,” Castro said. “Some guys have the ability to take a lot of walks and have an ability to not swing at bad pitches, but everybody is different.”

It is also why Castro, who was signed to a seven-year, $60 million contract during the 2012 season, less than a year after the Cubs hired Theo Epstein as president, went from foundational piece to spare part. When Addison Russell, a premier shortstop prospect, moved Castro out of that position midway through 2015, and with the dynamic, versatile Javier Baez emerging, the Cubs and Yankees talked about a deal for Castro at the trade deadline that summer.

Castro earned plaudits that season when, after being benched, he emerged down the stretch as one of the Cubs’ hottest hitters while playing second and helping push Chicago into the National League Championship Series. But when the Mets’ starting pitchers overpowered the Cubs in the playoffs, it reinforced Chicago’s need for hitters who could grind out at-bats. On the same day — Dec. 8, 2015 — that they acquired just that type of player, signing Ben Zobrist as a free agent, they shipped Castro to the Yankees for Warren and Brendan Ryan.

“Starlin worked hard at everything we talked to him about, but I think he has an ingrained hitting style, and it’s worked well for him,” Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer said. “I think in some ways, we probably led him to some slumps by talking to him about stuff like that. I do think he’s a good offensive player, but he’s always going to be aggressive. That’s who he is as a hitter.”

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman looked at Castro, who is now 27, and saw something else: an extremely talented hitter entering the prime of his career, who was known well by the adviser Jim Hendry, who signed Castro when he was the Cubs’ general manager. In Castro, the Yankees saw a player who could fill the vacuum that had existed at second base since the Yankees chose not to re-sign Robinson Cano, now with the Seattle Mariners.

And if Castro is still essentially the same player he has been all along, that is fine by the Yankees.

“If you focused on the negatives, you can get tripped up and frustrated, but if you focus on what he does well, you’ll appreciate what he brings to the table,” Cashman said. “You watch his at-bats play out, and you see he’s not Wade Boggs working the count. But he is a tough out. You get him 0-2, 1-2, that’s when the at-bat starts. He’s a tough out and a very dangerous hitter, and I don’t think he’s a finished product.”

That much is clear even as Castro has taken a key role for the Yankees this season in support of Judge. He has delivered three game-tying home runs, including a two-run, ninth-inning shot — on a pitch he went to his knees to hit — that helped the Yankees rally from an eight-run deficit to beat Baltimore last Friday night. Sandwiched around that, he dropped a pop-up that cemented a loss to Pittsburgh and was nearly picked off second base to end a game on Sunday against the Orioles.

Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman who joined the Cubs in 2012, compared Castro to another mercurial free swinger who played for the Yankees and the Cubs: Alfonso Soriano. Both were much better teammates than they are given credit for. Rizzo said Castro had playfully chided him once when he was out of the lineup two days in a row, and it became a running joke between the two in the rare instance that they were not in the lineup.

“It didn’t matter who was on the mound or who we were playing, he wanted to be out there,” Rizzo said. “To go out there every day is not easy, but it’s a way to get respect from your peers.”

It is maybe the one area in which Castro is lauded for consistency. Until he injured a hamstring late last season, he had played in 146 of 148 games for the Yankees. He has played at least 151 games five times in six seasons.

Castro, though, is almost always defined not day to day, but in moments. It has been that way ever since he homered in his first at-bat and drove in six runs in his first game in the big leagues. Or when he was once caught facing away from home plate when a pitch was delivered while he was at short for the Cubs.

So when Castro arrives at Wrigley Field on Friday, the fans who know him best will applaud as a way to say thanks for the memories. Then they will sit back and watch, under their newly christened World Series banner, knowing that he may do something that, one way or another, will again leave them shaking their heads.

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