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SportsMonday: The Rizzo Stretch

When the Cubs needed a big hit over the weekend, Anthony Rizzo came through. A two-run homer on Saturday put the squad up for good in an eventual 3-2 victory and his ground single through the right side on Sunday drove in the first run on the way to a 3-0 win.

But he also showed us a new way to loaf. Okay, so it wasn't really loafing but it was definitely evidence of casual disease. What else to call that annoying little eighth-inning sequence on Sunday when Rizzo declined to stretch for a throw from Darwin Barney on a close play at first? It must also be mentioned that he had a partner in crime (theft of an out from pitcher Travis Wood).

Umpire Paul Schrieber called the Astros' Brian Bixler safe (almost certainly in an instance of "I'll show you, you overconfident little whipper-snapper") despite the fact that he was a half-step short.

Calls like that are not difficult. Umps can make them with their ears and their eyes, with the clear sound of the ball smacking into the first baseman's glove (which in this case clearly happened first) easily distinguished from the thud of a cleat thumping down on the base (second, meaning the batter was out).

But Schrieber clearly noticed that rather than stretch to grab the throw from Barney to cap off a close play, Rizzo stood straight up and casually caught the ball near his body. As major league infielders so often do, Rizzo had successfully calculated just what was needed to get the base-runner. Except then the runner was called safe.

In youth baseball, when a fast base-runner tries to take liberties with a questionable opponent, i.e., he tries to take an extra base when the situation doesn't really warrant it, it is especially exciting for the opponent if it can then make a good throw and a good tag to get the out. You can watch umpires feed off this excitement, i.e., they oftentimes put a little more oomph into their "Out!" call in that sort of situation.

So it isn't too much of a stretch to point out that in the eighth inning on Sunday, Schrieber wanted Bixler to be safe to teach Rizzo a lesson. Bixler wasn't safe and that blown call is a strike against Schrieber's umping capabilities. But maybe Rizzo learned a little lesson in the way it played out.

I haven't found any post-game coverage in which the play was discussed, mostly because it didn't amount to anything, but perhaps, at least a little, because it didn't conform to the Rizzo narrative so far - the one where the young slugger overcomes the big-city pressure and has a successful debut.

The cool thing, though, was that Wood shrugged it off and went back to work. The pitcher who has morphed into a dominant lefty in his last three starts went ahead and recorded his final two outs before right-hander Shawn Camp came on in relief to face right-handed pinch-hitter Chris Snyder and to then finish off the eighth inning by inducing a pop-up.

But let me be the one to cap off this conversation by saying to Mr. Rizzo, even though the guy was out, don't ever play it too casual. It doesn't look good and it will cost you at some point. In other words, just go ahead and stretch next time.

One final note: Could everyone please take a step back from the idea that Rizzo is facing a ton of pressure because "the media" have dubbed him "the Savior?"

There is one small primary problem with this construct: Everyone who matters knows it totally isn't true. Rizzo's manager knows it, the team's brass knows it isn't. Sports media types in town, and fans with a few active brain cells know it. Rizzo is young player with a ton of potential who has a glorious chance to establish himself as the Cubs' long-term answer at first. It is fun to watch as he tries to take this chance and run with it.

It was classic that the Cubs won Rizzo's debut last week but then lost the next game 17-1 with him in the lineup. The message was clear - he is potentially a difference-making player but he is only one of many the Cubs will need if they are to turn their fortunes around in the next season or two.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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