PITTSBURGH — It’s no longer a gimmick.
The Chicago Cubs have a new leadoff hitter, as Anthony Rizzo got on base for the fifth consecutive time to start a game after doubling and scoring in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday. The former middle-of-the-order top-five MVP candidate is now “all-in” for hitting leadoff as the Cubs won their first road series since late April.
“It’s crazy,” Rizzo said after the 7-1 win. “It’s weird. It’s funny, but it’s great. We’ve played better baseball, hit the ball better. It’s good to finally win a road series. It’s been a while.”
Manager Joe Maddon is looking for anything to spark his underachieving World Series-winning offense, but few could have thought Rizzo hitting first might do it. He has two home runs, a walk, a single and now a double — just to begin the game — since being inserted into the leadoff role as almost an act of desperation by Maddon. It’s the first time in his career he’s led off, and it’s paying off. Rizzo is hitting .429, highest among leadoff men with at least 20 plate appearances. Later on Sunday he singled and homered; he’ll get plenty more chances batting fist in the lineup.
“It’s coinciding with him swinging the bat well,” Maddon said. “Plus, there’s the added incentive of doing it. He likes doing it … Right now, we’re going to stay with it. I like it. I think it’s played well. I think it’s inspired the lineup.”
The Cubs have scored 37 runs in the five games since Rizzo first began leading off. His loose attitude has trickled down to a lineup that has woefully underachieved this season.
Rizzo is the first player to reach base leading off a game in his first five career starts batting there since Gene Kingsale in 1999-2000, but Kingsale did it over the course of two different seasons. Rizzo has done it over the course of six days.
“The game can’t start until I get in the batter’s box,” Rizzo joked. “The objective is the pitcher wants to throw strike one. They want to get into a groove. Just be ready to hit.”
Rookie Ian Happ added: “I mean, he’s on base every time. It doesn’t get much better than that. He’s given me a chance to hit with guys on base.”
Happ is batting second now as Maddon has seemingly tried every reasonable lineup combination for his team, which is hitting .238 this season, second worst in the National League. After the reasonable didn’t work, the Cubs manager went outside the box. On Sunday, catcher Willson Contreras hit third for the first time in his career. He had three hits as well.
“It was great,” Contreras said. “Rizzo gets on every time. I was surprised when I got the text I was hitting third. I love it.”
Maddon has often been criticized for using so many different lineups — Sunday was his 61st in 68 games played. But it’s been by necessity. With so many hitters struggling, he’s gone to Plan B, C, D and now E. He’ll stay unconventional as he also continues to bat his pitcher eighth. His nine-hole batter on Sunday, Jon Jay, had three hits as Maddon called him a perfect hitter for that spot in the lineup.
“I’ve always talked about it [the batting order] being a circle,” Maddon explained. “Everyone looks at it like you drop off the end of the earth at nine. It’s a circle, man. It feeds. It feeds from the bottom to the top, also … The more I do this stuff, the more I like the pitcher in the eight-hole.”
None of it will matter unless the Cubs keep hitting, no matter where they bat in the order. And now it’s all starting with Rizzo, who’s hitting .386 in the month of June, most of it before he moved up to the top spot in the order. The beginning of the month also corresponds to Rizzo getting engaged to be married. Is there a connection?
“Look at my June last year,” Rizzo said, dismissing the notion. “It’s summertime. Time to hit.”
Rizzo hit .218 in April last season, .250 in May and then .378 in June, so perhaps Maddon is simply taking advantage of Rizzo’s hottest month and using it as a spark for the entire team. It’s working, and his teammates are enjoying it as much as he is.
“You look at him, he’s a middle-of-the-order first baseman,” MVP Kris Bryant said. “He’s the last guy you would expect to hit leadoff. He’s on base all the time now. It’s nice to get to the pitcher with that first at-bat of the game. Hopefully he can keep that up.
“He’s been [No.] 3 or 4 his whole life. Now he’s a speedy leadoff hitter.”
What was kind of a lark to see what it looked like is now a thing. Rizzo the leadoff man: “If we win ball games, I’ll be the leadoff hitter for the rest of my career,” he said. “It’s all about winning.”