Starlin Castro stays humble: “Nobody’s better than baseball”

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Starlin Castro stands at his locker and takes the heat when things go wrong. He never asks for days off. He won’t let the money or the trade rumors change him.

Castro speaks better English than he did as a rookie, and a $60 million contract has given his family generational wealth. But after all the ups and downs, he still resembles the kid who showed up in the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park on May 7, 2010, and faced the great expectations.

Castro hit a three-run bomb in his first big-league at-bat and put up six RBIs that night in Cincinnati. Three nights later, the young shortstop made three errors and got booed during his Wrigley Field debut.

There have been extremes, getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated, getting ripped by Bobby Valentine on national television and now getting back to the All-Star Game for a third time at age 24.

Castro will sometimes slam his helmet to the ground in frustration or let his mind drift for a moment while playing defense. But he’s remarkably composed for someone who plays a glamour position for an iconic franchise in an overheated media market.

It’s just that Castro’s now a more complete player, already putting up 11 homers and 52 RBIs this season, better numbers than he had all last year.

[MORE CUBS: After Cubs/A’s deal, Samardzija will be in All-Star limbo]

Alfonso Soriano — the $136 million man who became the godfather to Castro’s son, Starlin Jr. — showed how to keep a cool head and bring the right amount of swagger to the ballpark.

“You know who I learned a lot from — Sori,” Castro said. “Sori’s the same guy. Always. I always hung out with him. And that’s the kind of thing that he told me: Nobody’s better than baseball. When you’re gone, baseball stays. If you’re a star, if you’re a great player, keep the same (attitude). Stay humble.”

Castro spoke with Soriano after the New York Yankees designated him for assignment last week, and it’s unclear if he’ll simply stay home with his family in Tampa, Fla., and retire after a borderline Hall of Fame career.

“Maybe,” Castro said. “I don’t know. Let’s see. I don’t talk to him about that. But he’s good.”

Like Soriano, Castro always wants to see his name in the lineup, and that gets overlooked when he’s broken down on Twitter and talk radio.

Castro has started all 94 games at shortstop this season. He played 161 last season, even as he struggled to process the organization’s mixed messages, looking lost at the plate (.245 average). He played all 162 in 2012, part of a consecutive-games streak that reached 269. That says more than the coded language used by some scouts and media personalities.

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant gets national spotlight in Futures Game]

Castro credited Tim Buss, the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, for traveling to the Dominican Republic during the offseason and designing a program that reshaped his body and his mentality. Castro then worked out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., before reporting to spring training.

Castro had something to prove after the Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum, citing the stalled development by young core players like their franchise shortstop and first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Whatever the perceptions, new manager Rick Renteria put it this way: “I just know from the very first phone call we shared over the winter, (Castro) said he was willing to do whatever it took to get back on track. And he’s done it.”

Castro has survived the regime changes, playing for Lou Piniella and Mike Quade and working with a diverse group of hitting coaches and infield instructors, as well as Theo Epstein’s front office. The consensus: Castro is coachable, eager to please, someone who cares about his craft.

“I don’t know what the media have said about him,” Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller said. “I came in clean with Rizz and Casty. But from Day 1, both those guys have been hard workers, and they take it very seriously. And that’s all you can ask. They’ve been listening. They apply what you’re saying, and they’ve been going out and doing (it).”

Castro appreciates it more this time. He chartered a plane to fly his family and Rizzo to Minnesota. He will be back where he belongs on Tuesday night at Target Field.

“After that bad year last year, that’s what we’re looking for,” Castro said. “Make the All-Star Game and come back at that level.”

Astros advance to the World Series with 4-0 finale against Yankees

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The Astros punched their ticket to the World Series on Saturday, shutting out the Yankees 4-0 to take their first Game 7 victory at home. Charlie Morton was nearly untouchable on the mound, holding the Yankees to two hits, a walk and five strikeouts en route to his first career postseason win.

Morton and Sabathia carried their duel through three solid innings. Morton struck out three batters and allowed just one baserunner. Sabathia worked in and out of jams in the second and third innings, supplying and stranding two runners in scoring position.

Evan Gattis was the first to strike. In the fourth inning, he punched a 2-2 slider from Sabathia into the left field wall, where it registered a projected 405 feet and broke a homer-less streak of 115 at-bats by designated hitters in the 2017 postseason. The home run signaled the beginning of the end for the Yankees’ starter. He induced a groundout from Marwin Gonzalez, then walked Brian McCann on six pitches and allowed Josh Reddick his first base hit of the playoffs. That was enough for Joe Girardi, who pulled Sabathia for righty Tommy Kahnle and an inning-ending double play to close out the fourth.

Even with Sabathia gone, there was still some hope that the middle of the order could bail the Yankees out. Greg Bird led off the fifth with a first pitch double and Aaron Hicks took a four-pitch walk. A wild pitch from Morton allowed Bird to reach third base, but Alex Bregman and Brian McCann weren’t about to let the Yankees spoil their starter’s shutout. Todd Frazier bounced a ball toward third base, where Bregman grabbed and fired it to home plate, catching Bird just as McCann put his glove down.

The bottom of the inning wasn’t any easier for Sabathia’s successors. Jose Altuve went oppo-taco on a 1-1 changeup from Kahnle, postmarking it 364 feet into the right field stands. Kahnle labored through the next four at-bats, handing out a pair of singles to Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel before sending Gattis down swinging. The next at-bat was even more troublesome. McCann roped a two-out, two-RBI double to the warning track in right field, clearing the bases and boosting the Astros’ to a cushy 4-0 lead.

The excitement fizzled a little over the next few innings. Brett Gardner muscled a leadoff single off of Lance McCullers, but was later caught at second on a force play to end the sixth. McCullers didn’t let go of the ball again. He was lights-out through the end of the game, scattering a walk and six strikeouts over four innings and clinching the pennant with a 1-2-3 performance in the ninth.

Whatever confidence the Astros had coming off of their three-game sweep in the Division Series was tested and tested again in their pennant run. They battled through three tough losses in Games 3 through 5, staved off elimination with a gem from Justin Verlander in Game 6, and finally emerged victorious tonight. Three days from now, when they enter Dodger Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series, they’ll have the chance to do it all again.