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Cubs leading us to believe Anthony Rizzo can handle hype, live up to it

2007 draft: where are they now?

Before the 2007 draft, the Cubs regarded Anthony Rizzo as better than a sixth-round talent but also unsignable because of his college commitment and a tighter draft budget. After committing $10 million to 2006 fifth-round draft pick Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs caught an earful from the commissioner’s office for over-slot spending. Rizzo went to the Red Sox’ Theo Epstein in the sixth round. The Cubs selected these six players ahead of him:

Josh Vitters (1*) 3B Prep AAA Iowa 3B: .290, 12 HR, 75 games

Josh Donaldson (1**) C College Traded to A’s in ’08; .154 in 130 ML AB

Tony Thomas (3) IF College Traded to Bosox ’11 for reliever; .258 AAA

Darwin Barney (4) SS College Cubs starting 2B; .264, 21 extra-base hits

Brandon Guyer (5) OF College To Rays in Garza deal; .188 in 48 ML AB

Casey Lambert (6) LHP College O’s took in 2010 Rule 5 draft; on AA DL

*-No. 3 overall pick; **-Supplemental first-round pick. Note: All statistics through Tuesday.

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Updated: August 23, 2012 9:55AM

They shoved the kid into the third spot in the batting
order, the place where the big hitters do their work. So
pressure? Gosh, none whatsoever.

It was just another game, never mind the words on WGN-TV’s Facebook page Tuesday, the words typed above an Anthony Rizzo ad: “Chicago, he’s finally here.’’

And if 34,064 people showed up at Wrigley Field with the expectation that their beer would be turned into wine, what did that have to do with a 22-year-old left-handed hitter? Except everything.

Very few people are programmed to live up to the tonnage of hype that has been heaped on Rizzo, whose debut Tuesday night spawned odes normally reserved for Grecian urns, not Italian stallions. The Cubs had done nothing to soften the buildup, which would lead a reasonable person to infer that they believed the hype and, more important, believed Rizzo could handle it.

“He brings everything you want in a hitter — left-handed, left-handed power, the ability to drive the ball to all fields, a two-way player, he’s a really good defensive player,’’ manager Dale Sveum said before the game against the New York Mets.

Are you sure you’re not leaving anything out, Dale?

“His ability to someday be a leader on this ballclub,’’ he said.

And from there, it’s only a short hop to international peacekeeper, corporate magnate or the first U.S. president named “Rizzo.”

On a calm, clear night (at least meteorologically), the Anthony Rizzo Era began, and it was good. He handled the intense scrutiny well. He did not wilt. He did not suffer catastrophic engine failure. He looked and acted as though he belonged. These are the Cubs, and, believe me, none of that was a given.

He went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and played first base flawlessly in the Cubs’ 5-3 victory.

Pressure? What pressure?

‘‘You can’t teach ‘no panic,’ ’’ Sveum said afterward.

In his first at-bat, Rizzo ripped a ground ball that almost ate up Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. Boos followed the ruling that it was an error. Soon after, the error was changed to a hit, and peace was preserved.

In the fourth, he doubled, knocking in a run.

‘‘The baseball instincts took over once the game started,’’ Rizzo said afterward. ‘‘I was a little kid out there having fun.’’

Meeting with reporters before the game, Rizzo had declared himself “here to stay.’’ If he’s anything close to the player the Iowa Cubs had in Class AAA this season (.342, 23 home runs, 62 RBI), he will be. If he’s anything close to the player who hit .141 in 49 games for the San Diego Padres last season, he won’t be.

He said the root of his struggles last season was easy to see: “Trying to do too much. My youth showed. At the time, I didn’t think I was trying to do too much.’’ In other words, this time, he won’t be chasing the elusive five-run homer. He has lowered his hands at the plate and shortened his swing. The idea is to get himself closer to slump-proof.

Give the Cubs some credit for not giving in to fan pressure to bring up the rookie sooner. There was nothing in it for anyone if he had come up earlier. This was a team going nowhere whether Rizzo was on the roster or not.

On Tuesday, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer referred to Rizzo as “homegrown,’’ which is a stretch. When he was with the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein drafted Rizzo and eventually traded him to the Padres and their then-GM, Hoyer. When Epstein and Hoyer came to Chicago, they traded for Rizzo. If that’s homegrown, then so is Wisconsin cheese. Maybe if Rizzo turns out to be a 10-year mainstay for the Cubs, we’ll reassess.

In the short term, knowing he’s appreciated will have to suffice.

“They believe in me,’’ Rizzo said of Epstein and Hoyer. “A lot of people after last year and the struggles could have written me off really easily. The people who know me closely know that that’s a fluke.’’

From the outside, there’s an easiness to Rizzo, and the buzz cut, tan and wide smile make it look like he just finished a 1950s photo shoot with The Mick. The “Hoosiers’’ earnestness might be real or it might be window dressing. But you don’t do what he has done without having an edge.

None of it really matters, though. The only thing that matters is how he performs on the field.

“Just play,’’ teammate Starlin Castro said. “Play baseball like you played in Triple-A. Don’t think about it.’’

And whatever you do, don’t think about the pressure.

“We think he can handle a lot,’’ Sveum said. “He’s going to be in this lineup a long time. We felt today was the day, and hopefully he’ll be in the lineup a long, long time.’’

For now, he’s still a rookie. Who will teach him to be a big-leaguer? It’s not as though the Cubs’ clubhouse is filled with lots of grizzled vets. His locker is next to pitcher Ryan Dempster’s. Who else?

“Reed Johnson, as far as the position players, is one that’s going to lead you in the right direction,’’ Sveum said. “We’ve got a few other guys. [Alfonso] Soriano is another guy.’’

Maybe this is the Rizzo Effect at work. Everything is better when looked at through the prism of the Mezziah. Even Soriano’s Cubs career? My hype threshold has its limits.

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