Anthony Rizzo, Kyuji Fujikawa are Classic examples of WBC helping Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org March 14, 2013 9:49PM
MESA, Ariz. — They’ve talked about Cubs culture — mostly the need for ‘‘culture change’’ — on the North Side for at least three baseball generations, to the point that the term has lost all significant meaning.
But by accident of the baseball calendar in the second year of the Theo Epstein-Dale Sveum era, culture is making a comeback for the Cubs — maybe even helping a little with the change part of it.
Who would have thought the World Baseball Classic could help the Cubs’ cause at spring training this year?
But young core player Anthony Rizzo’s surprising success with Team Italy could become a valuable part of his development, manager Sveum said. And the longer spring the WBC has created for Japanese pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa can only help his transition.
‘‘You can look at it many different ways,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘For [Fujikawa], being from such a different culture and not speaking the language very well, I think being here for the last two weeks that he wouldn’t have been here, he feels more comfortable.’’
Fujikawa, an All-Star closer in Japan who played in the first two WBC tournaments for the two-time champions, has suggested the same thing repeatedly during camp, and the outgoing pitcher has become popular with teammates.
If he had played in the WBC, Fujikawa would be stopping by Cubs camp Friday just for one day — as Team Japan plays a Cubs split squad in an exhibition — before heading off to San Francisco for the final round of the tournament.
The Cubs never intended to allow Fujikawa to leave camp during this first spring after signing a two-year, $9.5 million free-agent deal. Fujikawa makes it sound like it was as much his decision but also didn’t rule out playing next time around.
‘‘I definitely think that was a good experience, but I’m not missing it,’’ he said through his interpreter.
He got a quick reunion with former teammates Wednesday when he stopped by Japan’s team dinner in Phoenix.
‘‘He’s already played in it. He’s done a lot of things in his career already,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘It’s a valuable experience for him to just be around here.’’
Rizzo? The 23-year-old first baseman was expected to be gone for just a few days — until Italy pulled off upsets of Mexico and Canada to advance to the second round before losing a pair of heartbreaking one-run games to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico this week.
‘‘He’s obviously down about losing, but he’s also very upbeat about the experience he got to have and the emotions that he probably hasn’t been part of yet in pro ball,’’ said Sveum, who talked to Rizzo after Wednesday’s elimination loss to Puerto Rico. ‘‘That was part of what I told him when he asked me what my ideas were when he was going.’’
Rizzo, who had the game-winning hit in the win over Mexico and doubled home three runs in the 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico, returns to the Cubs’ spring lineup Saturday.
‘‘It’s an experience that you just can’t replace, whether it’s the Olympics or a playoff run, or you get to the World Series,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘Those are emotions and excitement that you wish everybody could have once in their life. And he got to be a part of it because they were such underdogs and had to play so well and be so close. It had to be a big rush every day.’’
PEN STATE OF MIND: Left-hander Chris Rusin pitched five scoreless innings against a Dodgers lineup that included its All-Star heart of the order — Andre Ethier , Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez . Rusin, whose leadoff walk in the first was the first he allowed this spring, retired 15 of 16 afterward and quietly has put himself in the running for a job in a bullpen that has just one lefty locked in. “I don’t really think about that at all,” said Rusin, who added he’s more than willing to pitch in relief to make the club. “Any way. Any way. If they tell me to bat 4-hole, I’ll go in and bat 4-hole.” Rusin has allowed one run and eight hits in 12 innings.
BENCH WARRANTS: Utilityman Brent Lillibridge , who returned from a groin injury Wednesday, started at third Thursday. He opened the first inning with a double to left, then singled to center and scored in the third. Outfielder Brian Bogusevic , another of the top contenders for the final two bench jobs, continued his torrid hitting when he doubled home two runs in the ninth. A third candidate for one of those jobs, outfielder Darnell McDonald , added two hits, including an RBI single to left in the third.
VITTERS RETURNS: Third-base prospect Josh Vitters played in his first game of the spring after being sidelined the last three weeks with a strained quad. He came off the bench to take over at third and grounded out twice in two at-bats.
ON DECK: Split squad — at White Sox, 2:05 p.m. (live audio on cubs.com), Scott Feldman vs. Gavin Floyd ; vs. WBC semifinalist Japan, 3:05 p.m., Travis Wood vs. TBA.