Updated: August 31, 2014 2:35AM
ST. LOUIS — As much as he has on his mind these days and as hard as the emotions continue to hit, Starlin Castro hasn’t stopped embracing the responsibility and scrutiny that comes with his oversized role in the Cubs’ rebuilding program.
“In some ways, we’re asking a lot of these guys,” general manager Jed Hoyer said of his 24-year-old shortstop and 25-year-old first baseman, Anthony Rizzo. “You have to play like you’ve been in the league for 10 years because we need those guys to help show [the rookies] the way to play.”
Castro, a three-time All-Star who continues to be a lightning rod with fans and media for every mistake and perceived lapse, insists he’s not unfairly criticized or targeted — even as Rizzo gets a comparative pass for his larger number of lapses and breakdowns, especially this year.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Castro, who matched his career high with homer No. 14 in the Cubs’ 5-1 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday. “The reason [for the scrutiny] is that everybody that comes in here looks at me and Rizzo. We have to play hard, to show those guys coming up [what’s expected].”
That’s why he was harder on himself after he turned a double to the wall into a single by gazing too long at home plate Wednesday, why he apologized to teammates and staff before anybody had a chance to scold him — maybe even why he tried to turn a double into a triple Friday night and got thrown out on a close play.
“I don’t have any excuse for it,” he said of his gaffe Wednesday. “It’s a mistake on myself. When that happened, I apologized to the team because it’s my fault. We’ve got a young team, and everybody looks to us.”
Those who have been around the team every day, including management, see the strides Castro has made in eliminating the kind of lapses that former manager and broadcaster Bobby Valentine turned into a national embarrassment — and reputation — three years ago by highlighting Castro’s inattentiveness for several innings of a TV broadcast.
“I clearly believe he’s gotten better,” said manager Rick Renteria, who let Wednesday’s mistake go without a severe response, in part because Castro had just returned from a trip home after the deaths of four close friends and family. “The conversation has changed about him a little bit. I don’t think it’s just simply pick on him.”
Renteria said he’s not making excuses for Castro. And Hoyer said Castro and Rizzo need to get those mental miscues down to “zero.”
Castro, whose first-inning single in the nightcap Saturday made him 9-for-19 since his return from bereavement leave, said that the last two weeks have been “really tough” but that he tries to find resolve and motivation — not excuses — in the loss of his cousin, a friend he considered a brother and two other close friends in a car crash in the Dominican Republic.
“Every time I talked with those guys who died, they told me, ‘When you play good, we’re happy,’ ’’ he said. “That’s what I try to put in my mind when I come out [on the field], to keep going, that I can do anything. I just try to be strong. It’s really tough, but I just come in here every day and try to make those guys happy.”