CHICAGO -- As if the Chicago Cubs weren't fighting an uphill battle already, the heart and soul of the team, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain -- and it couldn't come at a worse time of the season. With the Cubs in a dogfight to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, Rizzo's presence will be missed in all facets of the team.
"It's going to be tough to be without Anthony for a while here," team president Theo Epstein said on Monday afternoon. "He's so important to everything we do, on the field and off the field."
Shortstop Javier Baezhas been out with a thumb injury, but Rizzo might be the bigger loss. He's integral to everything Cubs, from leading off, to two-strike hitting, to the bunt defense they incorporate -- that's where he got hurt -- to simply being the face that meets the media before and after games. For comparison, Baez hasn't even commented on his injury since being diagnosed with a hairline fracture, whereas Rizzo was at his locker to discuss the bad news on Monday.
"It's throbbing but I keep my mind in better spirits and try to be in as good a mood as I can," he said. "Every year isn't going to be 2016. You have ups and downs. Everyone in this locker room is fully capable of carrying a heavy load at all times."
As much as the team is hopeful for a quick recovery, the history of moderate ankle sprains doesn't scream "a few days," or even a couple of weeks.
"In the meantime you just have to plan that he's not going to be there," manager Joe Maddon said. "You have to get the guys ready and get them indoctrinated in these positions. I really believe our guys will rally around this moment. We have different options to play over there."
It's true. The team has better defensive options at first base than one might think, but Rizzo was the best leadoff hitter on the team this season. Chicago was terrible from that spot in the order -- until he took over recently. So where do the Cubs turn, at first base and leadoff, to help keep their playoff streak alive?
A little-known, switch-hitting, backup catcher has emerged as the best candidate to replace Rizzo at first base, at least on the days he's not behind the plate. Victor Caratini is actually beginning to make a name for himself, both as Yu Darvish's personal catcher and as a decent hitter. It's not just his OPS+ of 113 that's impressive, it's actually his batting average. Sometimes, that statistic tells a story. Hitting .282 entering play on Monday, Caratini has become a more complete hitter. And don't forget his two home runs that won a game off New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom last month. That was a defining moment for Caratini.
"He's not chasing as much out of the zone," Maddon said. "And he's using left-center a lot more consistently. He's not hitting that rollover ground ball, left-handed. He's staying through the ball. Left-center has become his buddy. And the right side has gotten better."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 33 percent of Caratini's balls in play have been to the opposite field; that's up 10 points from a year ago.
"Caratini has showed time and again he's good enough to be an everyday player," outfielder Nicholas Castellanos said. "The fact that he's getting an opportunity, I'm happy for him."
Ben Zobrist added: "You don't make that up with one player. You have to make it up with a couple players. That's how you try to fill that hole."
On Tuesday night, in the second game of their series against the Cincinnati Reds, Caratini will be behind the plate for Darvish; the hurler has a 3.17 ERA this season with Caratini catching. It means Maddon will need another first baseman and Ian Happ is his best bet. Like Caratini, he has flashed some decent leather filling in for Rizzo at times, but his offensive game isn't quite like that of the Cubs' regular first baseman.
Rizzo has a strikeout rate of 13.9, while Happ is at 25.6 percent after spending four months in the minor leagues. And that percentage is actually down from last year. Meanwhile, Rizzo plays against all types of pitchers, while Happ's starts are limited to the good matchups. The drop-off is considerable.
"Next man up," Zobrist said. "Rizz and Javy are a big part of this but no one is bigger than the team."
It's the same attitude the Milwaukee Brewers must be embracing as they continue to play good baseball even after losing MVP Christian Yelich to a knee injury. The loss of stars can be overcome for a period of time in baseball. When a very productive player is out several months, that's when it usually catches up to a team. That's not the time frame the Cubs are looking at. They can survive -- for a bit.
"That's our expectation," Maddon said. "Of course it is ... It is the next man up kind of a theory. And I do believe there are galvanizing moments when you do lose key people in key situations. I do expect a good result."
If Maddon expects a good result at the leadoff slot without Rizzo, that might be wishful thinking. With the former All-Star, the team had a .289 OBP from the No. 1 hole, by far the worst in the majors -- even though he compiled a .560 mark in six games there.
"When you ask him to lead off he turns into this superb leadoff hitter which we've been riding pretty well," Maddon said as the Cubs won their last four games with Rizzo at the top of the order. "Sometimes he's undervalued in a sense. He is a bedrock. He's going to be missed."
Of course, Rizzo's absence doesn't come long after Zobrist returned the team after nearly four months of personal leave time. He's the next best option to lead off but he can't play every day. One thing Maddon was able to do during a weekend sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates was remove Zobrist from the game as the Cubs pulled away each day. But that's not likely to happen as they face better pitching the final two weeks of the season.
"I feel OK," Zobrist said. "Just trying to manage the fatigue factor, trying to recover as quickly as possible for these games. I don't feel much pressure because everyone is playing so well right now."
It means on the days Zobrist doesn't play, Maddon might have to use a dartboard to pick a leadoff man. He can't do worse.
Raise your hand if you thought the Cubs were done when the runner-up to last year's MVP went down for the rest of the regular season. The loss of Baez felt monumental, but then again, who knew a 22-year-old playing in Double-A this year, rookie Nico Hoerner, would light the baseball world on fire and become an instant fan favorite?
"You don't replace an Anthony Rizzo or Javy Baez," Zobrist said. "The next guy jumps in there and does what he's capable of doing."
So far, Hoerner has been more than capable at shortstop, and his 1.093 OPS, in seven games entering Monday night, is nothing short of amazing.
All season the Cubs' depth has been tested and has come up short. Minor league stints for Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and David Bote tell part of that story. But Hoerner -- and Caratini -- aren't included in that narrative.
If there is one player who has showed signs of a breakout, in limited duty, it's Hoerner. Either way, a short-term loss at shortstop hasn't derailed the Cubs, at least not yet. Time will tell what happens at first base, but the pennant race won't slow down for the walking wounded. "Next man up" isn't just a cliché. It's the Cubs' slogan right now.
"It is what it is," Castellanos said. "The last person that's going to play the victim is me. We have to make the most of it, no ifs, ands or buts about it."
Maddon added: "Nobody is going to cry for you. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, maybe outside of your mom, just a little bit."
Night No. 1 without Rizzo went just fine as Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward picked up the slack in the Cubs' 8-2 win over the Reds. That, more than anything, was the message coming from the Cubs locker room. It can't be up to just the fill-ins for Rizzo and Baez. A team effort is required to cover for missing stars.