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Chicago Cubs

Anthony Rizzo remains heart and soul of Chicago Cubs

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo waits to enter the field before the first inning of a spring training game against the Texas Rangers on Feb. 24, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo waits to enter the field before the first inning of a spring training game against the Texas Rangers on Feb. 24, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Although Kris Bryant may be the best player on the Cubs, no player is more important to the team or to the franchise than Anthony Rizzo.

Call Rizzo what you will: face of the franchise, team leader, heart and soul. He’s all that.

Rizzo’s hallmarks with the Cubs have been amazing consistency on the field and admirable leadership off it.

The 28-year-old first baseman added to his legacy this spring by visiting his alma mater, Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a mass shooting killed 17 people.

The admiration for what Rizzo did was clubhousewide.

“We were so proud of what he did and how he did it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We could not be more proud of how he’s handled himself in the situation.”

Rizzo always has been reluctant to talk about himself, whether it’s his performance on the field or his role in the clubhouse. The term “team captain” came up several times in spring training after Rizzo visited home.

“I embrace coming in every day and just being myself, being a good example for everyone,” he said. “Over the years, it’s crazy just talking to certain guys and what they learned. I’ve caught on to that the last few years.

“I just come in every day and try to be me. Most importantly, have fun. Bring that energy that needs to be brought every day and hope everyone else feeds off that.”

In addition to being overshadowed by Bryant on the Cubs, Rizzo also an be overlooked at his position on the field because the National League is rich in first basemen, including Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman and now Cody Bellinger.

But the Cubs have benefited from Rizzo’s consistent performance year after year.

To wit:

• Rizzo has logged more than 600 plate appearances in each of the past five seasons, including 691 last year and 701 in 2015.

• He has three straight seasons of 100 RBIs, beginning in 2015. The numbers: 101 in 2015 and 109 in each of the past two seasons.

• Rizzo’s home run totals from 2014 to 2017 look like this: 32, 31, 32 and 32.

• On top of that, his walk rate went up to a career-best 13.2 percent last year, while his strikeout rate dropped to 13 percent, a career low.

Rizzo also has been known to take one for the team in more ways than one. He has led the National League in being hit by pitches in 2015 (30) and 2017 (24).

When the team was desperate for a leadoff hitter in the middle of last season, Rizzo stepped in 14 times, going 15 for 50 (. 300) and jokingly proclaiming himself the greatest leadoff hitter of all time.

Would he like to be the leadoff hitter again this year?

“No,” he answered.

Rizzo, however, might not object to a little more time off. He played in 160 games in 2015, 155 during the world-championship season of 2016 and 157 last year.

“You’ve got to be smart,” he said. “We’re very good with it. Joe, the coaches and I know when I’m starting to grind a bit and when I need a day off. We’ll prepare for it.

“But the way I plan for a season is 162 (games), especially with more off days. The mind is telling me 162, but there are going to be days I’m sure something is going on and I’ll need to take a day. A day off pays dividends down the line.

“When you play a lot and are able to sit back and relax and watch a game from the bench, I’ll be honest: Sometimes when I’m on the bench, I wish I was able to kick back and watch from the stands. It’s nice because you’re so all-in every day, and not that you’re not all-in with the guys who are playing because they cheer you on. But it’s nice to kick back and watch the game at a slower pace.”

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