Jun 15, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) celebrates his home run in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Rizzo in the center of Cubs recent solid play

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Over the last month, the Chicago Cubs have been one of the best teams in the National League, posting an 18-13 record over that time. While they still sit ten games under .500, they are clearly trending in the right direction. Last night we pointed out the improvement of Starlin Castro as a catalyst of the resurgence.

Anthony Rizzo has been another big part of the Cubs recent success.

But Anthony Rizzo, as well as Castro are going to be part of the contender that is on the horizon.

Last year’s struggles had many wondering if Anthony Rizzo really was what the Cubs front office expected. The home runs were there, but struggles against lefty-pitching left questions about what he could produce as an everyday player. He’s clearly answered the bell this year.

Let’s look at the numbers:

2013 Totals vs LHP: 108 G, .189/.282/.342, 7 HR, 23 RBI, 44/22  K/BB

2014 Totals vs LHP: 49 G, .328/.432/.582, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 12/16 K/BB

Rizzo is actually hitting LHP better than RHP this season by over 60 points. He’s taken what was thought to be an exposed weakness and turned it into a strength at the plate. And as far as his numbers “in the clutch”, seventh inning and beyond?

2014 7th-9th inning:  .324/.434/.559, 7 2B, 3 HR, 11 RBI

Much of the improvement can be attributed to his improved patience at the plate. Rizzo is second in the NL in walks with 48, trailing only Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates with 52. The approach has paid off with better counts and better pitches to hit.

“If you keep grinding at-bats, pitchers get more stressful, and the more stressful they are, the more they are going to hang pitches,” Rizzo said of his more deliberate approach. “That’s what we have to keep doing.” h/t Fred Mitchell, Chicago Tribune

His improvement at the plate, along with his consistent defensive play has put him near the top of the list of best first-baseman in the National League. Paul Goldschmidt is at the top, but Rizzo is clearly closing the gap this season.

As July nears, along with the trade deadline, the makeup of this Cubs team is sure to change.

But Anthony Rizzo, as well as Castro are going to be part of the contender that is on the horizon.

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