April 2011

Rizzo ready when Padres call

TUCSON, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo said he is ready for the Major Leagues when asked on Friday night after his Class AAA Padres lost by one run to Fresno at what is now called Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium. And he didn’t sound cocky when asked the question.

“I’m just waiting for the call,” he said. “If and when it happens I’ll be ready and it’ll be a blast. Otherwise, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Ready for the Major Leagues? Rizzo nodded his head in the affirmative. “Yes,” he said.  He’s a cancer survivor so there may be good reason for that kind of confidence.

Rizzo hit his sixth homer of the season — a prodigious two-run shot deep into the right-center field bleachers — and third in as many nights in the 9-8 loss.  He went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts and a pair of walks. A big, strapping first baseman, in 15 games he’s hitting a gaudy .452 with 24 RBIs.

The left-handed hitting Rizzo was a big part of the deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox. In San Diego they are waiting. The Padres, at .214, are currently the worst hitting team in Major League Baseball and their platoon of retread first basemen replacing A-Gon are Brad Hawpe   (.116, no homers, two RBIs) and Jorge Cantu (.140, one homer, six RBIs). That can’t last long.

Then again, Rizzo is just 21 years old and its a big jump from the Pacific Coast League to the Majors, Tucson manager Terry Kennedy acknowledged and Brandon Belt of the Giants recently discovered. Belt was all everything last year at all three Minor League levels. This year, with Cody Ross opening the season on the disabled list, Belt hit .192 with a homer and four RBIs for the Giants. Ross is off the DL. Belt will rejoin the Grizzlies on Saturday in Fresno.

The Padres are loathe for that to happen to Rizzo. He’s had only 62 at bats in Triple-A. So there’s no harm in waiting and Rizzo may not be the immediate answer anyway to the Padres’ hitting woes. They had trouble scoring runs last year even with Gonzalez in the middle of the lineup. So far this season, driving in runs has been a huge problem. They have 58 RBIs, 29th in the Majors.

Rizzo was just 18 when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which is cancer of the blood system. He was a Single-A kid in the Red Sox’s system at the time and decided to take off what was supposed to be his first full professional season coping with the disease and fighting it. After six months of chemotherapy doctors told him he was cancer free. He has remained such for three years, he acknowledged Friday night.

No doubt, there’s a sense of urgency on Rizzo’s part to move on as quickly as possible to the next level. Afterall, any cancer patient is only as clean as his last test. So time is wasting here in Tucson when there’s a hole to fill in San Diego.

The Padres are as aware as any organization about living with cancer. Tony Gwynn, Dave Roberts and Darrel Akerfelds have all dealt with cancer in its various forms during the past year. With Rizzo they must balance out the normal growth curve of any player and what’s going on in his personal life.

“Maybe because of the cancer he’ll be able to handle the Major Leagues better than anyone,” said Kennedy, the Padres starting catcher on their 1984 pennant-winning team.

Rizzo says he’s ready to try it. The Padres have to determine when it’s the best time to bring him up.

Zito still on target for Sunday start

LOS ANGELES –- Barry Zito doesn’t intend to look back. That just generates too many negative thoughts and feelings. Right now, he’s focusing on making his first start of the 2011 season on Sunday evening at Dodger Stadium after suffering a neck injury in a two-car collision earlier this week.

Zito’s rented Cadillac was broadsided on its right rear side by a taxi that ran a red light on Wednesday evening in Hollywood at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Plaza Drive. Zito was trying to make a left at the time. The crash rattled the veteran left-hander, sending him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he spent three hours. He had an X-ray that night and was released. On Thursday he showed up at the ballpark wearing a neck brace and was sent off for an MRI that evidently showed no severe damage.

Sans brace, Zito underwent therapy and threw to a catcher on the flat surface of the right-field grass hours before Friday night’s game. Beforehand he proclaimed himself fortunate. Afterward he said he felt well enough to make the start.

“Everything was normal. I’m really blessed in that right,” Zito said. “It’s scary. It’s a scary sound hearing metal hitting metal. If I hadn’t made a decision to hit the gas when I did, he would’ve hit me in the front and it would’ve been a whole different story.”

Zito added that his neck still felt sore.

“It feels a lot better than it did yesterday,” he said. “We’ve been treating it a lot. I expect to feel even better tomorrow.”

The Giants are still reserving judgment about Zito’s availability on Sunday. They have a day off Monday before playing the Padres in their home opener at PETCO Park on Tuesday afternoon. Manager Bruce Bochy said he probably wouldn’t move Madison Bumgarner, Tuesday’s starter, into Zito’s spot, if necessary. Instead it may be a start by committee.

“It looks good,” Bochy said on Friday about Zito pitching. “He has a couple of more days to feel better and improve. When you lose a starter that’s not easy to replace. With a day off the next day that does allow you to use your guys in the bullpen.”

Pitching coach Dave Righetti gave a thumbs up.

“I like where he was today,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”