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Jaramillo's Prize Student Is Passing All The Tests

The Cubs are far out of pennant contention, but rookie Starlin Castro has become a reason to watch the team play every day.

Lost in the wreckage of the Cubs' season, amid Sweet Lou's early retirement, Mike Quade's managerial audition, the will-they-or-won't-they in the hiring of Ryne Sandberg, and the post-therapy Zen-like calm of Big Z is the simple fact that Starlin Castro could be the first rookie to lead the Cubs in hitting in 21 years.

I thought it was longer than that -- all the way back to Bill Madlock's .313 in 1974, another lost Cubs campaign. But a quick perusal of the record books shows that Dwight Smith, more known for eccentric baserunning, led the NL East titlist Cubs in 1989 with .324 as a raw rook. However, Smith's feat gets obscured because he was overshadowed by teammate Jerome Walton. "Juice" batted .293, but hit in a team-record 30 straight games, was the leadoff guy and snared the NL Rookie of the Year Award with Smith the runner-up. Both Walton and Smith were hardly heard from again; Smith, also, didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Castro will.

Well, youth must be served again after the generation gap of hitting achievers. Just 20, Castro passed .320 over the weekend, vaulting himself into the NL batting race. Unless he fades badly in the final month, the shortstop should pace the Cubs in hitting, going far beyond any brass' projections when they promoted him from Triple-A in May.

Castro's feats are all the more amazing considering his precocious age and the fact he's getting stronger as the season drags on and not letting the Cubs' often-watchable (until Quade took over) play get to him. And also consider all the time he puts in the batting cage in less than comfortable conditions under the right-field bleachers. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who knows all about high heat from his years with the Texas Rangers, said it's rather steamy in that cage, which needs to be re-located when the Ricketts family gets around to constructing the Triangle Building on the western wall of Wrigley Field.

The best view of Castro -- as yet an incomplete player due to some of his fielding foilbles, but already an on-the-come hitter --  comes from Jaramillo and all those sessions in the dingy cage, where Ozzie Guillen once claimed to see rats as big as pigs. Guess if Castro can survive the cage, he can master any pitcher's bender.

"He's a smart kid," Jaramillo said. "He's got a lot of common sense. He's got the mentality that he wants to compete. There was a little point where I didn't know where he was going, when he got down to .269. And then he picked it right back up. He's got some speed -- that's helped him get some cheap hits. That's part of the game -- more power to you.

"All I want him to do is learn how to hit right now. Don't worry about the power. Sometimes he tries to hit the ball out of the ballpark and gives up some at-bats. But that's just part of the process of learning. I want him to stay to the right-center part of the park. That's his strength. He's made some adjustments mechanically to be more consistently with his timing. There are a lot of hitters who are really inconsistent with that. I've had Juan Gonzalez, Alex Rodiriguez,  (Pudge) Rodriguez, (Rafael) Palmeiro. His speed has helped him overcome those days when he doesn't get a hit."

Jaramillo is working hard with Castro on the mastering of mind games against pitchers.

"He just has to get a better idea of what they're trying to do to him," he said. "They've been throwing him a lot of curveballs. He started swinging early in the count (to prevent being victimized by breaking balls). I said, no, you have to be patient. You can hit the curveball, but you have to get in good hitting position. And that comes from him staying inside the baseball, stay closed to he can hit the ball to right-center. He has a good feel for that, because that was part of his game when he got here."

Another teaching is working Wrigley Field right, with its optical illusion to power-hungry hitters.

"I don't want him to think the short fence here to left," Jaramillo said. "This park will play with your mind. You hit a lot of balls to right and center, and they go nowhere. All of a sudden you want to pull it, but you want to stay with that approach in BP. He'll be a gap to gap hitter. A lot of doubles, use the whole field, work the count, have a good two-strike approach. He needs to work the count better and needs to walk more. Keep working on it to get better.

"One thing he has shown me is he has 'feel' at the plate, when he's late and he's not. He can make an adjustment in his swing, and that's real big for someone that young, being able to do that. I want him to be more pitch to pitch to be on top of his game.

"We're just trying to keep it simple for him. I don't want to give him too much information. I just want him to have a good approach, to have quality at-bats. A quality at-bat to me is you see pitches until you see the pitch you're able to do something with. I want him to have a good two-strike approach. Stay inside the baseball, go the other way, be a good situational hitter. He's shown that. He just has to get better."

Some project Castro as a Miguel Tejada-type hitter. Almost everyone believes he'll add power as he gets older and stronger. Jaramillo scales back the long-ball aspect to focus on a player who'd more emulate Tony Gwynn.

"He should be able to be a guy who scores a lot of runs, drives in a lot of runs and has a pretty good slugging percentage," he said.  "I want him to have a good on-base percentage. I want him to run a little more, steal some bases and be a threat so the hitter can get a better pitch. That (.380 on-base percentage) would be great. Hopefully he'll get to that point because he's so aggressive."

"One knack he has is fouling off two-strike pitches. You can't teach that. I just want him to stay level-headed."

Waiting for Castro in 2011 is the proverbial sophomore jinx, a barrier he will have to overcome.

"Next year will be a challenge for him," Jaramillo said. "Your sophomore year is always a challenge. They have a good grasp of what your weaknesses are and what your strengths are. It kind of goes back and forth. He's come out on top so far, so that's a great plus for him."

The most revealing factor of Castro's personality is his willingness to learn quickly, to improve as fast as humanly possible. Some aspects of his game will be trailing factors, like his tag plays at second. But the kid's desire to master English as fast as possible, to throw off the shackles of an interpreter in media interviews, is an indication the motivation to improve is embedded in his very being.

"If you learn it in a couple of years, you'll be OK," Jaramillo said. "He's speaking English all the time to everybody. He's done it real well. He has the confidence, I'm here in the United States, I'm comfortable and I'm playing baseball."

Now I know what watching Ernie Banks back in the early 1950's, as he established himself as a star, was like. The team stinks, but the individual player is worth following. The only hope is that enough of Castro's desire rubs off on his laggard teammates.