Anthony Rizzo comes up clutch

There are Chicago Cubs fans who simply are going to believe first baseman Anthony Rizzo is having a bad season. It’s understandable because that’s the perception he radiates. But in this case perception is simply not reality.

Rizzo hit his 22nd home run and notched his 75th RBI, to go along with 72 walks, in the Cubs' 5-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday night. His was the key hit in the win, a mammoth shot out to right in the seventh inning.

“It’s huge for him and hopefully it carries the last couple of weeks here,” manager Dale Sveum told reporters after the game.

Those are decent numbers with two weeks left in the season despite Rizzo hitting only .230 at this point in the year. But those numbers have been achieved very quietly to an extent. Consider this: Seventeen of his home runs have come in innings 1-6, and just one -- on Friday night -- has come late, in a close game to help the Cubs to victory. Rizzo has been extremely quiet when Chicago has needed him most, so it’s hard not to think poorly of his season. Maybe Friday night will help change that perception.

But you can’t take those other home runs or RBIs away from him, even if they are achieved earlier in the game or when the Cubs are leading. Everyone wants the clutch hit, but if more guys were driving in runs like Rizzo is, overall, then Chicago might need fewer clutch ones late in games.

Having said that, a few more clutch hits can only help him within the fan base. Rizzo and Starlin Castro have by far the most at-bats on the team, yet Rizzo ranks fourth in runs driven in when the Cubs are trailing in games. Light-hitting Darwin Barney ranks ahead of him in those situations, as does the long-departed Alfonso Soriano.

It simply hasn’t been a clutch year for Rizzo, and those are the moments fans remember most. The good news is that can change as soon as next season. Unless Rizzo simply can’t handle the pressure of a close game, if he continues to hit and hit for power, the big ones will come. They’ll come when the Cubs get better hitters around him, but they’ll especially come with more experience. And, yes, he needs to raise his average.

“He threw me a slider,” Rizzo said of his Friday home run. “He’s [Jason Grilli] an All-Star closer coming in the seventh for this team. Says a lot about this team. Just put a good swing on it.”

And he put a good swing on two other balls on Friday as well -- one resulted in a hit, the other an out.

“Hopefully that confidence builds,” Sveum said.

Hitting a game-winning home run can do nothing but help his confidence. He had a couple last season when he came up to the big leagues, so there is no reason not to believe Rizzo will find his “clutch groove” soon enough.

For now he’ll have to “settle” for a potential 25-home run, 80-RBI season. It might not be what everyone expected -- no one is calling it a great year -- but that doesn’t mean the perception of a poor season is correct.