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Key to Castro's rebound? Play, don't think

CINCINNATI -- It's only been a month, but what a month it's been for Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. With his critics lining up after a down season in 2013, Castro has shown the baseball world he can still play the game at a high level.

That wasn't the case last season, when he batted .245 with just 10 home runs and 129 strikeouts to go along with average play on defense.

So what has been the difference?

"My mind," Castro, 24, said Tuesday. "I don't even think about things. I just play. Sometimes last year I think too much at the plate."

Castro, who at 21 was the youngest player to lead the National League in hits with 207 in 2011, has all the natural talent, but that can also be a gift, first-year hitting coach Bill Mueller said.

"He's so gifted with squaring the ball up, he sometimes expands the zone," Mueller said. "It's a gift, but it can be a curse too. To this point he's done a fabulous job, getting some timely hits and moving the ball around."

Castro is batting .290 with four home runs and 13 RBIs heading into the final game of the month on Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds. He has walked just four times, so maybe he does expand the zone sometimes, but that's just who he is. The Cubs have learned to live with it, considering he can do so much more when he's just being himself.

His home run percentage is at a career high of 3.9 percent, and his strikeout percentage is at its lowest, 12.5 percent (the league average is 20.8 percent). Castro's progress might be even greater if he didn't miss most of the spring with a hamstring injury.

"The first five games, I was a little bit off at times," Castro said. "I tried to swing, swing, swing and get my feeling again."

He got it quickly after that first week, and he really hasn't slowed down. Maybe the best stat of all is his 28.7 line-drive percentage, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The league average is 21 percent. And he's putting balls in play at a rate of 50 percent. That's a career high as well.

He's simply hitting more balls hard than ever before, and he's hitting them more often. More hard hit balls hit over the course of the season is going to mean more hits and, more than likely, more home runs. He was below league average in those categories over the past two seasons.

There's still plenty of work to be done, but Castro needed a good first month. He heard the criticism from fans and media, although he tried to ignore it.

"I never really cared about that," Castro said. "I tried to help my team win. I do my thing."

The Cubs aren't winning just yet, but a return to All-Star form for Castro will help them in that department. Let's face it, until further notice, he's still the face of the rebuilding project due to the position he plays, his age and his past success.

"In general, his overall game has gotten better," manager Rick Renteria said. "Little more consistent. Defensively, he's made some very nice plays."

Castro summed his game up in one phrase: "Just trying to be on time with everything."

That's offense and defense. He's recognizing mistake pitches and timing them up while also understanding better who's on the base paths and when he needs to speed up or slow down his defensive game.

But it's that natural ability at the plate that's impressing people in baseball.

"Whether it's a mistake or not, he has that great ability when it's in that zone to move it around the yard," Mueller said. "He's got some special hands. There is a reason why he's been so successful in the past."

No one wants to forget the most recent past more than Castro. Last season was a combination of several things taking him off course. The Cubs wanted more power out of him and for him to be more selective at the plate. They've abandoned trying to change him.

In hindsight, he and former manager Dale Sveum didn't see eye-to-eye, although there was never any open animosity. Maybe Sveum just didn't know what buttons to push. Now Renteria is reaping the rewards.

"He talks to me a lot," Castro said. "We have a good relationship. He says a lot of positive things. Not just to me, but to everybody."

One month doesn't make a season, but sometimes a strong April is all that is needed to move on. Castro is in the midst of doing just that.

"I love to play this game," he said. "Now we just have to start winning."