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A brief history of Anthony Rizzo's magical leadoff run

WASHINGTON -- If this is the end of Anthony Rizzo’s incredible run as the Chicago Cubs’ leadoff man, it will go down as a moment in team history that won’t soon be forgotten.

But the legend of the self-proclaimed greatest leadoff hitter of all time started with a murky beginning.

Rizzo says he has joked about leading off for several years, and manager Joe Maddon accommodated him during some spring training split-squad games.

There was even a moment in Colorado, this May, when Maddon said he considered writing Rizzo’s name into the No. 1 spot on his lineup card -- but instead gave Rizzo the day off during a hectic stretch of games and travel.

Finally, on June 13, under the bright lights in New York City, the Cubs’ one-week answer to Rickey Henderson stepped into the batter’s box. Rizzo showed up at the plate ready to give the Cubs a boost with no regard to the traditional definition of a leadoff man.

Maddon said Rizzo is not impacted by leading off.

“He kind of has fun with it,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t look at it in any other way than ‘it’s fun.’”

The fun began at Citi Field, where Rizzo took the second pitch he saw as a leadoff man deep for a home run -- and if you were around Rizzo before the game, you would have known it was coming.

Kris Bryant: “In the [batting] cage, he was like, ‘I’m going to hit a homer first pitch.’ Calling his shot, basically. It wasn’t a first pitch, but it was still pretty impressive.”

There's even visual proof of the called shot, if you know who to ask. Every morning, first base coach Brandon Hyde texts the lineup to the entire team, and according to catcher Miguel Montero, Rizzo quickly texted back to the group, "1-0 guys," when he saw he was leading off.

Montero: "I told him I'm going to take a picture of that text because no one will believe me. He said it, and then he did it."

Rizzo’s blast paved the way for a much-needed offensive explosion. The Cubs won 14-3 -- but after that first game, Maddon told people to temper their expectations. Little did he know Rizzo’s game-opening magic was just getting started.

Maddon: “We did a nice job tonight. Rizzo did a nice job of kick-starting us.”

He would continue to be that engine while keeping it loose in the clubhouse.

Game 2 of the Rizzo leadoff experience featured a home run on the first pitch … and Rizzo announcing his place in history.

Rizzo: “I’m statistically the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, to lead a game off. I’d like to retire right there.”

Maddon: “It’s kind of what I thought would happen with [Kyle] Schwarber [leading off]. Just take that name and cross it out and put Rizzo. It’s the same thing.”

In Game 3 of his leadoff experience, Rizzo magic hit another gear -- only to have it taken away. Rizzo rounded the bases after what appeared to be his third straight home run to start a game, this time in Pittsburgh, only to see the umpires rule after the fact that the ball went foul. Rizzo was furious. Maddon got kicked out. But the first at-bat streak didn’t completely die. Rizzo walked.

Closer Wade Davis: “Good thing he can walk because he’s not going to be beating out any infield singles.”

No, Rizzo probably isn’t going to sit down to discuss the finer points of legging out a single or swiping a bag with Billy Hamilton or Trea Turner at the next leadoff hitter convention. But when he opened his next game with a single, there was no denying that the streak was gaining steam. Two home runs, a walk and a single. Teammates were perking up.

Reliever Pedro Strop: “I say leave him, don’t touch him, leave him there. ... He’s so good. He can take a pitch or drive it out. He can do it all.”

There was no turning back now. Rizzo’s smile after each first plate appearance told it all. He was loving it -- and so were his teammates. When he doubled on the first pitch he saw in Game 5, the dugout went nuts.

Catching coach Mike Borzello: “He asked if I had seen anything like this and I said, ‘Maybe Brady Anderson.’ I remember he was the first guy we would throw first pitch spin [off-speed] to, instead of throwing just a fastball.

“Rizzo is the type of guy that steps up for all types of spots he’s put in and I thought, ‘Eh, that’s a pretty good idea.’”

More than just a “good idea,” Rizzo’s first at-bat was becoming a must-watch event by the time the leadoff show hit Wrigley Field. He was 5-for-5 starting off games on the road, but now a new wrinkle emerged.

Would having to play in the field before his first at-bat slow Chicago’s new No. 1 hitter? Not a chance. Rizzo pulled a fast one on the San Diego Padres, bunting for a hit.

The next night, he went back to the power stroke with another leadoff home run, putting an exclamation mark on what would end as a seven-game streak of getting on base to start the game -- one that featured three leadoff long balls, and another denied only by replay.

Borzello: “I don’t think anywhere in the order would alter Rizzo’s at-bat. An AB is an AB with him. Most players when they’re shifted in the order they feel like there’s different responsibilities depending on where they’re hitting. Not Rizzo.”

And Rizzo's first at-bat magic wasn’t the only spark he provided the team. In the series against the Padres, he ignited the Cubs with a collision at the plate that brought back memories of the days when Pete Rose was batting leadoff for The Big Red Machine.

Davis: “That's Rizz.”

And the opposition was taking notice of “Rizz” as the team hit the road for Miami.

Marlins third-base coach Fredi Gonazalez: “I’m turning. I’m changing my mind. Why not? He’s got a great on-base percentage. And he’s hot there.”

But Rizzo’s leadoff flame didn’t stay hot much longer. After a four-game stretch without reaching base to start things off, Rizzo passed the torch to another non-typical leadoff hitter in Willson Contreras on Monday night in Washington. And what did Contreras do in his first at-bat in the spot? He hit a home run, of course.

But if the catcher falters in the role, No. 44 is only a spot away from again attempting to channel the feel-good first at-bats of the once-greatest leadoff hitter who ever lived.

"He'll be back," Maddon smiled and said when asked of Rizzo's future at the top of the order.