3/15/2014 4:04 P.M. ET
Rizzo unleashes power stroke, drives in three
By Carrie Muskat and AJ Cassavell / MLB.com
LAS VEGAS -- The Cubs' trip to Las Vegas gives the team more than a chance to see David Copperfield, which manager Rick Renteria did Friday night. It's a chance to bond, and for Anthony Rizzo, a chance to finally get to run the bases.
The first baseman belted two home runs, his first of Spring Training, in a 9-4 split-squad loss Saturday against the Mets at Cashman Field. Rizzo is batting .417 (10-for-24), but said he wasn't worried about the lack of power.
"It doesn't matter," he said of the lack of homers. "It's nice to connect with one and run around the bases, and feel what that feels like again. I've just been pleased the last week or so with the progression at the plate and my approach. It's been a good progression and where I want to be at this time."
Rizzo didn't hit any home runs in Cactus League games last spring, but did connect for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic last March. He finished the regular season with 23, but batted .233 in his first full season. Now, he has a new hitting coach in Bill Mueller, who hasn't asked Rizzo to make any mechanical tweaks to his swing.
"He's just really positive, so that's good," Rizzo said of Mueller. "He's played, he's hit really well before. It's just working and being on time and being in good position, and that's where I am right now."
Cubs managers in the past usually give some players a choice as to whether they want to make the trip to Vegas.
"This year I did," said Rizzo, who admitted he didn't want to come last year. "We have a lot of new guys, and this is where I see teammates become friends. A trip like this, it's nice to get on the plane, feel like you're in the big leagues again and break up the monotony over there."
He wouldn't mind a few more games at Cashman Field.
"I wish every league was like this park," said Rizzo, who made the ballpark look small.
Samardzija finds trouble up in the zone
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Cubs named Jeff Samardzija their Opening Day starter on Friday, and they're going to want a better start to their season than the one Samardzija provided Saturday against the Royals.
On the third pitch of the game, the right-hander surrendered a monster home run to Jarrod Dyson. He also gave up a two-run shot in the third inning and labored over 3 2/3 frames, allowing four runs on seven hits and three walks.
There wasn't anything baffling about Samardzija's struggles. He simply left his fastball up at a few key moments and paid the price.
"I felt good, but the ball was up in the zone though," Samardzija said. "I was kind of battling with it the whole day. When you're locating pitches but they're putting good wood on it, usually it's because it's up in the zone.
"A couple of those jam-shot hits that fall in -- they're up in the zone. If you get those down, they turn into ground balls or strikeouts."
Samardzija is slated for two more starts before he opens the season against the Pirates on March 31 at PNC Park. He threw 87 pitches -- 49 strikes -- on Saturday, and he wants to add to that number in his next start, before fine-tuning in his final Cactus League outing.
"The further on in Spring Training you get, the more game-like it becomes," said Samardzija, who now owns a 6.39 ERA in the Cactus League. "Guys start staying in for three or four at-bats. It becomes a little bit more realistic. It becomes a little less about getting your work in and a little more about actually competing and setting up hitters."
Though his numbers weren't great and his pitch count was high, there was one major positive for Samardzija: his third-inning battle with Mike Moustakas.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Samardzija went 2-0 on Moustakas, before fooling him with a pair of offspeed pitches. He then ran the count full and got Moustakas to fly lazily to center on a splitter.
"There's moments in the games when you're in those spots and you really need to hunker down and make a good pitch," Samardzija said. "I thought we did that today."
Trip to Vegas gives Bryant chance to go home
LAS VEGAS -- Kris Bryant was a tourist in his hometown Friday night.
Bryant is on the Cubs' roster for games against the Mets at Cashman Field, and he took advantage of the Cubs staying at a luxury hotel.
"I was a tourist for one night, I guess," he said.
Bryant remembers coming to the games as a kid, and watching the kids, including Josh Vitters, who was the Cubs' first-round pick in 2007 and his teammate in big league camp.
"I remember I came here my junior year in high school after Josh Vitters got drafted, and I remember seeing him," Bryant said. "I got to meet him in big league camp. It was pretty cool."
Bryant, though, was assigned to Minor League camp last week, although he's only played one game there.
"I definitely need to get some at-bats and get going for the season and get comfortable out there," he said. "It definitely wasn't a surprise to me [to be sent to the Minors]. I'm really thankful for the opportunity to be invited to big league camp. Not many people can say that."
Bryant entered Saturday's game defensively in the eighth at third, and did not get an at-bat. The second overall pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft, he has impressed Cubs manager Rick Renteria.
"He's a very poised young man who's shown some tremendous power to the opposite side," Renteria said. "He's been working real well defensively at third base, moving his feet better, staying under the ball. He's a very tall young man, so getting under the ball is important for him. He's a very confident young man."
A Las Vegas reporter asked Renteria if he needed to keep Bryant grounded.
"He's pretty grounded," Renteria said. "I don't think I have to do a whole lot."
The Cubs have yet to announce where Bryant will open the season. He isn't too worried.
"I don't think it matters where you start, just as long as you focus -- you're not playing against the team, you're playing against the ball," Bryant said. "As long as you're focusing on getting better and not letting outside distractions affect you, I think things usually turn out well."
One of those distractions could be when Bryant's service time starts. He's not thinking about that.
"It's just a big distraction to me," Bryant said. "If I was focused on the certain dates of the whole business side of things, I think I'd lose a little focus on the field. That's not what I want -- I want to be the best I can on the field and let everyone else take care of the other stuff."
He's talked to his agent a little about the topic.
"I got a little understanding of it, but I want to be a little naive, too," he said. "If I keep thinking about it, it'll be a little distracting. Talking to the guys up here who have been through that, it'll definitely help me learn what kind of things to avoid. Hopefully, when I get the call, things will go smoothly from there."
He got tickets for 10 friends for Saturday's game. His father, Mike, expected about 200 friends and family at Cashman Field. Bryant may be the hometown boy, but he had to share a locker with Tony Zych.
"I have to work my way up," Bryant said. "I haven't earned anything yet. I'm totally fine with that."
Baez to get game action at second base
LAS VEGAS -- Top prospect Javier Baez started at shortstop on Saturday against the Mets, but he's expected to move to second base either Monday or Tuesday, Cubs manager Rick Renteria said, to get some experience there.
"His work has been real good over [at second]," Renteria said. "He played a little bit [there] in high school, from what I understand. I think getting to that side won't be a problem. Guys come after you, and you have to make sure you can maneuver around the bag."
Baez, who began the day tied with Mike Olt for the team lead with three home runs this spring, looks as if he might physically be better suited for third than second.
"I don't look at the physical type, I look at the actions -- the footwork, the arm action, the glove handling," Renteria said. "Those dictate more to me than the body type what a guy can and can't do. He's an infielder, and he probably can do any number of positions out there."
The Cubs have said Baez will play shortstop at Triple-A Iowa, and whether he'll move there is "to be determined," Renteria said.
• Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who has been slowed this spring with tightness in his right shoulder, will throw a simulated game on Sunday.
Arrieta was projected for the rotation, but the Cubs also have Chris Rusin, Carlos Villanueva and James McDonald as options.
Reliever James Russell, sidelined early this spring with a tired left arm, is scheduled to get in a Cactus League game on Sunday as well, his second appearance. Russell pitched one inning in relief on Wednesday, and gave up one hit, a home run.
• Renteria took advantage of a night in Las Vegas and went with his wife, daughter and one of his sons to see magician David Copperfield on Friday night. The show often includes members of the audience, but Renteria wasn't picked.
"It was pretty cool," Renteria said.
• The Cubs assigned right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks to Minor League camp on Saturday, reducing the roster to 53. Hendricks, the Cubs' 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, appeared in three games, giving up three runs on five hits over eight innings.
• Right fielder Brett Jackson broke out of his Cactus League slump in style on Saturday, homering and driving in five runs, including the game-tying and go-ahead runs in the ninth on a sharp hit up the middle. Jackson had been 1-for-9 this spring with the lone hit being a single. He had walked four times, but hadn't made much of an impact until his 2-for-4 performance in Saturday's 6-5 comeback victory over the Royals.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.