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The Cubs' rapid ascent to a championship contender has been spurred by no shortage of new, exciting players, but it's a familiar face that has been one of the most valuable to the team's postseason aspirations of late.
Starlin Castro, once buried by fans and, briefly, Cubs manager Joe Maddon, homered twice as the Cubs downed the division-leading Cardinals 8-3 on Friday. Castro finished 3-for-3 with six RBI and two runs scored to help the Cubs pull to within one game of the Pirates for the Wild Card lead and within six games of the Cards for the division title.
And although Castro is a grizzled veteran of the up-and-coming group, the 25-year-old experienced a first for himself on Friday -- a Wrigley Field curtain call.
"That's the biggest thing today," Castro said. "I have like six years here, and that never happened. That's my first time and I enjoyed it so much."
It's a far cry from where Castro was a little over a month ago. With Addison Russell in the majors and Chris Coghlan presenting a better offensive option than Castro at the time, Castro went unused in three straight games from August 7-9.
Whether by coincidence or as a result of the days off, Castro has been on fire since that hiatus. After Friday's game, the infielder is batting .356 with five homers, 14 RBI and 14 runs scored, and he has regained his spot in the starting lineup.
With days like Friday, he's not likely to see another three-day layoff anytime soon.
"This guy has not complained, cried, nothing," Maddon said. "He's just come out and gotten ready to play. When he doesn't play, he stays ready to play in the game. I've been nothing but impressed the whole time.
"It's a credit to him as a person, the fact that here's a guy who has been on the All-Star team a couple times, and he's been relegated to a different role and eventually does this in a very important game. Give him a lot of credit, not just a little."
Hamilton Heads for MRI
A lingering shoulder injury could spell trouble for Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton hasn't started since Monday after exiting with a sore right shoulder, and the speedy outfielder has been sent back to Cincinnati for tests on the shoulder.
"He's having an MRI on his shoulder so we can verify that there haven't been any significant medical issues with the shoulder that should keep him off the field," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "Right now we're utilizing him as a pinch-runner and pinch-runner only, but we'd like to know if there's a chance to get back on the field as a position player."
Hamilton originally hurt the shoulder on August 18, landing on the disabled list a day later with a sprained capsule in his shoulder. He was activated last week and played in six games before aggravating the injury.
Even without being able to start, the Reds made use of the 25-year-old's legs on Wednesday, using him as a pinch-runner in a loss to the Giants. Hamilton stole his league-leading 57th base in the contest.
A team in contention may think about utilizing Hamilton in a similar manner for the rest of the year regardless of the MRI's results, but the Reds should focus on 2016. If the test shows anything more than inflammation, we may have seen the last of Hamilton this year.
Stroman Is Strong Again
Marcus Stroman wasn't supposed to be pitching in 2015, let alone pitching this well.
Stroman won his second consecutive start Friday -- the second he's made since returning from ACL surgery in March -- allowing a lone run over seven innings against the Red Sox. Stroman scattered six hits and a walk while striking out three in the outing.
Stroman's season debut came on the road against the Yankees, so Friday's start marked the first home start for the right-hander in nearly a year. Win or lose, Stroman said the reception from the home fans was appreciated.
"I love pitching here. I love pitching at the Rogers Centre. I feel great when I'm out there," Stroman said.
And the Jays love having him back. Stroman is now 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.08 WHIP through two starts since being activated, and he's received 16 runs of support in his two starts. Stroman's 2015 season may have largely been a lost year, but the 24-year-old is already looking like a pitcher to target next year.
National League Quick Hits: Despite Matt Holliday (quad) being activated from the disabled list, the outfielder said Thursday that there are "hurdles to clear" before he returns to the field. Holliday is able to bat, though, appearing as a pinch-hitter in both Thursday and Friday's games ... Yoenis Cespedes said Friday that he will be looking for a contract of at least six years when he becomes a free agent this winter. Cespedes has done everything in his power to earn such a commitment, batting .294/.330/.555 with 35 homers and 103 RBI between the Tigers and Mets this year ... Joey Votto had his suspension reduced from two games to one, and he served the suspension Friday. Votto was reprimanded for his actions following an ejection last week ... The Dodgers activated Howie Kendrick (hamstring) from the 15-day disabled list Friday. The second baseman, who didn't play in Friday's game, was out since mid-August with a strained hamstring. Assuming health, he should supplant Chase Utley at the keystone in short order ... After some deliberation, the Phillies are not expected to shut down 2014 first-round pick Aaron Nola. Nola has thrown 175 innings between the minors and majors this season, and while he might eclipse the 180-190 inning limit the club originally envisioned for him, interim general manager Pete Mackanin said Nola is more likely to finish the season in the rotation than on the sidelines ... Carlos Gonzalez (foot) returned to the Rockies' lineup Friday after missing Wednesday's game. CarGo went 0-for-4 in his return to the lineup ... Making his first major league start, Brandon Finnegan held the Brewers to one run over five innings to earn the win. Finnegan should get plenty more starts and wins in his Reds career.
American League Quick Hits: Desmond Jennings (knee) said Friday that his season is likely over after he recently required oral surgery to address an infected tooth. Jennings dealt with multiple injuries en route to a disappointing .268/.324/.340 line in just 28 games this year ... Carlos Gomez (intercostal) missed another game Friday. He's making progress in a return from the muscle strain, but until he can swing a bat he'll remain sidelined ... Chris Sale's struggles continued Friday, as the southpaw allowed seven runs -- although just one earned, technically -- over seven innings of work in a loss to the Indians. None of the Indians' six runs in the third inning counted against Sale, but Carlos Santana's grand slam certainly showed up in the box score. Sale has now allowed 20 runs in 23 innings thus far this month ... Steve Pearce homered twice but it wasn't enough Friday as the O's fell to the Rays.