The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

Tony Andracki

One of the most surreal moments of this crazy Cubs season has to be watching Anthony Rizzo scoot away from his locker Monday afternoon, unable to put any weight on his right ankle.

This is the face of the franchise, the guy who spoke to the millions in attendance at the post-World Series rally three falls ago. Rizzo is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways and has really only dealt with minor back injuries throughout his nine-year career.

Now, he's wearing a boot that makes him look more like Robocop and there's no guarantee Cubs fans will see him take the field again in 2019.

But that doesn't mean you should bet against him...

"In my career, I will definitely play another regular season game," Rizzo jokingly responded to a question from a reporter asking if he will suit up again in the final two weeks of this regular season. "My body usually responds well, so certainly not ruling it out. I have every intention of trying to do everything I can with the training staff to get back on the field with the boys.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series."

The results of Monday's MRI absolutely could've been worse, but the lateral sprain to Rizzo's right ankle will keep him in that boot for the next 5-7 days. After that point, he and the Cubs can determine how much movement and stress that joint can take or how much mobility he'll have.

With the Cubs fighting for their playoff lives over these next two weeks and knowing his gutsy nature, don't be shocked if Rizzo forces the issue and tries to make a return of some sort before October, even if it's just in a small pinch-hitting role.

"There's a minimum amount of time when you have to just prioritize healing and let the inflammation die down and let things heal for a little bit," Theo Epstein said. "And then once we get past that period of time, then we can see if there are ways to manage the discomfort and if there are ways through taping to create some stability that gives him at least a chance to consider contributing down the road if things go really well. 

"We're not shutting any doors, but we're realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal."

Would Epstein be surprised if Rizzo returned before the end of the regular season?

"I'm just comfortable saying that we're not ruling it out," Epstein said. "Shoot, I was there [in Boston] with Curt Schilling in the doctor's office trying to figure out how to staple his ankle ligament back to the bone so he can go out there and pitch. This is not an analogous situation, but I've learned never to rule anything out. 

"But also injuries like this, you just have to give requisite amount of time to let initial healing take place to even have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible."

Of course the Cubs are going to miss Rizzo while he's out. But they definitely seem to be in good spirits with the situation, all things considered.

There was Rizzo joking about how he wants to pimp out his scooter with a bicycle bell or maybe some streamers. 

There was Joe Maddon laughing about how he's thankful Rizzo can't move around too much in the dugout during games because of that scooter. The Cubs manager is already worried about finding a buffer once Rizzo is off the scooter and more mobile.

There was Jason Heyward joking about how restless Rizzo will be in the dugout, talking nonstop about "random shit" and how the Cubs players will enjoy ragging on Rizzo to keep things loose during this next week.

"[The scooter] is torture for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, we kinda love seeing him riding around. He's gonna make a bunch of jokes about it. We're gonna make a bunch of jokes about it and just have fun with it that way. That's all we can do."

Maddon believes Rizzo's injury can be a galvanizing moment for the club, rallying around the injured player much like the Brewers have done since Christian Yelich was ruled out for the season with a broken kneecap.

But the Javy Baez injury and subsequent news of his broken thumb didn't have that same effect on this Cubs team and there have been plenty of "turning points" and "seminal moments" that never materialized over the course of this roller coaster season.

"We don't need any extra rallying points," Heyward said. "We got enough of 'em and we have fun with that. He's gonna add to that. That's what he does when he isn't playing. He brings the rallying points, he brings the fun, he brings that competitiveness and just the randomness as well."

Everybody knows the Cubs can't replace all Rizzo does for the club, from his Gold Glove defense to his steadying presence in the lineup to his two-strike approach to his aggressiveness on bunts and turning double plays. 

Ian Happ took over at first base in Sunday's game when Rizzo left with the injury and Victor Caratini got the start there Monday night. Both guys figure to be in the mix moving forward, with Maddon also mentioning Jonathan Lucroy and Willson Contreras as potential options. 

At the moment, Maddon does not want to move Kris Bryant to play first because he likes what he's seeing from Bryant defensively at third base. Ben Zobrist is also not expected to be a part of the first-base mix.

Caratini will still catch Yu Darvish like usual, which includes Tuesday night's start against the Reds.

As for leadoff (where Rizzo had slotted in the last few games before his injury), Maddon will roll with Zobrist up there as often as he can down the stretch. But the 38-year-old veteran won't be able to play every day and Monday already represented his third straight start.

The Belichickian "next man up" principle applies here and the Cubs know they won't get any sympathy from around the rest of the league even as the injuries pile up.

"Just keep playing," Heyward said. "Keep going. Everybody just do your part. Don't try and do too much. Just be realistic. Play the game, let the game come to you and that's it. Nobody's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, they didn't make it because they didn't have so and so' or 'they made it 'cause they had so and so' or whatever at the end of the day. Especially our group right here. No one's gonna do that. Keep having fun, keep competing."

The Cubs' expectations for how the next two weeks go have not changed one bit, even with their two most important players potentially unable to suit up over these final 13 games. 

"If we play up to our capabilities, we can beat anybody," Epstein said. "It all starts over once you get into the postseason. We're looking forward to doing what we need to do to get in there. 

"We'll see what happens, but we're in a dogfight of a pennant race. One day at a time."

Heyward summed up the team's mindset simply:

"Either we make it where we want to get or we don't."

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago