December 9, 2022

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Rivas rises to occasion, delivers series win in homecoming

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SAN DIEGO — Stepping to the plate in the late innings with the bases loaded and the game in the balance is heady stuff for any young Major League player. Doing so in front of your friends and family in your hometown usually is enough to up the adrenaline.

“It’s just a calm approach. He’s just handling the moment well,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Rivas handled the moment perfectly Wednesday afternoon, delivering a tie-breaking single in the eighth inning to lift the Cubs to a 7-5 victory over the Padres at Petco Park.

Despite employing five pitchers on yet another “bullpen day” — their third in the past eight games — the Cubs snared a series victory. It was their first on the road this season and their first since the season-opening series against Milwaukee.

Rivas, the Cubs’ first baseman, spent part of his childhood in the figurative shadows of Petco Park, a short drive south on Interstate 5 in the suburb of Chula Vista, Calif., and part only a few miles farther south in Tijuana, Mexico.

Rivas not only delivered the game-winner Wednesday, but he homered on Tuesday with his parents and grandfather, also named Alfonso, in the stands.

“They don’t get to watch me play much in person,” Rivas said. “So having them in the stands, it’s awesome. It was a great experience.”

The game was tied, 5-5, when Rivas stepped in with the bases loaded and nobody out in the eighth inning. He took two splitters from right-hander Luis García for balls and then fouled off a 98 mph sinker. When García came back with that same pitch, Rivas drilled it up the middle at 102.8 mph exit velocity to give the Cubs the lead.

Rivas’ approach there? “Just stay calm, wait for your pitch, a pitch in your zone,” he said. “Don’t really freak out.”

Rivas, 25, has only 34 games of big league experience under his belt, but he certainly is earning a longer look. After starting only five games for the Cubs in April and spending a few days in Triple-A, he already has started six games this month.

He certainly has earned his teammates’ approval.

“He’s a great hitter, a great batter. From Day 1, I knew he was going to be something special,” said catcher Willson Contreras, who had a special series himself, going 7-for-10 in the three games, with a homer in the finale. “His approach is really good, his swing is really good and his strike zone is always the same. It’s really good.”

Rivas has never been a power hitter, despite that homer Tuesday, and he plays a power position. Which means he must maximize his strengths — a good glove and that offensive consistency. And clutch hitting helps.

“He’s got such a calm demeanor,” Ross said. “That’s why he looks so smooth at first and in the box. There’s not a lot to his swing. He just tries to put the barrel on the ball, and he’s done a nice job.”

Perhaps the only hint from Rivas that his winning hit came in a big moment was the slightest of fist-pumps upon reaching first base.

“I’m a very calm person, kind of reserved — stay on my own type of thing,” Rivas said. “As a person, I’m already like that. So I guess it just kind of carries over to playing.”

Nothing wrong with that. He provided the excitement in San Diego. He doesn’t have to show it.

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