'Every day is Opening Day': Can the Cubs feed off the hunger of Nicholas Castellanos?

PHILADELPHIA -- He used to win a lot. As a sophomore in high school and again as a senior -- for two different schools -- new Chicago Cubs star Nicholas Castellanos led his teams to state championships. But trophies have been hard to come by since those days, and after years of losing in Detroit, a midseason trade to the Cubs has energized him and his new team.

"After losing 250 games in 2.5 years, to come over here and have the opportunity to win a division and go to the playoffs, that's not something I take lightly at all," Castellanos said recently. "Every day is Opening Day. If they call that hunger, so be it."

"Hungry" has been the word most associated with Castellanos since the trade deadline deal that brought him to Chicago. He has quickly become a fan favorite, playing with energy and abandon that remind people of another favorite, Javier Baez. On more than one occasion, both his manager and his manager's boss, Theo Epstein, have said as much: Castellanos is what hungry looks like on the field.

"The way he plays the game, the way he enjoys it, definitely reminds me of Javy," infielder/outfielder Ian Happ said. "He hasn't won in a few years, so I completely understand that. What I see is just the joy of the game. Playing like a little kid. Enjoying a new team. That's what it looks like."

Playing with some hunger is one thing, and backing it up with numbers is another. Castellanos is doing that as well, having compiled a record 10 extra-base hits in his first nine games with his new team. He homered for the fifth time as a Cub on Tuesday in his team's 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. Overall, he's slashing .380/.415/.800 for the Cubs. His new teammates love him, but that "hungry" label has become a bit of a sore spot to some.

"When I hear that, I throw that out the window," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "We're all hungry in here. His appreciation of coming from a last-place team to a first-place team is how I look at it. He's very appreciative of this, but as far as hunger? We're all hungry in here. When I read that, it's not necessarily that I love seeing, 'Oh, he's hungry,' because we all are."

For what it's worth, manager Joe Maddon made it clear that he wasn't indicting the rest of his players by praising Castellanos -- at least not completely. Maddon was asked if new hunger is needed on his team.

"Is it needed?" Maddon said, considering the question. "That's a tough one to answer. All I can tell you is I see hunger in him, and I think the players recognize that.

"When your team has gone to the playoffs four years in a row and the NLCS three (times), almost three consecutive World Series (appearances), it's hard to accuse them of lacking hunger. What I have seen this year is teams have caught up. It's not the same sashay we've had to get there. It's tougher. Other teams have gotten better. We have a pretty big target working on us right now, so when you get a guy like Nicholas coming in right now, he's demonstrating, 'I have not done this in a while, and I want to.' Maybe it is a reminder. It serves as a reminder, but I would never accuse my guys of not being hungry, motivated or whatever."

Asked how he interprets the "hungry" comments, Castellanos paused for a moment.

"I appreciate their comments because I love winning," he said. "I also take pride in going about my business and busting ass every day."

Unlike the Cubs over the past four years, Castellanos and the Tigers have missed the postseason by a wide margin. He tasted it as a rookie in 2014, when Detroit won the AL Central, but since then, Castellanos has been home for October. He has hated it.

"We lost, and I figured we'll be back next year because I didn't t know any better," Castellanos said. "I haven't sniffed the playoffs since. You get a taste of it, and you want it again. It's like high school baseball.

"That's the kind of baseball I love playing. That's where I think I thrive the best. I guess being on a losing team, what it taught me, was just to keep my head down, not get sucked into the atmosphere and do the best you can."

Now his baseball days have meaning again -- much more than the individual numbers and the free-agent contract awaiting him after the season. Maddon has him batting second. It's where he had the most success this season in Detroit, and it's where he has continued to thrive for the Cubs.

"He has a great understanding of what he's doing at the plate," Rizzo said. "It's good for us to have that at-bat every night."

And that hunger. All conversations about Castellanos lead back to that.

"Sometimes it's good to bring in some veteran players like that," Maddon said, referencing the likes of David Ross and John Lackey. "After all, that was part of our sustainability a couple years ago."

In other words, new blood isn't a bad thing. If the Cubs fail to achieve their goals this season, this is the kind of move the front office will continue to make to shake things up. Perhaps more players with fewer postseason appearances will be in order.

But first things first: Can Castellanos rub off on his current teammates? Will he help inspire them to greatness once again? If his attitude is any indication, the Cubs might be OK.

"There's definitely added energy just because we're in first in the division, and we're playing for something," Castellanos said.

The new Cub is having such a good time, it has been hard for him to put it into words. The Wrigley Field faithful have showered him with love so far. After each big hit, he was asked what this newfound attention is like.

"Incredible," he answered. "The more I talk about it is going to do it injustice, so I'm just going to leave it at 'incredible.'"