PITTSBURGH -- Neither Starlin Castro nor Anthony Rizzo has the batting average he'd like, but Cubs hitting coach James Rowson has seen progress from both young players this year.
"A guy like Rizzo, this is his first full season, and he's shown he can put up power numbers," Rowson said Sunday of the first baseman who has 22 home runs, "but he's also going through a league where he's seeing these guys on a consistent basis for the first time.
"You look at some of the more experienced players in this league, players who have dominated, and they've had 30, 35, 40 at-bats against the same guys," Rowson said. "As you start learning how you're being pitched and seeing the same guys, we expect more progress there. For his first full season in the big leagues, I think he's done a nice job overall."
Castro has had plenty of peaks and valleys this season, hitting .167 in June, .292 in July, then .218 in August.
"As far as Starlin goes, we've gone through a few phases with him," Rowson said. "It's tough, and it was tough early on. He's shown some good signs of late. I think he learned a lot about himself. He had to go through some tough situations for him, but we've accomplished some things."
Rowson said Castro is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, and that's helped him be more selective.
"He's laid off some tough pitches that he would swing at, but at the same time he's now starting to combine the two," Rowson said of the shortstop. "He's starting to use his hand-eye coordination and is able to lay off some tough pitches and get to the next fastball. At the end of the day, that's what we want -- we want him to hit, we don't want him to walk.
"But we want him to lay off one or two tough pitches and get a better pitch to drive. I see progress. It's not consistent every day, but there is progress."
It's hard to remember Castro is just 23. Rowson said he's told the shortstop to be himself. Castro has hit safely in his last five games, and from Aug. 23-Sept. 6, he batted .304.
"I always tell him, 'You're a man, not a machine,'" Rowson said of his message. "'Be yourself, go out there and play the game like you play, and we'll discuss it the next day. Don't let it beat yourself up that game or wear on you. You're going to make mistakes, but be comfortable in your own skin, and we'll talk about it tomorrow.'"
Man with plan: Sveum takes stock of season
PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs have two weeks left in the season. In manager Dale Sveum's first year, the focus was on introducing the "Cubs Way." Has Sveum accomplished what he wanted in Year 2?
"I think so," Sveum said Sunday. "The wins and losses are one thing. Guys are doing things, playing hard, constantly preparing, buying into some systems."
Part of that adjustment involves pitchers sticking to the game plan established prior to the game and trusting catcher Welington Castillo, Sveum said.
"It's taken a little while, and it's going to take another Spring Training to get the pitchers to understand what 'Welly' does behind the plate and the studying and the game plans," Sveum said. "When we've stuck to game plans, we've done well, and when we shy away from them, we've given up big hits in games. It's gotten better."
The player who has benefited from doing his homework is All-Star Travis Wood, who leads the team with 22 quality starts and faced the Pirates on Sunday. Sveum said Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm also bought into what they were trying to do and had success. To simplify the plan, the focus is pitching to a hitter's weakness and staying away from his strengths.
"It's making that quality pitch when you have to make it and putting guys away with two strikes, like we talk about a lot," Sveum said. "Guys like Jeff [Samardzija] get to two strikes and have trouble putting them away. When you have stuff like that, you need to put them away quickly and not let the at-bat get away from them. We have to pitch to guys' weaknesses and stay in that weakness area."
• James Russell is tied for first for the most appearances in the Major Leagues by a reliever, pitching in 73 games this season. On Saturday, he served up a game-winning home run to the Pirates' Marlon Byrd, and has given up four hits and two walks over three innings in his last four games.
"The ball's up," Sveum said of the lefty. "Even the out he got on [Pedro] Alvarez [on Saturday], every pitch he threw was up in the strike zone. It's a matter of keeping the ball down. He's having a real difficult time getting the ball down."
Could Russell be tired?
"For whatever reason, mechanical or tired or whatever -- he's had quite a bit of rest the last few weeks," Sveum said. "We've tried not to use him unless we're tied or teams we're playing are in the pennant race to give him a break. He has thrown a lot of pitches and innings the last couple years, but he says he feels as good as he ever has."
Russell is the fifth Cubs lefty to record multiple 70-game seasons for the team, and first since Sean Marshall did so in 2010-11.
• Scott Baker will get one more start on Friday at Wrigley Field when the Cubs play the Braves, and then the right-hander will be shut down. Sveum said there has been no talk about having Baker make another start.
In two starts, Baker, coming back from Tommy John surgery in April 2012, has given up one run on five hits and one walk over 11 innings.
• The Cubs played the Pirates on Opening Day, but Chicago's roster in this four-game series has undergone several changes. Only 12 of the 25 players on the Cubs' Opening Day roster are still with the team. The 13 players no longer present have either been traded, outrighted off the 40-man roster, or granted their unconditional release.
Nate Schierholtz is the lone outfielder remaining from Opening Day, and Russell and Hector Rondon are the only remaining relievers.
Overall, 33 players have made their debut for the Cubs this season, a franchise record that tops the 30 who did so in 1902.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.