So far this season, the Cubs' starting rotation has been the backbone of the team's ability to hover just above the .500 mark -- the starters going 11-7, with a passable 4.35 ERA and 21 starts of at least 6 innings out of 27 games.
All of which makes this five-game mini road trip potentially telling for the rest of the first half of the season.
With Carlos Zambrano on the DL because of a hamstring injury, Randy Wells (zero major league starts, 5 1/3 major-league innings) starts in his place Friday against the potent lineup of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Also starting in that series are Ryan Dempster, who came within a Reed Johnson slam-robbing catch of getting clobbered there a month ago, and lefty Sean Marshall, who has not fared well against the Brewers in his young career.
Even Ted Lilly, who starts Thursday in Houston, didn't look very good his first trip into Minute Maid Park, although he has pitched very well outside of that.
Bottom line is it's worth watching how the rotation fares this time through on this trip -- and it got off to a good start Wednesday night with Rich Harden's 7-plus innings.
A solid turn through this time around could be important for the still developing bullpen and could also take some pressure off a lineup that looks like it could be on the verge of full health if not its first sustained hitting spree. And with a potentially soft homestand looming, it could be a key to a big May.
On the other hand, a rough turn, particularly this weekend in Milwaukee could mean more stress for a twitchy bullpen and expose the lack of starting depth suggested when the Cubs dumped Jason Marquis without adding an experienced starter over the winter.
If Wells in particular struggles, it could force the Cubs to look for an alternative next time that spot comes up in the rotation. Mitch Atkins? Jeff Samardzija? Skip the spot twice in the next three rotations -- depending how long Zambrano is out.
The domino effect could go any number of directions, involving both the rotation and bullpen.
Piniella already tested the limits of his starting pitchers the past two games -- leaving Marshall in to pitch the eighth inning of a 3-2 game Tuesday before he put the first two batters on, and leaving Harden in to pitch the eighth Wednesday with a 6-1 lead that quickly became 6-3 with a single and homer.
``I think you learn as you go, too,'' Piniella said Wednesday night. ``I think we get seven innings, we're going to be pleased with it.''