Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

April 2011 Archives

Cubs' pen mightier than you might expect

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For all the wrong-way attention the Cubs' starting rotation has received recently, the leaned-on bullpen has held up especially well over the first month of the season.

Considering the Cubs top the majors in average bullpen innings per game (3 2/3), the pen's ability to hang in the upper half of the majors in performance might rank with the emergence of rookie Darwin Barney among early upset specials on the North Side this season.

Manager Mike Quade emphasized the work Justin Berg did Thursday night to preserve the bullpen arms by pitching 3 2/3 innings after relieving Ryan Dempster in the first inning - similar to the 3 1/3-inning job Jeff Stevens did six days earlier after Casey Coleman's short start.

Not that it's helping the Cubs win games at this point - with that much relief work being a pretty bad sign for a team's competitive pitching ability.

But how young guys in particular, such as Berg, Stevens, red-hot Jeff Samardzija and Marcos Mateo, have competed in middle-inning support of back-end veterans Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol could be important later in the season (or more likely beyond).

And then when the starting pitching does what it's supposed to - like Carlos Zambrano's strong six innings to get a lead to the late innings - the bullets figure to be there to finish strong.

Like Wood, Marshall and Marmol did with a scoreless inning each.

``Even when you get a mess like [Thursday] night, there's a silver lining when you get opportunities and you make the most of them,'' manager Mike Quade said. ``I think Samardzija in particular has done that very well the last few times out, and maybe been presented with more opportunities than we expected. ... He's come of age and done a nice job.''

After struggling the first week of the season, Samardzija has produced five straight scoreless appearances and has a streak of 10 straight scoreless innings going back to April 12 - lowering his season ERA to 2.93.

But he's not the only one helping pick up some of the starting slack.

Despite inconsistency early, Mateo has been leaned on for 14 appearances, tied for most in the league. John Grabow and Marshall have 13 each, and Marmol 12.

In all, the bullpen with the second-most innings pitched in the majors overall (89 1/3) has a 5-3 record and 3.32 ERA, along with 8.66 strikeouts per nine innings (second in majors).

In fact, the pen has a collective 1.38 ERA over its previous six games (26 innings)- a stretch that included four straight scoreless games.

And all this against a backdrop of Coleman and James Russell doing rotation fill-in work for injured starters Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner - their bullpen availability sometimes a daily decision.

In fact, Friday night, Coleman and Russell were both considered available - which delayed for another day Quade's decision on how he'll cover Sunday's and Monday's starts.

``The bullpen is exactly what we thought it would be and more right now,'' Quade said. ``Once we get the starting pitching straightened out, it should be a lot of fun to manage these guys because I'll have a ton of options.''

Baker bats third as Cubs try to avoid sweep today

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Looking for heat on a cold and rainy day, Mike Quade changed up his lineup again and plugged in one of his two hottest hitters, Jeff Baker, into the No. 3 hole against a pitcher who shut out the Cubs 12 days ago in Denver.

Baker's hitting .409, including 8-for-17 (.417) on the homestand. He didn't play April 15 against the Rockies when Jhoulys Chacin held the Cubs to six hits in his first career complete game.

``I probably don't [resort to the hot hand] that often,'' Quade said. ``But I looked at the game at Colorado against this guy, and he was really tough on us. The two kids that had the best at-bats against him were [Aramis] Ramirez with three hits and [Carlos] Pena.

``Take those two guys and put the hottest guy in the lineup next to them and hope for the best.''

Baker batted in the three spot just once last year, in a 13-3 win over the Florida Marlins Sept. 19 in the Tyler Colvin-gets-impaled game.

Lefties are hitting .302 against Chacin so far this season, compared to .214 by right-handers, which should favor the slumping Pena and red-hot Kosuke Fukudome, who's leading off in his first start since a five-hit game Monday night.

The lefty-hitting Colvin also is in the lineup, in left field, batting seventh just ahead of switch-hitting catcher Koyie Hill.

The Cubs' full lineup:

Fukudome, RF
Castro, SS
Baker, 2B
Ramirez, 3B
Pena, 1B
Byrd, CF
Colvin, LF
Hill, C
Coleman, P

One more note: Quade says he's not sure who will make Sunday's start in Arizona, when the Cubs need a fifth starter again. General manager Jim Hendry, Quade and pitching coach Mark Riggins are expected to discuss all the options on tonight's flight to Phoenix.

Cubs' first losing streak is complete package

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Go ahead, pick a reason for the Cubs' first three-game losing streak of the year:

1. Starting pitching - as in the five first-inning runs allowed by Carlos Zambrano against the Dodgers Sunday and the three homers allowed in a gusty 4-3 loss to the Rockies by James Russell Tuesday night? And the major-league worst 5.91 ERA by Cubs starters?

2. Sloppy fielding - as in the four errors and four unearned runs in that two-run loss to the Rockies on Monday?

3. Lack of tack-on runs in each of the three games - the Cubs scoring two runs in each first inning the past three games, but just two runs total after that, including Alfonso Soriano's ninth-inning solo home run Tuesday?

The bigger question might be: How much of this is a big enough part of who this team is to suggest long-term problems? And, assuming they can turn things around long-term, what will that take and when will it start?

For now, the Cubs try to avoid getting swept Wednesday for the first time this season as they mull their options for the fifth spot in the rotation next time around after Russell got through just four innings again Tuesday.

Russell said he's willing to do whatever the Cubs want - whether that's make a fourth start Sunday or return to the pen.

Manager Mike Quade said he hasn't given it a lot of thought but suggested his only other in-house option is Jeff Samardzija, who's on a 9-inning scoreless streak out of the pen spanning two weeks. But, said Quade, ``That's something I'm not interested in doing.''

Outside of that, he said, ``You keep looking at people that are pitching in AAA, especially who can give you length and quality. If nobody's ready to do that, then we'll continue to look from within.''

AAA Iowa starter Jay Jackson could be close after allowing just four hits and a run in 6 2/3 innings Tuesday afternoon.

``We'll figure that out,'' Quade said. ``But right now I have no clue.''

From the looks of things through 23 games, he might have much bigger things to figure out than Sunday's starter.

For all the excitement surrounding Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney - and the strong Aramis Ramirez and Jeff Baker - the Cubs are hitting just .229 with runners in scoring position this season.

That includes 0-for-10 after the first inning the past two games combined - albeit, only one such chance after the first on Tuesday.

In fact, even in the two-run first Tuesday, the Cubs went just 1-for-5 with men in scoring position.

And despite seven home runs from Alfonso Soriano so far, the rest of the team has just nine, and nobody else with more than two - including Carlos Pena and Marlon Byrd looking for their first each.

They've been out-homered 26-16 already this season.

``I'm very surprised, because I think we're working a lot,'' Soriano said. ``I think it has to be the weather and people that aren't comfortable with the weather. I think as soon as we have some nice weather and have a couple more homers we'll be in good shape.''

Quade isn't as concerned about the home runs as he is about scoring in general recently.

``We haven't been driving the ball out of the ballpark, but we have a whole lot of people with a history of doing that, and we believe they will,'' he said. ``The one thing that they've got to do is keep working and do what they're doing. People start changing because of the weather, or they're not hitting homers, and they start back-legging and stuff, that's not good.

``You just have to believe that a good approach at the plate is going to bring you back to what you do well.''

Of course, none of it will matter if the starters don't pitch well. Here are the individual ERAs (as starters) of the five guys currently in the rotation: 4.11, 5.28, 7.43, 7.63 and 8.53.

That 7.63 belongs to Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster. Russell's is the last one. And the best of the bunch, Matt Garza, doesn't have so much as a win to show for it.

Castro as Cubs' No. 3 hitter -- tonight?

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Starlin Castro could make the first start of his career in the marquee No. 3 spot in the Cubs' lineup for the second game of today's doubleheader.

Manager Mike Quade told Castro to be ready for the possibility if he gives struggling center fielder Marlon Byrd the night off tonight.

``I feel comfortable anywhere. It doesn't matter to me,'' Castro said. ``First, second, third, fourth - I don't care. I'm doing good with first, so maybe I'll do good with third, too.''

Castro's hot start this season - which only got hotter when he moved up to the leadoff spot last week - seemed to inspire Quade to think even bigger for the sophomore phenom.

And Byrd's 1-for-22 cold spell from the No. 3 spot - and overall 3-for-21 struggles with men in scoring position - only accelerated the thought process.

``A whole lot of things are evolving,'' Quade said. ``The more I think about it, we took the kid from 2 to 1 [successfully]. Would he be an option in the 3 hole if Marlon had a day off?''

Kosuke Fukudome, scheduled to start tonight after getting the afternoon opener off, is a.381 career hitter against tonight's San Diego starter Aaron Harang and expected to lead off.

Quade wanted to wait until seeing how the first game went before committing to a lineup for the nightcap.

``But if you give Marlon the day off and Fuke's playing and leading off, if you're me, where do you go? Fuke and [Jeff] Baker [as leadoff platoon, Darwin] Barney, Cassie - I don' t know.

``This is why I'm glad it's a split double header. At least I have an hour [after Game 1].''

Even last week when talking about long-term lineup possibilities, Castro said he wanted a shot at the No. 3 spot.

``I like it because there's a lot of RBIs. You're hitting with a lot of men in scoring position,'' said Castro, 21, who seems to rise to the level of the spotlight. ``If they give me an opportunity, it's motivation. I'll take it.

``Not everybody's hitting third in the major leagues. Every third hitter is kind of good.''

NOTE - Quade also settled on his rotation order for the weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, slotting Casey Coleman in Friday's opener, with Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster going Saturday against friend and former teammate Ted Lilly.

``They'll probably go to dinner the night before. But let me tell you, when it comes to the next day, they like to compete,'' Quade said. ``That'll be fun.''

Cubs add pitching depth with Doug Davis, 35

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The Cubs have signed veteran left-hander Doug Davis to a minor-league deal to add pitching depth for a team that lost two of its season-opening starters to injury last week.

Davis, 35, doesn't appear to be a short-term solution for filling either of the spots left open by injuries to Randy Wells (forearm) and Andrew Cashner (shoulder). But depending how long either of those injuries persist, Davis might be an option once he's stretched out.

He's been sent to Mesa, Ariz., for extended spring work.

Davis hasn't pitched since July 9 because of a virus in the lining of his heart and later had surgery to repair a flexor-tendon tear.

He was 1-4 with a 7.51 ERA in eight starts for Milwaukee last year, including two losses to the Cubs.

His best season came in 2007 when he won 13 games for the National League West-champion Arizona Diamondbacks and then beat the Cubs in the playoffs.

The Cubs also signed right-hander Ramon Ortiz, 38, to a minor-league deal in recent days.

Cubs' Marshall on Manny: ``Nothing but respect''

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There's no disputing that a lot of people in the Cubs' organization look with bitterness at a 2008 postseason that might have turned out different had Manny Ramirez' PED use been detected before he tested positive for a banned substance not long after his Dodgers swept the Cubs in the first round.

But Cubs reliever Sean Marshall, who gave up a Game 1 homer to Ramirez in that series, says he has no sour grapes over it, and makes no excuses. And he wants to make it clear that he wasn't ripping Ramirez when he made a few light-hearted comments about the home run when asked Friday if he wanted it back.

``He's a big-game player. He's a Hall of Fame player,'' said Marshall, whose comments to the Sun-Times were picked up nationally and used as an example of bitter reaction of some opponents to the cost Ramirez may have inflicted upon others with his use of performance enhancers.

``I have nothing but respect for the guy,'' Marshall said.

Can Cubs' pen write a happy ending?

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If we didn't already know how important the Cubs' bullpen figured to be this season, the Cubs are poised to find out in no uncertain terms over the next couple of weeks just how strong this team strength is.

When right-hander Jeff Stevens joined the team from AAA Iowa today in Milwaukee - as the Cubs officially placed injured starters Randy Wells (forearm) and Andrew Cashner (shoulder) on the DL - it gave them eight relievers available for the first two games of this three-game weekend series.

By Tuesday in Houston, it could be all about the bullpen, as lefty Jeff Russell gets the call to start but on a 50-pitch limit that leaves the Cubs counting on just three innings from him, manager Mike Quade said.

After that, Quade said it'll depend on how much work the pen is needed to produce over the four games leading up to Tuesday.

``We'll monitor this thing day to day to see how it sets up,'' said Quade, who expects Casey Coleman to join the team tonight or tomorrow for a scheduled Sunday start in Milwaukee. ``I think each day you use or don't use the bullpen you take a look at what your needs are. ... If we wind up with a real rested bullpen on Tuesday, then that gives us some options.''

If Russell fares well Tuesday, he could be called on for 70 or so pitches in another start a week later when the Cubs next would need a fifth starter.

Meanwhile, the bullpen remains a source of optimism for Quade, and one of the reasons he's not concerned about his three remaining healthy starters getting too caught up in the idea of trying to compensate for the losses of the two others.

``They've been down this road before,'' he said of veterans Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza. ``In spite of the fact we've lost two starters, they know who's behind them bullpen-wise. It's got to be pretty comforting to be a starter here and know what kind of bullpen we have.''

Cubs rotation suffers 1-2 punch as Wells, Cashner go down

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So much for having the healthiest spring training of any team in the National League Central.

Just when the Cubs pitched their way to a winning record for the first time in two seasons, they lost two key pitchers to injuries - a double dose of injury news on the day that only an update on Andrew Cashner's shoulder was expected.

Turns out both fifth-starter Cashner (shoulder strain) and fourth starter Randy Wells (forearm strain) are headed to the disabled list after just one start each this season - both likely facing a month or more of down time.

The good news, say the Cubs, is that MRIs done Tuesday on both pitchers revealed no structural damage in either case and surgery has not been raised as a possibility in either case.

Tyler Colvin, the kid outfielder who hit 20 homers as a part-time rookie a year ago, gets an unexpected start at first base today with veteran Carlos Pena nursing a jammed thumb.

The start of something big for Colvin if he goes 4-for-4 with a bunch of home runs?

``Actually, I hope he does,'' Pena said. ``Not that I want him to Wally Pipp me, but I hope he hits four home runs, and I get healthy, and I come and join him. That's really what I want to happen.''

Of course, Wally Pipp never had a $10 million contract. And nobody has yet to confuse Colvin with Lou Gehrig.

But Colvin's first professional regular-season game as a first baseman could be significant for the Cubs, if only to get an early sense of how versatile their roster might be.

``I like him out there,'' said Pena, a gold glove first baseman. ``He does a very good job. We talked about it all spring and worked together. Even though I think he just naturally does a pretty good job there, there's a couple things that we discussed that hopefully helped him out a little bit. He'll be fine.''

As for Pena and his thumb, he says he's ready to pinch-hit this afternoon and expects to be ready to start Wednesday, despite the imposing look of the wrap that covered most of his hand an hour before the game.

And this despite the fact Thursday's off day gives the Cubs the chance to let that thumb recover for three full days before Friday's series opener in Milwaukee.

But Pena said he doesn't look at it that way. And manager Mike Quade is keeping Wednesday open as an option.

``I'm still looking forward to playing tomorrow. I thought I was going to be able to play today,'' said Pena, who undertook aggressive treatment starting soon after Monday's game. ``But we're trying to be cautious. I always probably push myself too much at ties. So maybe it wasn't really rational for me to think I'd be able to start today.

``But I feel tomorrow there's a pretty good chance. And I told Q if he needs me to hit today, I will.''

Pena hurt the thumb when he fielded a ball to his right late in Monday's game and fell as he threw to first, breaking his fall with his glove hand.

Mike Quade has said for months that he envisioned ``taking a moment'' today to soak in his first Opening Day as a big-league manager - but then figured to get right back to work.

Now that the moment is upon him, maybe it's a little bit bigger and worthy of more than a mere moment of reflection, he admits. Certainly, it's the most exciting opener of his long-and-winding baseball career.

``Oh, man. Yeah, yeah. As much as I downplayed it, yeah,'' Quade said a few hours before today's opener against Pittsburgh. ``My first trip to the big leagues in Oakland as a coach [in 2000] was pretty good. They mispronounced my name. Perfect. ... And I had three good years there.

``But it doesn't get much better than this, does it? It doesn't for me.''

Quade, who's staying downtown until his place closer to the ballpark is ready for moving in, has taken the ``L'' to the ballpark the last two days and been able to remain largely unnoticed.

``It's kind of fun to get on the train and come to the ballpark and walk to Wrigley incognito, and feel the excitement,'' said Quade, who smiled when asked how he's still able to blend into the crowd now that he's so high profile. ``I managed to do it for the last two days. With a face like this, you can put makeup on, you can put wigs on, hats - I can do anything I want. I just throw a jacket and hat on, sit in the back of the train and do what I do, and then keep my head down. And I almost have to do it. I don't want to be inundated on a day when I've got so much on my mind.

``But I can't help but try and get the flavor of the ballpark and the neighborhood, especially on a day like this. Now this day will come and go, and I'll still ride trains and do what I do.''

Seriously, why hasn't anyone in the marketing department come up with a advertising campaign built around this guy. Talk about a no-brainer.

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