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

April 2012 Archives

Campana transforms Cubs lineup

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PHILADELPHIA -- Geovany Soto's back in the lineup tonight for the series finale against the Philadelphia after missing the last two games with some back tightness.

But more important for the Cubs, Tony Campana's back in the lineup, too.

Campana, who's been promised ``80 percent'' of the starts in center, has been the buzz of the clubhouse since becoming a buzz kill for opposing pitchers since getting recalled from Iowa a little over a week ago.

The fastest guy in the organization has been an impact ``bat'' during the Cubs' 4-2 surge over the past week.

During the first three games in Philly alone, he has five hits - three of them infield hits - and scored each time he reached base, stealing three bases along the way.

He started two of those games, both Cubs wins.

He bunted for the first hit of the game against Roy Halladay Friday and wound up scoring the first run of the game. Then scored the second run two innings later after leading off with an infield single. The Cubs won 5-1.

In Sunday's win, he led off the third and eighth with singles (including an infield hit), and the Cubs scored three in those two innings - including Campana on a sacrifice fly/popup to shallow right.

The only game he didn't start in Philly - Saturday's 5-2 loss -he came off the bench to lead off the eighth, singled, went to second on a wild pitch and eventually scored on a fielder's choice.

``Tony's been an amazing spark to our lineup,'' said Joe Mather.

How amazing?

The Cubs are 3-2 when Campana starts - same as when Matt Garza does.

Cubs' Dempster, Wood to return during road trip

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PHILADELPHIA -- The Cubs anticipate getting a boost for their pitching staff by the end of this weeklong road trip after Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster progressed in bullpen sessions Friday.

Wood (shoulder) threw 25 pitches, using breaking stuff for the first time since going on the DL and if he responds well today, manager Dale Sveum said a simulated game will be scheduled for Monday.

If that goes well, Wood could return to his setup role Thursday in Cincinnati.

Dempster (quad), the Cubs' top starter (1.33 ERA), threw a bullpen and ran during pregame work Friday and also is expected to return Thursday, his first eligible day.

That puts into limbo the status of Randy Wells, the veteran big-league starter who was at AAA Iowa before taking over for Dempster and has one more start Saturday before Dempster would return.

``We'll make those decisions when they all come up and see what happens,'' Sveum said, ``but we haven't gotten to that step yet.''

Cubs' Marmol: `No excuses'

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Carlos Marmol knows the numbers as well as any of the critics calling for Cubs manager Dale Sveum to demote his closer.

He also knows he went more than two weeks between save opportunities and that the team's lousy start has left him with nothing close to a regular work schedule and that the manager had his back after he gave up that homer Tuesday night for his second blown save in three chances.

But the one thing he's most sure - and emphatic about - is, ``I don't make no excuses,'' he said.

Even on that pitch to Holliday that Sveum shrugged off Tuesday night as a good pitch that ``one of the strongest guys in baseball'' got lucky enough to hit out, Marmol called it a ``mistake'' slider that missed his intended spot by more than half a foot.

Taking solace in the fact the team came back to win in the 10th, Marmol still was relaxed by Wednesday morning in the clubhouse. And confident. ``Of course,'' he said.

``I'm fine. Velocity's good, ball's moving good - it was one pitch.''

And he wants the ball again today. And tomorrow.

``I'm ready every day,'' he said, ``no matter what. My job's to pitch every day, be ready every day.''

That attitude is part of why Sveum didn't hesitate Tuesday night to vow Marmol would ``be right back out there closing tomorrow, too.'' That and, possibly, the fact there really aren't any other options.

For all the mechanics and command issues that inevitably crop up with Marmol, resiliency and a closer's ability to forget aren't concerns.

``He's already done it,'' Sveum said of why he has faith in that. ``He did it in spring training. After a couple bad outings, he came back and threw the ball very well. And after the outing here early [first two games], he came back and he was throwing the ball well.

``The other guys on the other side of the fence are paid a lot of money to hit. And sometimes they catch one, and other nights that same exact pitch is a popup to the infield.''

Epstein: Cubs' season won't influence plans with Garza

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When the Cubs get to the point of closing the deal on a contract extension for Matt Garza, look for the inevitable, lazy comparisons to his emotionally charged predecessor, Carlos Zambrano, and that five-year, $91-million extension in 2007 that the Cubs came to rue.

As new Cubs president Theo Epstein said with about a week left of spring training, ``He walks sort of a fine line between in control and out of control that works, that really works for him emotionally.''

Garza was admittedly a stubborn and emotionally reactive pitcher early in his career. But the intense, focused veteran the Cubs hope to build their new-era staff around showed again Thursday in no uncertain way how unfair any of those mindless comparisons to Zambrano are.

Nobody is more supportive of teammates on the days he doesn't pitch; nobody more competitive on the days he does. ``He embraces the competitive aspects of the game and doesn't try to pretend it's just another day,'' Epstein said.

And almost every reason he's a guy worth building a contending staff around was on display Thursday - from the 8 2/3 scoreless innings to his reaction to the unbelievably wild throw he air-mailed into the stands on the would-be final play that cost him a chance at the shutout and complete game.

At an already pushing-it 119-pitch mark, Garza was done after that throw, and Shawn Camp took over to get the final out in an 8-0 win over the Brewers.

``Unfortunately, we might have just witnessed the greatest worst throw of all-time,'' manager Dale Sveum. ``But I just couldn't let him go out and have another 10-pitch at-bat or something like that.''

Garza's reaction?

He handed Sveum the ball, walked back to the dugout, bee-lined for the tunnel - out of sight of cameras, media, Brewers and even teammates - and then unloaded in a personal rage against himself.

At one point during the minute-or-so-long episode he spied a couple of reporters making their way through and open door toward the interview room and yelled, ``Shut that f---- door! ... Who the hell are you!?''

Then he ducked into the nearby weight room and continued his venting by himself.

Out of control?

Not even close. Almost every professional athlete at that level has those moments. The ones with self-control are rarely seen by others, much less the public, in those moments.

``He's actually got a method to his madness,'' Epstein said.

Garza apologized to the reporters before starting his postgame interview. He pointed out the obvious, that he was angry with himself for missing a chance to finish what he started.

``I was one out away,'' he said. ``We won, that's the plus side. But damn. .... I caught it, watched it from my hand and thought, `Son of a gun.'

``I can't be pissed off at Skip - 120 pitches in, there's no reason to be throwing 130, 140 pitches.

``I'm pissed at myself, but man, we played one hell of a game.''

Garza can pitch. He has fire like few others. He's still just 28 and in his prime. He's already an American League Championship Series MVP with, obviously, World Series experience.

And when the Cubs sit on their side of Busch Stadium on Friday, forced to watch the St. Louis Cardinals get their World Series rings, some of the people running the Cubs might take a moment to imagine a guy like Garza helping them re-enact a similar scene at Wrigley Field.

For his part, Garza won't spend any time imagining that. Or even feeling that the appropriate reaction is anything close to motivation.

``I think it should be more of pissed off,'' he said, ``because we could have knocked them out of the playoffs - especially that last week of the season, if we take that series, and we kind of handed it over.''

That's part of why, when Epstein was asked whether the results this season will have any bearing on their intentions with Garza, he said, simply:



``Anytime you're contemplating significant personnel moves, you have to look at the organization as a whole and where you're going,'' Epstein said, ``and one week's worth of performance, let alone one season's worth, doesn't necessarily impact that significantly.

``Some issues are best examined up close, from 10 feet away, and some are best examined from 10,000 feet away. That's probably one that falls in the latter. It's sort of a big-picture issue.''

The big picture? Sign him up.

Early slump? Cubs' Byrd is the word

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Too soon to get concerned over a slow start by a hitter?

Probably. But veteran Marlon Byrd's season-opening funk already has him bumped down from the No. 7 to No. 8 spot in the order, and if he's dropped any more, he's on the bench.

``Mechanically, he's just got to get a little bit more linear,'' manager Dale Sveum said of the center fielder who hasn't had a hit since his second at-bat of the season.

Linear? If that can be interpreted as line drive, Byrd definitely needs more of it. His only line drive in 23 plate appearance through the seventh inning Wednesday was that single to left on Opening Day.

Since then, he's 0-for-19 with only two balls hit out of the infield.

``It's still early yet,'' Sveum said. ``Some guys get going a little bit later than other guys. We've got to be a little bit better against right-handed pitching, that's the bottom line. Our right-handed hitters, we have to take what the pitcher's giving us. They've got to be better at that on the outer part of the plate.''

As for when the first-year Cubs manager thinks it's time for concern over a season-starting slump, ``You don't put a time limit on it,'' he said.

``There's a time where there's got to be adjustments made. Whether that's a week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, the bottom line is production is what this job's all about. We've got to make adjustments. That's how people survive in the big leagues.''

Sveum suggested a day or two on the bench could benefit a struggling veteran, allowing him time to focus only on extra batting practice.

``But those are all decisions based on how things are going,'' he said, ``how the rest of the team winds up as well.''

Sveum: Cubs' Clevenger ``valuable weapon''

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In addition to maybe two starts a week, Sveum said he envisions using lefty-hitting backup catcher Steve Clevenger in more late-inning pinch-hit situations such as Monday's ninth inning, when Clevenger delivered an RBI single.

``You've got to stay away from sometimes using him too early,'' Sveum said of his only backup catcher. ``But that's a nice asset on your bench to be able to use in that situation, because he hits velocity, and that's what his at-bats are going to be a lot of times. Pinch-hit at-bats are going to be off closers and setup guys.''

Clevenger, 26, was a seventh-round draft pick in 2006 who hit .308 in the minors with a .790 career OPS, before breaking into the big leagues last September.

But Sveum likes the converted infielder for a lot more than his hitting ability.

``One, he's a heck of a catcher. He receives well, he calls the game, he throws the ball extremely accurate,'' Sveum said. ``And then his left-handed bat. ... He's a valuable weapon.

``He's probably, if not the best, one of the best backup catchers in all of baseball.''

Cubs' Sveum on how to beat Strasburg

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The good news: the Cubs have a .375 team batting average and .500 team slugging percentage against powerful Washington starter Stephen Strasburg.

The not so good: Chris Volstad is the only guy on the team with an extra-base hit against Strasburg and manager Dale Sveum joked he might use the pitcher as a pinch-hitter in Thursday's opener because so few of his players have seen Strasburg. At least we think he was joking.

``He's actually got a hit off him,'' Sveum said. ``Other than that, yeah, we've only got three guys that have faced him.''

Leadoff man David DeJesus is 2-for-3 against him; newly acquired Luis Valbeuno - who hasn't been on the field in a game for the Cubs - is 0-for-2.

``Even myself, we seemed to miss him when I was a coach in Milwaukee, so I haven't seen him in person,'' Sveum said.

But the Cubs know this much: Strasburg, who is all the way back from Tommy John surgery, has been overpowering when he has pitched for the Nationals the past two seasons.

He's 6-4 with a 2.54 ERA in 17 career starts over the past two seasons with a WHIP under 1.000 and 116 strikeouts (19 walks) in 92 innings.

``Hopefully, we get into [his] pitch count or whatever, but we've got to take advantage of the mistakes he makes,'' Sveum said. ``We all know he's got good stuff. But you've got to take advantage of the mistakes he makes. When you get people on base, you've got to move them and do some things that way.

``Hopefully, you pop one. The guys like this, the [Roy] Halladays, the guys that finish seasons with 2.5 earned run averages, you got to pop one. You got to pop one hopefully with people on base.

``It's hard to string hits together, and he's not a guy that's going to walk a lot of guys. So you've got to do something big with these guys.''

Or match him pitch-for-pitch on the other side.

Cubs starter Ryan Dempster is 9-1 with a 2.87 ERA in his career against the Nationals, including a seven-inning victory last season in which he allowed just one run on three hits.

Cubs' LaHair (back) iffy for opener

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MESA, Ariz. -- First baseman Bryan LaHair, who was held out of the Cubs' final four exhibition games because of back tightness caused by a bulging disk, could be a game-time decision for Thursday's opener.

``I don't think it's a DL thing or anything like that,'' said manager Dale Sveum, who anticipates a season debut for LaHair sometime during the three-game opening series against Washington. ``Hopefully, we'll get a chance to see him take BP [Wednesday] at the workout, if he's able to go, and see what happens on Opening Day.''

LaHair, who's breaking camp in the big leagues for the first time in his career, remains hopeful he'll be able to play Thursday.

``I'm getting better,'' he said. ``I'm tough mentally, so I'm just rolling with the punches. I'm focusing in on whatever that first game's going to be, whether it's Thursday, Saturday Sunday - whatever it's going to be, that's what I'm getting ready for.

``And the most important thing is that I get healthy, and once I'm healthy I've been known to stay healthy.''

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