16 4 / 2014

Cubs.com

Cubs-Yanks rained out, to play twin bill today

Teams now scheduled for split doubleheader at Yankee Stadium

By Joe Lemire

NEW YORK — Steady rain in the weather forecast for the Bronx postponed Tuesday’s scheduled series opener between the Cubs and Yankees. A day-night doubleheader is now slated for Wednesday, starting at 12:05 p.m. and 6:05 p.m. CT.

Chicago’s Jason Hammel (2-0, 2.63 ERA) will start the opener, and Travis Wood (0-1, 2.92) will start the second game. Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 3.21) will open the twin bill for the Yankees, and Michael Pineda (1-1, 1.50) will pitch in the nightcap.

New York’s commemoration of Jackie Robinson Day — complete with a celebration and plaque dedication for the life of Nelson Mandela — was also postponed until tomorrow.

Cubs.com

After rainout, Tanaka, Hammel to begin twin bill

Pineda, Wood duel in nightcap, when clubs honor Jackie with No. 42

By Bryan Hoch and Carrie Muskat

The firsts are out of the way now for Masahiro Tanaka, who has both his Major League debut and his Yankee Stadium debut in the rear-view mirror. The touted right-hander hoped that meant his comfort level will only continue to grow from here on out.

But Mother Nature has thrown a wrinkle into the equation. An ugly forecast on Tuesday bumped Tanaka’s start back a half-day, as the Yankees and Cubs will now play a separate-admission, day-night doubleheader on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.

First pitch of the afternoon game is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET, with the regularly scheduled night contest beginning at 7:05. Tanaka will face right-hander Jason Hammel in the first game, while Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda and left-hander Travis Wood will face off in the evening contest, when the Yankees and Cubs players will all wear No. 42 in recognition of Jackie Robinson.

Wednesday’s outing will mark Tanaka’s third big league start and his first in the daytime. The 25-year-old said that he has already gathered a little bit of experience to draw upon.

"If you look at the first two starts, the beginning of the game, I’m missing my spots and giving up runs," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I need to make my adjustments, try not to do that. Try to keep the damage to a minimum — or no damage at all — at the beginning of the game."

Hammel is well-versed in the Yankees, having faced them 17 times while pitching for the Rays and Orioles. He’s pitched at both old and new Yankee Stadium, too.

"They’re a perennial powerhouse and find a way to win, and the organization is committed to their players. That’s how they do it," Hammel said. "That being said, there’s still a way to beat them. I’ve faced them many times and had some success. You just have to keep the ball down there."

That’s a lesson that Tanaka learned in his last start. The only three runs that Tanaka gave up to the Orioles came on a Jonathan Schoop three-run homer that was launched down the left-field line, responsible for handing Tanaka a no-decision.

"I pride myself on not giving in after giving up runs," Tanaka said. "From the time when I was in Japan, I would always think that if I gave up a run, I would think to myself that I’m not going to give up any more runs. That’s what I would always try to remind myself."

Wood matched his career high with nine strikeouts in his last outing vs. the Pirates, leaving the game with a 4-0 lead, but he did not get a decision as the Bucs rallied against Chicago’s bullpen.

Pineda will be making his first appearance since some gunk was spotted on his pitching hand while working against the Red Sox, stirring a social media firestorm. Pineda claimed that it was dirt, while several members of the Red Sox thought it was pine tar.

"I don’t know. I don’t use pine tar," Pineda said. "It’s dirt. I’m sweating on my hand too much in between innings."

The Red Sox never complained to the umpires, but Major League Baseball still spoke to the Yankees about the situation; general manager Brian Cashman declared it to be a non-issue. The fuss nearly overshadowed the fact that Pineda pitched quite well; in six-plus innings of one-run ball, Pineda struck out seven.

"He’s been looking good," Cashman said. "We’re really excited about what we’re seeing. Happy for us, happy for him."

Cubs: No. 42 holds special meaning for multiple reasons

The Cubs will wear No. 42 for Wednesday’s nightcap in honor of Jackie Robinson Day, but doing so will have a double meaning for some players. Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear No. 42, retiring from the Yankees at the end of last season.

"He’s one of the best people you can ever meet," said Jose Veras, who was Rivera’s teammate. "I learned a lot of things from him — how to be successful, be prepared. He’s one of the best people you can ever meet in baseball. You can take a lot of positive things from him."

Veras can use some positive reinforcement. He is no longer the Cubs’ closer after a rough four games, and manager Rick Renteria said he will go with matchups in save situations. The candidates include Pedro Strop, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm.

"They give me various options," Renteria said. "You still have to put them in situations where they feel comfortable."

Strop and Rondon each have a save in the first 11 games. Last April, the Cubs had three different pitchers record a save in April for the first time since the save became an official MLB statistic in 1969.

Yankees: Mandela to be honored with plaque on Robinson Day

The Yankees will unveil a plaque to honor Nelson Mandela on Wednesday afternoon, with a news conference scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET, coinciding with the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day.

Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa Mandela, will be present at the stadium, and the Yankees said that South African Consul General George Monyemangene and Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang will also attend.

The Yankees announced their plans for the Mandela plaque last December. The plaque will celebrate the life of the former South African leader and commemorate his June 21, 1990, visit to Yankee Stadium.

Following a day of meeting and addressing New Yorkers in various locations around the city, Mandela arrived at Yankee Stadium and spoke to the assembled crowd, then donned a Yankees cap and jacket before declaring, “You know who I am. I am a Yankee.”

Worth noting

• Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran had three hits, including a two-run homer, in Sunday night’s win over Boston. Beltran played first base after an injury to Francisco Cervelli.

•  Cervelli (right hamstring) is likely headed to the disabled list. Brian McCann is day to day with a bruised right hand, but said following Sunday night’s game that he was “fine.”

• The Cubs restocked the bullpen on Sunday, when they recalled Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa.

Cubs.com

McDonald joins Cubs’ baseball operations

By Joey Nowak

The Cubs on Tuesday named former Major Leaguer Darnell McDonald a baseball operations assistant.

McDonald spent seven seasons in the big leagues, including last year with the Cubs. He hit .302 with one home run and five RBIs last season with Chicago before retiring with a .250 career average over seven seasons with Baltimore (2004), Minnesota (‘07), Cincinnati (‘09), Boston (‘10-12), the Yankees (four games in ‘12) and the Cubs (‘13).

McDonald spent 16 seasons in pro ball, and he went to Spring Training with the Cubs this year before officially announcing his retirement as a player earlier this month.

In his new role, McDonald will “contribute to all elements within the club’s player development and amateur scouting departments,” a team release said. He’ll work with Minor Leaguers, evaluate amateur players leading up to the Draft, spend time with the Major League club and serve as a coach in the fall instructional league.

ESPNChicago.com

Series Preview: Cubs-Yankees

By Jesse Rogers

NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs will take on the New York Yankees in a one-day, two-game series on Wednesday after their Tuesday night game was rained out.

The match-up: Game 1, Wednesday, 12:05 p.m., Jason Hammel versus Masahiro Tanaka; Game 2, Wednesday, 6:05 pm, Travis Wood versus Michael Pineda.

Honoring Robinson: The Cubs and Yankees will wear No .42 in the night cap in honor of Jackie Robinson. Before the game, the family of Robinson and Nelson Mandela will be on hand when the Yankees unveil a plaque for the former South African leader. Tuesday was Jackie Robinson Day around baseball.

Alfonso Soriano: He’ll face his former team for the first time since being traded last season for a minor league pitcher. The Cubs are still paying Soriano nearly $18 million of his salary this year. He has three home runs in the Yankees’ first 12 games.

Cubs bullpen: It should be fully rested after a rare two days off in a row because of a scheduled off day Monday and the rainout Tuesday. With recalled minor leaguers Chris Rusin and Blake Parker picking up innings over the weekend, the regular relievers should be more than ready for the doubleheader. It’s still not clear who closes out a game in a save situation.

Streaks: The 4-8 Cubs have lost 2 of 3 in every series so far this season. They dropped the final two games in St. Louis over the weekend but haven’t lost three in a row yet. They’ll try to avoid that in Game 1.

ESPNChicago.com

Ex-OF McDonald joins Cubs front office

By Jesse Rogers

NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs have hired former outfielder Darnell McDonald as a baseball operations assistant, the team announced on Tuesday.

McDonald, 35, retired from baseball at the end of spring training which he spent with the Cubs in Arizona. He was a 16-year professional having spent last season with the Cubs, appearing in 25 games. He finished as a career .250 hitter with 20 home runs in parts of seven major league seasons.

In his new role McDonald will contribute to “all elements within the club’s player development and amateur scouting departments,” according to a release. He’ll also visit minor league teams and help evaluate amateur players leading up to the draft.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs-Yankees pack storylines into day-night doubleheader

By Patrick Mooney

NEW YORK — The Cubs spent almost the entire offseason hoping to get their shot at Masahiro Tanaka. They’ll have to wait another 18 hours to see the Japanese superstar in Yankee pinstripes.

The rain blanketing New York and the predicted thunderstorms for Tuesday night will condense this marquee series into a day-night doubleheader on Wednesday in The Bronx. There will be so many storylines for a 4-8 Cubs team struggling to generate any buzz.

It begins with Tanaka (1-0, 3.21 ERA), who’s so far lived up to the hype behind his $155 million megadeal, going seven innings in both of his starts and putting up 18 strikeouts against one walk. CSN will broadcast Game 1, with Tanaka’s first pitch scheduled for 12:05 p.m. Chicago time.

The cameras will focus on Yankees manager Joe Girardi, the Peoria guy and Northwestern graduate who would have checked all the boxes for baseball operations and the marketing department after the Cubs fired Dale Sveum last fall. Girardi knows all about The Chicago Way, leveraging that interest into a four-year, $16 million contract and a mandate to win the World Series every year.

Starlin Castro will get to see part of Derek Jeter’s farewell tour. The two shortstops met briefly at the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City. The Cubs once put their images together up on a billboard, promoting the Yankees coming to Wrigley Field in 2011 as if it was a heavyweight prizefight.

For the Cubs, this will be their first regular-season action at the new Yankee Stadium, where Alfonso Soriano will be getting lots of bro hugs by the batting cage.

“Everybody knows the kind of influence he has on the young guys,” Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney said. “He’s always been a leader, even though he never tells anybody what to do.”

Soriano always loved the energy in New York, perhaps the only city that would have compelled him to waive his no-trade rights last summer. It’s revived the 38-year-old slugger, who’s hit 20 homers for the Yankees in 70 games since the trade, with the Cubs picking up most of the tab during the final season of that $136 million megadeal.

“(Sori) always said: ‘I hate to lose,’” Cubs catcher Welington Castillo said. “He did all that he could while he was here, too, (but) he plays for the Yankees. There’s a little bit more that goes into it, because the Yankees always (seem to) get to the playoffs. That’s a team with a lot of tradition, so I think that motivated him a little bit more.

“But he’s the same guy over there that he was here. He just likes to play. He just likes to win. That’s him.”

Behind the scenes, the Yankees have also hired ex-Cubs like Jim Hendry (special assignment scout) and Mike Quade (roving outfield/base-running instructor).

Tanaka’s game will be shaped by Larry Rothschild, the underappreciated pitching coach who went through all the highs and lows on the North Side with Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly.

In Game 2, the Cubs will face Michael Pineda, who dominated the Red Sox in his last start but made national headlines with a pine-tar incident (or whatever that was on his right palm).

“These balls are kind of like cue balls on pool tables,” Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said Monday on ‘The Dan Patrick Show.’ “They want those things to fly when they get up in the air, so you got to do what you can. Whatever works, a little sweat, a little dirt.

“If a guy I’m facing is using a little pine tar, I got no problem with that. It’s more of when it’s something gaudy, something obvious, whether it’s on a hat or you see a guy doctoring up the ball. When you start cutting (and) scuffing the ball, that’s when it really effects the pitch. A little pine tar doesn’t effect what the pitch does, unless you put a big clump on the side of the ball.

“Over the years, guys have (scuffed it) in a lot of different ways. A lot of times, you can do it on your belt. You can do it with something you brought in your glove. A lot of guys will just grow their thumbnail out real long. Take a lot of prenatal pills that make your nails real strong (and) then you shave it down. It just takes a little bit (and) you can move that ball.”

The Evil Empire always thinks big. The weather also forced the Yankees to reschedule Tuesday’s ceremonies, which are supposed to add to the franchise’s mystique and aura. There will be the unveiling of a Nelson Mandela plaque in Monument Park before Game 2.

The South African civil rights leader came to Yankee Stadium in 1990 and will be remembered alongside the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as the visits from Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Mandela’s legacy will be honored as part of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day and the No. 42 tributes.

New York’s bright lights should be an adrenaline boost for the Cubs during what will be a long day in The Bronx.

CSNChicago.com

Edwards: In the next 2-3 years, the Cubs will win a pennant

By TONY ANDRACKI

C.J. Edwards isn’t taking anything for granted.

The Cubs’ top pitching prospect doesn’t have any grand delusions of being called up to pitch at Wrigley Field next week. He isn’t chalking it up as a guarantee that he will make the big leagues or even stick as a starting pitcher.

But there is one thing Edwards is sure about: The Cubs will win a pennant in the next couple of seasons.

In the Cubs organization, winning is all Edwards knows after helping lead Advanced Class-A Daytona to a championship last season.

The 22-year-old pitcher was the vital piece to the Matt Garza deal with the Rangers last year, and Edwards understands there are high expectations for him. But he knows he can’t do it all alone.

"You can’t look past the other starters," Edwards said in an interview with Tennessee Smokies broadcaster Mick Gillispie. "They say I’ll be a big key, but I look at it as the Corey Blacks, Ivan Pineyros, the Pierce Johnsons and the Triple-A guys — Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch — those guys are really going to be a big part, too.

"We’ll never know how we’ll look in the big leagues. I can go from being a starter to a reliever or it can be vice versa. As I look at those guys and the hitters we have, as I tell everybody, in the next two to three years, we’re winning a pennant."

The Rangers made Edwards a 48th-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and he hit the ground running. In his first two seasons in professional baseball, Edwards was dominant, posting a 1.72 ERA with 240 strikeouts and just one homer allowed in 183.1 innings.

Experts have doubts about his build (6-foot-2, 155-pound), but Edwards has picked up right where he left off, with a 2.45 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in three starts with Double-A Tennessee this year.

Edwards, ranked as the No. 28 prospect in the game by Baseball America, is part of a star-studded Smokies roster that also includes slugger Kris Bryant (BA’s No. 8 prospect), pitcher Johnson (87) and Jorge Soler (41), who is currently on the disabled list. With Albert Almora in Daytona and Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara in Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs have a nice stable of young position player prospects, but guys like Edwards and Johnson may be the most important players to the team’s rebuild given the organization’s lack of pitching prospects.

The Cubs won’t rush Edwards to the big leagues, but with the level of dominance he’s shown so far, the question is starting to carry some weight: How long until he gets the call to The Show?

"Everybody can say [I’m ready] now, but I look at it as I still have to mature more. Just on the mound, not off the field," Edwards told Gillispie. "One thing I feel I need to work on is pitch sequence. I have [the pitches], I just need to execute them.

"I’m executing now, but I want to get to the level where the catcher throws me the ball and I know exactly what I’m throwing.

"You keep working and you never know what can happen up there."

CSNChicago.com

Cubs hire Darnell McDonald as baseball operations assistant

By Patrick Mooney

NEW YORK – If Darnell McDonald hasn’t seen it all, he’s come close enough to add some value to Theo Epstein’s front office.

The Cubs hired McDonald as a baseball operations assistant, a new role that will have him visiting minor-league affiliates, scouting amateur players before the draft and coaching during instructional league.

The team announced the move on Tuesday, about a week after the 35-year-old outfielder announced his retirement as a player on his Instagram account. A thoughtful guy with an even-keel demeanor, McDonald had gone to spring training with the Cubs, but decided not to go through with his 17th season in professional baseball.

Playing baseball or quitting the sport altogether became a big decision for McDonald at Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver, where he emerged as one of the country’s most explosive running backs and signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Texas.

The Baltimore Orioles made McDonald a first-round pick in the 1997 draft. He wound up playing parts of seven seasons with six different big-league teams.

As McDonald worked in the minors, Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis – who once tried to recruit him to the University of Miami – asked if he wanted a shot in the NFL as a running back and kick returner.

McDonald played for the Boston Red Sox during the fried-chicken-and-beer controversy and the Bobby Valentine disaster, cutting his dreadlocks after the New York Yankees claimed him off waivers in 2012.

Just like newly hired special assistant Ted Lilly, McDonald should bring a unique perspective to Year 3 of Epstein’s rebuild.

Tribune

Cubs’ Jake Arrieta right on schedule for return

Pitcher believes he will be ready to come back after 2 more, lengthier, minor league rehab starts

By Mark Gonzales

NEW YORK — Rain caused the Cubs to wait another day before facing the Yankees on Wednesday in a split doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.

And wet weather also forced postponement of Jake Arrieta’s next minor league rehabilitation start, but Arrieta is close to helping the Cubs later this month. While he’s rehabbing he also is aiding in the advancement of top pitching prospect C.J. Edwards.

Arrieta’s third rehab start for Double-A Tennessee was moved to Wednesday and he believes he might need one more start after thatbefore rejoining the Cubs’ rotation.

"I think (that would be) a good thing," said Arrieta, who is recovering from right shoulder stiffness that prevented him from pitching in a spring training game. "I’m supposed to throw around 80 to 85 pitches and six innings Wednesday, and another start like that to work hitters when I’m facing them for the second and third time will be helpful."

Arrieta, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in 62/3 innings in his two starts for Tennessee, thinks his final rehab start could be next week with Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs will welcome Arrieta because they will be in the midst of a stretch in which they’re scheduled to play 30 games in 31 days.

Tuesday’s rainout enabled a well-worked bullpen to receive another day of rest, but the Cubs will embark on that taxing stretch of games starting Friday.

Meanwhile, Arrieta has been encouraged by what he has seen and heard from Edwards, 22, who has sought him out for advice.

"We talked a lot about a lot of things going on in his career," Arrieta said of Edwards, who has a 2.45 ERA in three starts with 16 strikeouts in 142/3 innings.

"He’s learning a lot at one time. Part of the process is he’s hearing from a lot of sources. (He takes) and to take each thing seriously and keeps working hard, but (should try not concern himself) with so many things at one time.

"He’s right where he needs to be."

The Cubs’ rainout Tuesday won’t affect their rotation. Jason Hammel will oppose Masahiro Tanaka in the afternoon game, with left-hander Travis Wood facing Michael Pineda in the regularly scheduled night contest.

Because of an adjustment in the rules last winter, teams now are allowed to add a player for the second game because the rainout was rescheduled for the following day as part of a split doubleheader.

Extra innings: The Cubs and Yankees will wear uniforms with jersey No. 42 for the second game in recognition of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, according to the Yankees. … The Cubs hired former outfielder Darnell McDonald as a baseball operations assistant. McDonald, 35, retired this month after a 16-year professional career in which hit batted .250 with six major league teams in parts of seven seasons, including a .302 mark in 53 at-bats with the Cubs last season.

Tribune

Baseball needs to channel ‘inner Jackie Robinson’

Sport wrestles with challenge of getting African-Americans involved as NBA and NFL role models dominate market

By Paul Sullivan

Every year baseball honors Jackie Robinson on April 15, and every year we hear about a generation of black athletes tuning the game out.

A USA Today survey revealed only 7.8 percent of the players on major league rosters opening day were African-American, continuing a longtime trend.

Why have so many young black men gravitated toward other sports?

After listening to a panel discussion on Robinson Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field, Simeon senior outfielder Darius Day blamed a “lack of role models” in the sport.

"In basketball you have LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony — some big-time African-American athletes," Day said. "In football you have Ray Rice, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick. … Baseball doesn’t have the big African-American names on ‘SportsCenter’ every night.

"There are some, but people don’t really pay attention. A lot of people in the inner city don’t follow baseball and don’t know about Jackie Bradley Jr., Dee Gordon, Andrew McCutchen …"

If you don’t watch them on TV, chances are you’re not going to become a fan. Baseball doesn’t market its stars as well as the NBA or NFL, so a perfect ambassador like McCutchen gets overshadowed by Yasiel Puig’s latest antics.

McCutchen believes the sports world simply has changed and young blacks today are more likely to enjoy sports with a higher percentage of African-Americans.

"Years ago, the NBA wasn’t predominantly black," he said. "Now it is. Look at the NFL, things have changed. Baseball tends to go the other way because I feel more male athletes lean toward sports where the majority is African-American. It’s not just baseball that has changed, but the whole spectrum of sports."

For his part, White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf invited dozens of high school athletes and coaches from Simeon, Kenwood, King, Leo, and Seton Academy to U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday to celebrate Robinson’s legacy on the anniversary of his game-changing debut when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

He was joined on a panel by Sox executive vice president Ken Williams and Carol Adams, CEO of the DuSable Museum of African-American History, with NPR’s Richard Steele serving as moderator.

It was a great history lesson for the kids, before lunch and a ballgame.

Williams told the kids to “develop your mind as vigorously as you’re developing your baseball talents,” while Adams asked them to “find your inner Jackie Robinson,” pointing to his ability to shut out all the racial hate directed toward him without losing his composure.

But one question that never was answered was how to get young black kids as interested in baseball as they are in football and basketball.

"You have to have facilities to play," Reinsdorf said afterward."In basketball, you stick a hoop up in the driveway or in the alley and you can play. Kenny is on a committee that is trying to develop a plan to get more kids playing. We have four or five academies we’ve opened up, but we have to do a better job getting people to have facilities. That’s what it’s all about."

MLB created a task force in April 2013 to study how to increase diversity. Williams said it has reached no conclusions yet. But he’s not worried that other sports, and video games, have dulled kids’ interest in baseball.

"You can’t do anything about video games," Williams said. "You can’t do anything about kids wanting to play other sports. You can only market your sport to the best of your ability and make it appealing to kids. Some kids will gravitate toward it, and some won’t."

Seton Academy pitcher Bryson Westbrook pointed out that kids tend to do what they see their friends, older brothers and dads doing.

"When you expose a child to baseball, as my mom did … I fell in love with it immediately and didn’t want to stop," Westbrook said. "But I see all my friends playing basketball."

If baseball truly wants to revive interest in young black men, stars like McCutchen need to channel their “inner Jackie” and become magnets, like James and Wade.

McCutchen is up for the task, and wants to be an agent for change in baseball, if given the chance.

"I’m not the typical baseball player guys see," he said. "I’m an African-American guy with dreads, and I play the game with my own type of spice. I respect the game, but I like to have fun and to show it.

"That’s something I can do, that I can be a part of."

Tribune

Cubs-Yankees rained out; day-night DH Wednesday

By Mark Gonzales

NEW YORK — Tuesday night’s game between the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees has been postponed because of wet weather.

The game will be played Wednesday at 12:05 p.m. CDT as the first game of a separate-admission, day-night doubleheader, the Yankees announced in a tweet.

Jason Hammel will pitch the first game for the Cubs, followed by left-hander Travis Wood in the regularly scheduled game at 6:05 p.m.

The rules governing the addition of a 26th player for doubleheaders were adjusted prior to this season, so the Cubs and Yankees will be permitted to add an extra player for the second game.

Sun-Times

Several Cubs could be attractive to Yankees as season progresses

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

NEW YORK — Five years ago, Jeff Samardzija was a rookie reliever when the Cubs helped christen the new Yankee Stadium with an exhibition series at the end of spring training.

“That was exciting,” said Samardjiza as he talked about his first trip back to the Bronx. “I got sent down that day, so it wasn’t that good of a day. … But it’s the place to play. It’ll be fun, for sure.”

A lot has changed for the guy who’s now considered the ace.

But one thing hasn’t: It’s still the place to play.

In fact, as the Cubs and Samardzija get closer to the summer trade season that is almost certain to put him in another team’s playoff race by August, New York figures to be one of the places in the mix for the powerful right-hander.

And he might not be the only one. Last year, the Yankees needed a hitter, and the Cubs sent them Alfonso Soriano and a trunkload of money to cover most of his salary.

This year?

As the Cubs open a one-day, two-game series at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, at least four Cubs seem to be good fits for a possible return to the Bronx on a one-way ticket in July.

1. Samardzija. The big-game pitcher might be the ideal fit on baseball’s biggest regular-season stage, not to mention in October.

Despite six consecutive quality starts dating to last season, the two-time Opening Day starter doesn’t have a win, largely because of a 35-inning scoreless drought by the team over the last five.

Imagine if he had a lineup of even aging All-Stars like the Yankees?

“You put him in the middle of a rotation on a team like that and he could win 18 games,” one rival evaluator said.

2. Darwin Barney. The Gold Glove second baseman has rediscovered his more natural approach at the plate this year after trying to change his hitting style for the previous field staff. But despite a team-leading six walks, he’s had his playing time drop in the early going as manager Rick Renteria looks for ways to keep newcomer Emilio Bonifacio in the lineup.

The 28-year-old Barney could be just the stabilizing influence the Yankees need in an aging middle infield that for now includes a 36-year-old second baseman with back problems (Brian Roberts) and a 40-year-old superstar shortstop (Derek Jeter) nursing a tight quadriceps.

3. Bonifacio. He turns 29 next week and can play six different positions, including both middle infield spots. And he’s one of the hottest hitters the first two weeks.

4. James Russell. The left-handed reliever has exactly the kind of big-league, bulldog mentality that plays in New York.

The Yankees have only one lefty in the rotation (CC Sabathia) and only one proven lefty in the bullpen: 37-year-old Matt Thornton, who’s already been used in six games.

Russell, 28, could provide a strong complement to Thornton while likely taking on a less hectic pace (his 151 appearances the last two years is fourth in the majors).

Let the auditions begin.

Sun-Times

Jason Hammel focusing on hitters, not Yankees’ Tanaka

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

NEW YORK — Through his first two starts, Jason Hammel has done more than anyone could have reasonably expected when he signed that one-year, $6 million deal just before spring training started.

At 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA, he has half the Cubs’ victories and is second only to Jeff Samardzija in ERA (among starters) and innings per start.

Not bad for a guy who had his entire offseason held up by the celebrity free-agent pitcher he’ll face at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.

“Every free agent was [in a holding pattern],” said Hammel, who talked to the Cubs early in the offseason and then had to wait until the Yankees won the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes in late January to know the Cubs still had the means and desire to sign him.

“Tanaka was basically the last stone to break the levee. Obviously, I knew about him a lot in the offseason, but it was really just a waiting game because he was the biggest part of the market. … It was a strange offseason for free agents.”

Hammel is well aware that the Cubs saw Tanaka as a potentially major part of their rebuilding plans, worth a six-year, $120 million offer.

Hammel’s place in the Cubs’ plans is more temporary, this year’s version of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman. He’s the upside guy on a one-year contract likely to get traded for prospects.

As far as he’s concerned, the whole thing is just part of the business of baseball.

“The Cubs were the first team to come to me with a legitimate offer, so I was excited that they were interested,” said Hammel, who looks strong and healthy after battling knee and forearm injuries the last two seasons.

“I understood they were going to be looking at other guys, too, at the same time. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. I figured that they had prepared to maybe go for Tanaka, but if it didn’t work out, they had to have a Plan B or Plan C. It is what it is.”

Don’t expect him to take any personal feelings to the mound against Tanaka.

The former Baltimore Oriole, who lost a decisive Game  5 at Yankee Stadium in the 2012 playoffs despite pitching well, hasn’t lost to the Yankees in three starts since. And beating them again is the only thing on his mind.

“It’s great to go in and beat the Yankees. That’s everybody’s game plan,” he said. “You want to beat the Yankees because they represent winning. That’s what they do. I’m going to worry about what their lineup is doing more than what their pitcher might do to us.”

Sun-Times

Rain postpones Cubs-Yankees game Tuesday

By GORDON WITTENMYER

NEW YORK – Coming off their ninth consecutive series loss, dating to last year, maybe the Cubs could use Tuesday’s rainout more than most, especially coming off back-to-back losses against the rival Cardinals over the weekend.

So no one was complaining when rain all day Tuesday and a worse forecast for Tuesday night forced the postponement of the opener of the quick two-game series against the New York Yankees before the teams even arrived at Yankee Stadium.

Not until Wednesday, at least.

That’s when the series will be played in its entirety as a split doubleheader, with game times of 12:05 p.m. and 6:05 p.m.

The pitching matchups remain the same, with Tuesday’s scheduled starters, Cubs’ right-hander Jason Hammel (2-0, 2.63) and Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 3.21), pitching the first game (on Comcast Sportsnet).

Cubs lefty Travis Wood (0-1, 2.92) faces Michael Pineda (1-1, 1.50) in the nightcap.

Depending how deep the starters are able to work Wednesday, the extra day off should benefit a bullpen that has been leaned on hard in the early going, in part because of three extra-inning games (adding 10 total innings).

The Cubs also were delayed by rain by 46 minutes in the third inning of Sunday’s loss in St. Louis.

Daily Herald

This issue not as simple as black and white

By Mike Imrem

The customary grumbling accompanied April 15 on Tuesday.

First, on tax day, the complaint always is that the IRS is stealing our money. Second, on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut, the complaint is that Major League Baseball doesn’t have enough black players.

All major leaguers wear No. 42 to commemorate the anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier. Ironically, only about 8 percent of those players are black this season.

MLB can be blamed for a lot that is going on in the game these days.

Like, who could mess up a replay-review system worse than baseball has? Isn’t it finally time for the American League to ditch the designated hitter and get back to real baseball? Hasn’t the allure of interleague play worn off?

Perhaps the most compelling question is whether the major leagues are responsible for the lack of blacks on the field.

Maybe at one time MLB could be accused of this. Certainly Robinson’s breakthrough wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. Afterward franchises such as the Yankees and Red Sox resisted change as long as they could. Then some teams had a quota for the number of blacks on their rosters.

Yet eventually all clubs saw the value of the black player and representation grew to larger than it was in the general population.

So what happened since then? Did MLB become uncomfortable with the number of black players? Or did it become too comfortable and fail to sustain interest in the black community?

I’m inclined toward the answers simply being that the landscape of sports changed in the United States.

The NFL and NBA grew, challenged baseball and became more attractive to athletes of all colors, especially blacks, than they had been.

Football and basketball are more action-packed than baseball is and became more fun to some than standing around waiting for the ball to be hit to them.

More kids are needed to play a baseball game than a basketball game … Fewer college scholarships are available on a baseball team than a football team … Playing football in front of 50,000 college fans or basketball in front of 15,000 fans is more glamorous than playing baseball in front of 5,000 minor league fans.

Combine all these factors, plus a few others, and baseball has become more of a suburban game while football and basketball have become more urban games.

A couple of years ago on “No. 42 Day,” I asked a black Hall of Famer this question: If you were growing up today, might you play football instead of baseball?”

He couldn’t say for sure one way or the other.

Yes, he might still play baseball. But Willie Mays might play running back at Alabama and Hank Aaron point guard at Duke.

Baseball can’t be blamed for the rise of the NFL and NBA or for other shifts in the culture and demographics of sports.

The major leagues are doing just fine, as indicated by an attendance record just being set for a weekend this early in April.

Black athletes are doing just fine, too, achieving fame and fortune in basketball and football and also in baseball if they prefer.

Ironically, the makeup of MLB rosters is as diverse today as ever with the inclusion of more Asians, Latin Americans and others.

Still, baseball would be better with more blacks jumping back into the talent pool and into seats at the ballpark.

Franchise owners — the White Sox’ Jerry Reinsdorf foremost among them — are trying whatever programs they can think of to get blacks to take up baseball instead of other sports.

The challenge is formidable. Football and basketball provide strong competition to baseball.

Until MLB owners discover a solution they’ll continue to grumble as much as taxpayers do on April 15.

Daily Herald

Cubs-Yankees to play doubleheader Wednesday

By Bruce Miles

The New York Yankees didn’t wait around all day. Seeing continued bad weather in the forecast, they postponed Tuesday night’s scheduled interleague game against the Cubs at Yankee Stadium.

The two teams will make it up Wednesday afternoon as part of a day-night doubleheader. Game 1 begins at 12:05 CDT while the second game gets under way at the regularly scheduled time of 6:05.

Also postponed was an event honoring Nelson Mandela and Jackie Robinson. A news conference will be held Wednesday, and a ceremony will take place before the regularly scheduled game.

The pitching matchups remain the same. Jason Hammel goes for the Cubs in the afternoon against Masahiro Tanaka, for whom the Cubs made a run in the free-agent market this past off-season.

In the second game, Travis Wood goes against Michael Pineda.

Hammel is off to a 2-0 start with a 2.63 ERA. During his career, he has faced the Yankees 17 times, going 3-3 with a 5.17. ERA. He has seen a lot of the Yankees from his days with Tampa Bay and Baltimore.

"They’ve always been a team that is very patient, and a lot of their guys at the top and the bottom of the order just battle and put the ball in play," Hammel told cubs.com.

He is looking to become the first starting pitcher to win his first 3 decisions as a Cub since Carlos Silva won 8-straight to start the 2010 season.

Praise for Soriano:

The Cubs will reunite with Alfonso Soriano in the short two-game series. The Cubs traded Soriano to the Yankees last July 26 for pitching prospect Corey Black.

Soriano is a popular teammate wherever he goes. He already has impressed Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner with his work on defense.

"How many guys who have made $200 million and done everything he has done in his career would be out there doing this kind of work?" Gardner asked Joel Sherman of the New York Post. "Let me tell you the answer — none. He did this in Houston last year after we were eliminated.

"It’s impressive. But that is him. I am telling you he is a great teammate. He does the work, always has a smile, never says a bad word, and you look at him and you can never tell if we won or we lost a game. The same guy every day."

McDonald to front office:

The Cubs named Darnell McDonald baseball operations assistant. McDonald, 35, announced his retirement as a player earlier this month after 16 professional seasons, including last year with the Cubs organization. The former outfielder also went to spring training with the club this year.

According to the Cubs, “McDonald will contribute to all elements within the club’s player-development and amateur-scouting departments. He will visit the club’s affiliates to work with the minor-league players on and off the field, evaluate amateur players leading up to the draft and spend time around the major-league club. McDonald will also attend instructional league during the fall and serve there as an extra coach among his other responsibilities.”

The journeyman player originally was selected by the Orioles in the first round of the 1997 draft and made his major-league debut with the Orioles in 2004. Last year, he saw action in 25 games for the Cubs, batting .302 with a home run.

15 4 / 2014

Daily Herald

Closer by committee? Cubs ought to give it a shot

By Bruce Miles

Baseball is a sport that doesn’t take to change very well, and when change does happen, it usually happens gradually and grudgingly.

Watching the Cubs since the start of the season — yeah, I know it hasn’t been easy — you find them with a crisis as the closer’s spot once again.

Jose Veras had the job, but he’s out already after a shaky start, and now the Cubs will go with a combination of Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm and maybe even James Russell to finish off close victories, few as they may be.

On one hand, the approach draws groans as the dreaded “closer by committee” system. But on the other, I say to Cubs manager Rick Renteria: give it a shot.

Over the last generation in baseball, we’ve seen specialization become the norm in bullpen management to the point of silliness.

We’ve been told repeatedly that “the last three outs of the game are the toughest to get and you really need a special guy to get them.”

I think it’s more that baseball has talked itself into that mentality.

In a better world, managers would approach the end of games with the matchups they think are best to win that day.

If that means bringing your designated closer in to pitch to a tough hitter with two outs and two men on in the seventh inning, when the game is no less on the line, and turning things over to somebody else for the eighth and ninth, so be it.

Like anything else, the designated closer role worked for somebody way back when and then it was copied around baseball.

That’s what happened when teams went from four-man starting rotations in the early 1970s to the five-man. We’re speaking generally here, because five-man and even three-man rotations have been in vogue with various teams now and then throughout baseball history.

But the Cubs are in a perfect position to abandon conventional “wisdom” and go with a different approach with their closer situation, even if they don’t revolutionize the game and cause a sea change.

The 2014 Cubs have nothing to lose. They’re already 4-8, and nobody really expects them to be any better than they were the past two seasons. They might even be worse.

Going with multiple pitchers to close out games can work. The 2005 Boston Red Sox made the postseason — falling in the division series to the eventual world-champion White Sox — with no relief pitcher getting more than 50 percent of his team’s saves. That’s how some in the stats community define a closer-by-committee system.

The Red Sox of that year had 38 saves as a team, with Keith Foulke picking up 15, Mike Timlin 13 and Alan Embree 1. Lo and behold, the other 9 went to Curt Schilling, who may end up in the Hall of Fame someday based on his work as a starter.

Nearer to home, the 1992 White Sox didn’t make the playoffs, but they had a respectable season, finishing 86-76. Their 52 saves that season were split among Bobby Thigpen (22), Scott Radinsky (15) Roberto Hernandez (12), Wilson Alvarez (1), Greg Hibbard (1) and Don Pall (1). Thigpen never was quite the same after his then-record 57-save season in 1990.

Most times, teams will try something different out of necessity. Either somebody gets hurt or is ineffective in a certain role.

The Cubs have frittered away good money the last couple of years on designated closers for teams they knew weren’t going to be good.

Last year it was Kyuji Fujikawa, who signed a two-year free-agent deal worth $9.5 million out of Japan. Fujikawa replaced the ineffective Carlos Marmol but came down with elbow problems that cost him most of last season and likely will keep him out a good chunk of this year.

Veras came to the Cubs this past winter on a one-year, $4 million deal, and now he’s out as closer, at least for now. He has 2 blown saves, an ERA of 12.27 and a WHIP of 2.45 in the small sample size of the early season.

But when a closer continually looks bad and blows saves, it can have a tremendously negative impact on the club and the rest of the bullpen. It also has a way of turning the fan base against the team and manager.

By spreading the save chances among Strop, Rondon, Grimm and Russell, the Cubs can take advantage of favorable matchups from the seventh inning on and even find out if they have “the guy” if they do decide to go back to a one-closer system.

Given the state of the team these days and in its rebuilding process, doing things a different way can’t hurt. It’s definitely worth a shot.

Cubs.com

Soriano’s friendship invaluable to Starlin, young Cubs

Veteran continues to be source of guidance, support to former teammates in Chicago

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Mention Alfonso Soriano’s name to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, and he immediately smiles.

When Castro was called up to the Major Leagues in May 2010 at the age of 20, Soriano, then in his fourth year with the Cubs and his 12th in the big leagues, welcomed the infielder into his Chicago home. The invitation didn’t come at the team’s request or because both were from the Dominican Republic, but rather it came about because that’s what some of the Yankees players did for Soriano when he first joined the team in 1999.

Soriano and Castro didn’t just live together, they were inseparable. They trained together, hit together, ate together.

"He was kind of like my father," Castro said of his former teammate, who he will see on Tuesday when the Cubs play the Yanks in the first of a two-game Interleague set at Yankee Stadium.

"Not everybody can have people who, when you come to the big leagues the first time, take me to his home and let me live with him," Castro said. "I didn’t pay a bill, I didn’t pay for what I eat, I didn’t pay nothing."

It wasn’t just Castro, either. Soriano would take all the Cubs’ Latino players out to dinner every road trip and always picked up the tab. He never let anyone else pay.

"He talked about good things, like things you can learn about the game," Castro said of the dinner conversations. "He’s a smart guy. He talks about things that you have to listen to and learn. He’s awesome. We miss him here."

Say Soriano’s name to Cubs catcher Welington Castillo, and he smiles instantly.

"You want to have a guy like him close to you who can help you in everything — in life, in games," Castillo said. "He was real special for all the Latin players."

This past offseason, Castillo, 26, and his family traveled to Soriano’s house in the Dominican and vice versa.

"He called me the day before Opening Day and wished me a good season, be healthy, and told me to play hard and never give up," Castillo said. "We keep in touch."

Soriano reached out to Cubs outfielder Junior Lake, 24, before the season, as well.

"He told me to keep going, play hard every day, no matter what," Lake said, smiling. "I appreciated it, too."

Those smiles are genuine, and they reflect what Soriano meant to the young Latino players on the Cubs. He was their mentor, their inspiration, their role model and their friend.

"It’s an honor for everybody to be a teammate with him, and the coaches, too," said Cubs coach Franklin Font. "He’s a great person. I’ll be happy to see him and thank him for the opportunity to work with him and opening a door for me in baseball to be around him."

Font was included in the dinners on the road, and he remembers Soriano’s stories about his early days with the Yankees, how Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter took care of him and taught him how to be a professional, on and off the field.

"[Soriano’s] a proud man, and [he] took pride in every game, every at-bat," Font said. "He tried to push the team to the best level it could be. The only time I ever heard him complain was when we lost. He didn’t like losing."

Ask Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo about Soriano, and he recalls the days when the outfielder would bring his oldest son, Alfonso Jr., into the clubhouse. Rizzo and Soriano had lockers next to each other at Wrigley Field.

"His son would play with us and see his dad working out before the game and after the game, and he’d be kind of mimicking him," Rizzo said. "That type of thing gets to your heart.

"He’d smile if he was hitting four home runs in a game and making it look easy or making four outs a game. He was always having a good time."

In seven seasons with the Cubs, Soriano, 38, batted .264 with 181 home runs, 526 RBIs and 70 stolen bases. It never seemed enough for fans, who placed huge expectations on the outfielder because of the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs gave him after his 40-40 season with the Nationals in 2006. If Soriano was frustrated by the occasional boos when he didn’t deliver at the plate or struggled in left, he never showed it.

"I think he did a really good job of not letting any of that [criticism] affect him," Rizzo said. "It’s about being a professional. A lot of these contracts, you get paid for what you did, and I think Soriano has had a Hall of Fame career, in my opinion."

What his teammates remember is Soriano’s professionalism, his love of the game and how hard he worked to keep his body in shape. Soriano said goodbye to the Cubs on July 25. He had been dealt to the Yankees for cash considerations and Minor League pitcher Corey Black, part of the team’s rebuilding effort. The Cubs were at Chase Field to play the D-backs, and Soriano spoke briefly to the players, then caught a red-eye flight to New York.

"It was emotional for everyone, for our manager [Dale Sveum], for a lot of the Latin guys, for a lot of the American guys to say goodbye," Rizzo said of that night in Phoenix. "He’s a superstar in this game. To play with him, to see him playing with the Yankees when I was growing up, it was surreal playing with him. To get to know him on a friendly basis was even better. I feel honored I got to play with him."

Three days later, the Cubs were more than 2,900 miles and two time zones away in San Francisco, watching the Yankees play the Rays. In his third game back with the Yanks on July 28, Soriano went 4-for-5, hit a home run and drove in three runs. And he flashed that megawatt smile on TV that his Cubs teammates loved to see.

Castro, 24, is trying to apply the lessons he learned from Soriano, and he is keeping an eye on the young players, such as top prospect Javier Baez.

"I want to do for [Baez] what [Soriano] did for me," Castro said. "If you have a question about something you don’t know — and not only on the field, but personal or whatever, not only in baseball — and you talked to him, he listened to you like you were his son. He’s awesome."

How close are they? Soriano is the godfather of Castro’s 1-year-old son, Starling Jr.

"I talked to him, and he said this might be his last year," Castro said of Soriano. "He told me if he feels good and his knee feels good, he’ll play two more."

If Soriano does keep playing, it’ll make a lot of people smile.

ESPNChicago.com

Theo: Soriano trade worked for both teams

By Jesse Rogers

NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs will see some familiar faces when they take on the New York Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Former Cubs catcher Joe Girardi was probably never close to becoming their manager this past winter, but it was a fun rumor to follow. Tuesday’s starter Masahiro Tanaka may have been a little closer to signing in Chicago, but ultimately the Yankees outbid everyone else by adding another year — and $22 million — to his contract.

Then there is Alfonso Soriano. Maligned in his early years as a Cub he redeemed himself, becoming a better defender and leader on the team while earning $136 million in the process. The Cubs were finally able to move him last summer for minor league pitcher Corey Black. Black, who is starting to open some eyes at Double-A this year, went 4-0 at Single-A Daytona after the trade, while helping them to a Florida State League championship. Meanwhile, Soriano,38, has hit 20 home runs in 70 games for the Yankees.

“It looks like a deal that worked out for both sides,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said Monday. “He had a no-trade clause and the Yankees were a team he felt comfortable with. We were in talks for a while. They said no to all the players (we asked for) including Corey Black. And then eventually they said they would do Black.”

The debate regarding Soriano will subside over time but it’s still a good question: Was he a good free-agent signing? If his legs had held up or he performed better in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 the answer might be easier. Simply getting better at defense at the end of his run in Chicago might not be enough in fans’ eyes. But the young Cubs players swear by his leadership, which means he could have an effect on the rebuilding process long after he’s gone. And who knows, maybe Black turns into a major league arm. Epstein just saw him pitch five innings of no-hit ball for Tennessee recently.

“He was 94-96 with really good life,” he said. “We’re happy with his development so far.”

Black might end up being in the bullpen, although he’s starting now. The trade of Soriano also opened up room in the outfield.

“It’s given us a chance to take a closer look at Junior Lake,” Epstein said. “That’s important to find out what we have in him. It’s tough to lose Soriano’s leadership but there’s a right time to move on and it made sense.”

Signing Tanaka also made sense but the Yankees were the more desperate team. The Cubs front office did their best in sending a contingent to Los Angeles to woo him, but they came up short. Management isn’t willing to talk on the record about another team’s property, but so far Tanaka has lived up to the scouting reports. He’s 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA in two starts. His fastball is hittable but his splitter is devastating. In 14 innings he’s given up 13 hits and struck out 18. Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel will face him Tuesday night.

“Tanaka was the market this offseason and technically I could be a Plan B but that’s not the way I look at it,” Hammel said on Sunday. “The Cubs came to me with the first legitimate offer that I had well before Tanaka was landed.”

It’s the first time the Cubs will play in the new Yankee Stadium. Hammel was in the AL East with Baltimore and is in familiar territory.

“It’s a spectacle,” he said. “It’s not as intimidating as old Yankee Stadium. That was a knee-knocker.”

ESPNChicago.com

Renteria’s style proving to be unpredictable

By Jesse Rogers

After two weeks on the job, Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria might best be described by one word: unpredictable.

Maybe he realizes he doesn’t exactly have a roster full of All-Stars or maybe this is how he’s always going to be as a manager. But either way, trying to guess a lineup or strategy move of his isn’t the easiest of tasks.

He has bunted in unusual moments, called hit and runs when least expected and hasn’t used the same lineup twice. In fact, only two players — Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro — have started every game. The result is a 4-8 record as the Cubs take an off day in New York before beginning a series with the Yankees on Tuesday.

This past weekend in St. Louis some of his unconventional thinking was on display. On Friday, after the Cubs tied the score 1-1 in the seventh and put runners on first and second with none out, Renteria called for a hit and run as Nate Schierholtz took off for third and Castro swung and missed at a pitch. Schierholtz was easily thrown out and the inning ended soon after.

"Here is a guy [Castro] who had been swinging the bat really well," Renteria said after the game. "You would think I might bunt him there … Starlin hits a lot of ground balls. My hope was at the bare minimum he puts the ball in play and we have men at second and third and I’m back to the same situation."

It’s unconventional as much for what Renteria said just there as anything. Castro was hot, plus the Cubs had just reached with three straight batters, and with a slower runner in Schierholtz trying to make it to third, Castro almost had to hit a ground ball or get a base hit for a good outcome. And pitcher Carlos Martinez had gotten 32 percent of hitters to swing and miss at him so far, well above the league average, according to ESPN Stats &samp; Information. In fact, Renteria said he’s done the same move in the past and hit into a line-drive triple play. But he did it anyway.

Then there’s the bunting. The Cubs are at the top of the league in sacrifice bunts with seven and that doesn’t include the unsuccessful tries such as later in Friday’s game. It was the top of the 11th in a 3-3 game and after already bunting Ryan Sweeney successfully to get Schierhlotz to third, Renteria had lefty Ryan Kalish attempt a safety squeeze with one out. Kalish was so taken aback by the sign he wasn’t focused enough on the execution.

"I put all thought of anything besides I need to hit out of my head when I finally got [the sign] I didn’t execute," Kalish said after the game. "My goal was to bunt it down to first base. They had to get my attention."

Schierholtz was as surprised as anyone. (By the way, does Renteria think Schierholtz is faster than we think?) With the great Yadier Molina behind the plate and a lefty up, he didn’t exactly have a great lead and so a perfect bunt was needed. Kalish popped out but luckily catcher Welington Castillo followed with a homer to help win the game.

"Believe me I sit there thinking, ‘Guys, I’m thinking outside the box here and here are all the things going through my mind and why,’" Renteria said.

So he knows it isn’t the norm to call some of these plays, yet Renteria is willing to try. That part of his managerial style might be a work in progress but some of the other results so far give credence to his abilities as a communicator.

Rizzo and Castro are off to good starts, so whatever buttons he’s pushing are working there. And as Renteria preached “good approaches” at the plate during spring training, and the first week of the regular season, the offense sputtered. He stayed the course — and for better or worse — stayed with his platoon lineups. The result was seven straight games last week of scoring four runs or more. The last time the Cubs did that was late May of last season. In that span they went 5-2. This time it translated into a 3-4 record and they have dropped two of three in every series so far.

"If we keep pushing, at some point it has to turn," Renteria said after Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Cardinals. "If we were playing really bad baseball I’d go, ‘Gosh, I’d be really concerned.’ But the reality is they’re showing a lot of fight."

Renteria’s defense of his players also fits with people’s descriptions of him before he took the job. He has gone to bat for the struggling Edwin Jackson as well as Jose Veras, though he didn’t remain stubborn after initially saying Veras was still the closer. He backed Veras up Saturday to reporters after a blown save then talked to him Sunday and announced a change. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Analyzing Cubs managers is a rite of spring — and summer, fall and winter as well. With just a few short weeks on the job, Renteria is already leaving an impression. Is it the start of something special or is he too optimistic and unconventional for the gig in the Cubs dugout? Time will tell, but it has been an interesting start to his managerial career.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs vs. Yankees: A look inside the Tanaka bidding war

By Patrick Mooney

The Cubs made their sales pitch inside the living room of a beautiful Beverly Hills home, trying to recruit the Japanese superstar who would have changed the entire vibe around this rebuilding franchise.

The Cubs will get an up-close look at what could have been when Masahiro Tanaka takes the ball on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. Tanaka (1-0, 3.21 ERA) wearing pinstripes in New York is the obvious, predictable ending.

But it still had so many twists and turns, from the high-stakes negotiations between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, to the will-they-or-won’t-they posting drama, to a secretive, anti-LeBron post-up for the prized free agent.

“I certainly wish he was in a Cubs uniform — I’d love to watch him out there,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But at the same time, I don’t think you can have regrets. We offered what we thought was an aggressive contract. We put our best foot forward, and ultimately the Yankees were more aggressive.”

Polar Vortex

The Cubs gathered in Southern California in early January, escaping a brutal winter where they stored up their resources for the 25-year-old pitcher. Tanaka had gone 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, emerging as an ideal fit for the organization’s business/baseball plans.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts sat in the meeting with Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Rick Renteria, the new bilingual manager, would eventually order Rosetta Stone tapes to learn some Japanese. Nao Masamoto, the major-league video coordinator and Pacific liaison, served as an interpreter.

“It was funny, because we assumed all along that he would go on a tour, and we would be one of the places (he’d visit),” Hoyer said. “When we got the call that it was going to be out in L.A., we were like: ‘Hey, that’s a really good thing. That definitely raises our odds.’ Because I think we were at zero percent if he had been in Chicago that week.”

All along — despite the Twitter rumors and Cubs Convention speculation — team officials predicted Tanaka would sign with the Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cubs would eventually make a six-year, $120 million final bid, plus the $20 million release fee to Tanaka’s Japanese club. That’s crazy money for someone who had never thrown a pitch in the big leagues, with a right arm that already racked up more than 1,300 innings in Japan.

Or it’s simply the cost of doing business in a $9 billion industry. The Yankees blew the Cubs away as they try to dig out from the leveraged partnership the Ricketts family formed with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009.

“If there are good players out there and we are the high bidder, we’ll sign him right now,” Epstein said. “There’s never an ‘on’ switch. We were on Tanaka hard. If there are free agents out there worthy of it — and it looks like there may be — then we’ll be aggressive on those guys. But we’re never going to sign a player just to sign a player.

“We’re obviously interested in adding. The closer you are to winning, the more valuable those added wins are and the more you want to pay for them.”

‘The Dating Game’

Casey Close ran the show. Tanaka’s agent represents Derek Jeter and played with Barry Larkin at the University of Michigan before marrying Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Close’s colleagues from Excel Sports Management joined the meeting, along with Tanaka’s entourage, which included a few interpreters.

Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers told Sports Illustrated: “It was like ‘The Dating Game.’ (Tanaka) is sitting there on the couch and then, ‘Now it’s Bachelor Number 1!’ You come down and sell your entire organization in 15 minutes.”

Hoyer said the Cubs went for about an hour or 90 minutes, without bumping into any of the rival executives rolling through the house.

“It puts pressure on you to tell your story and to engage with the player in a short amount of time,” Hoyer said. “(Tanaka) came across as very serious and thoughtful. He certainly asked some good questions, and you got the sense that he was really interested in what teams were going to say.

“I don’t know how many teams had gone before us. (But) from a player’s perspective, that is a tiring process. You got all these people you don’t know presenting their team. He was really attentive and engaged.”

The Cubs handed out materials and showed a video that highlighted Wrigley Field as well as the city of Chicago, talking up an elite farm system and how Tanaka would become the marquee attraction at Clark and Addison.

Evil Empire

The Tanaka rumors were going full blast when president of business operations Crane Kenney did his Cubs Convention stump speech on Jan. 18 inside a Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers ballroom. Kenney told fans and reporters that the Cubs generated the fifth-highest revenues in the game last season.

“We’re a really fortunate team to have the resources we do,” Kenney said during the media scrum afterward. “We hear the fans. They would like to see improvement at the major-league level. That improvement’s going to come, but it’s going to come through the system.

“Resources are available, and we are busy. I’m not going to comment on Tanaka or anyone else. That’s really Theo’s area. But we have resources. And when we need them, they will be there.”

Four days later, the Yankees announced their seven-year megadeal with Tanaka worth $155 million. Giving him an opt-out clause after the 2017 season would have been a non-starter for the Cubs and their competitive timeline. It never got to the point where the front office had to consider amending the no-trade policy.

The Cubs will see what all the hype was about on Tuesday night in The Bronx.

“Ultimately, in those situations, you have to go to a place where you feel comfortable,” Hoyer said. “We felt like we were aggressive. Obviously, in the end, the Yankees made a higher bid. If you’re being honest, the Dodgers and the Yankees always have the financial muscle to go that extra mile, and they did in this situation.”

CSNChicago.com

Jeff Samardzija knows he will likely be traded by Cubs

By Staff

Jeff Samardzija made it through an offseason that consisted of non-stop trade rumors and still wore a Cubs uniform on Opening Day.

The trade talk hasn’t altered Samardzija’s performance on the mound in the early part of the season either. He sports a 1.29 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in three April starts, but one big number stands out in his stat line: a zero in the win column. That number isn’t because Samardzija is underperforming, it’s the exact opposite.

The 29-year-old ace of the Cubs with a Notre Dame football pedigree has given it his all in seven seasons with the team that swayed him from a football career. But with his team in the midst of another rebuilding season, Samardzija knows his time in Chicago could come to an end at any time.

"I don’t know, I think it really depends on how this team turns out this season," Samardzija said Monday on NBC Sports Network’s ‘The Dan Patrick Show’. "I think it’s looking like it, but I don’t want to say anything for sure because I don’t want to be traded."

Samardzija is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2015 season, the same time the Cubs are hoping to compete in the playoffs with a young core of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

The Cubs could opt to trade Samardzija and then try to re-sign him before the 2016 season, but right now he’s not worried about anything other than winning.

"I want to win," Samardzija said. "That’s my number one goal. I don’t care about anything else but winning."

It’s still early, but the Cubs (4-8) sit in last place of the NL Central, making Samardzija’s goal of pitching for a winner on the North Side an unlikely scenario in 2014.

CSNChicago.com

Samardzija: Playing for Cubs in Wrigleyville is ‘dangerous’

By Staff

Imagine you’re a 22-year-old kid with millions of dollars in your bank account and playing professional baseball in one of the biggest party neighborhoods in Chicago.

Yeah, it’s easy to see how that can be dangerous.

Jeff Samardzija, who signed a $10 million deal out of Notre Dame, got his first taste of the big leagues during the pennant race in 2008, when Wrigleyville was rocking night in and night out.

"It is (dangerous)," Samardzija said on "The Dan Patrick Show" on Monday morning. "Being a young kid, I can’t say I didn’t go through my fair share of, ‘Hey Jeff … slow down a little bit.’

"It’s like, ‘I’m 22, you guys gave me all this money. It’s not my fault. I live in Chicago. I’m just an innocent bystander here.’

"I had a great time, but you learn … You learn as a young kid that you need to really balance what you do off the field with on the field if you want to perform up to the level you’re demanded to in Chicago."

So has Samardzija ever pitched with a hangover?

"Possibly," the big right-hander joked.

Patrick also asked Samardzija about the pine-tar craze in the game today, where everybody is trying to catch pitchers with pine tar or some other substance on their hands.

Samardzija brushed it off, saying it’s not a big deal; pitchers just try to do anything they can to get a grip on the baseball.

"If a guy I’m facing has a little pine tar, I have no problem with that," Samardzija said. "It’s more of when it’s something gaudy, something obvious.

"It’s more about doctoring up the ball, too. When you start cutting the ball, you start scuffing the ball, that’s when it really affects the pitch. A little pine tar doesn’t affect the pitch unless you’re putting a big clump on the side of the ball."

Tribune

Derek Jeter has made impression on Starlin Castro

Cubs shortstop says it’s ‘awesome’ to see Yankees star play

By Mark Gonzales

NEW YORK — Starlin Castro knows the pressures of playing under a microscope after reaching the majors at 20 and being selected to two All-Star Games only to experience a down year in 2013 that seemed to overshadow his past achievements.

That scrutiny, however, pales in comparison to the surveillance that has followed Derek Jeter throughout a storied 19-year career with the Yankees.

Castro hopes to pay his respects to Jeter, who is retiring after this season, Tuesday night when the Cubs visit Yankee Stadium.

"It’s awesome to see that guy play," Castro said. "I saw a little bit of him in the All-Star Game in 2012. Before that, I had never seen him play before. He’s a guy everyone is looking at. He’s awesome. Everybody wants to be like him.

"God gives something to everybody. He’s been blessed, and he’s had a beautiful career. I want to keep up like that, and maybe I can have the same career too. But not everyone can be the same.”

Jeter, 39, has missed the last two games because of a sore right quadriceps muscle and was limited to 17 games in 2013 because of an array of leg injuries after suffering a broken right ankle in the 2012 playoffs.

"I met him at the (2012) All-Star Game, and he was very professional," Castro, 24, said. "He just said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ That was all, but he didn’t have to do that. That was nice of him.”

Castro grew up in the Dominican Republic admiring countryman Miguel Tejada, but Jeter has left an impression on Castro, who is batting .300 and is tied for the team lead with eight RBIs.

Jeter’s production, which includes 3,326 career hits and four Sliver Slugger awards, stands out the most among his achievements, Castro said.

"He does a lot more too," Castro said. "He’s very smart. He supports everyone on his team. He’s a good teammate. He makes great plays to win the game and comes in with a great attitude every day. It’s unbelievable."

After starting 0-for-9 and committing an error that resurrected questions about his focus, Castro has answered by batting .365 in his last 10 games and driving the ball to all fields.

Defensively, Castro has experienced no further lapses. Instead he ranged far behind second to make plays and has displayed sound judgment in knowing the speed of baserunners and recognizing when to take time or hurry to throw to first base.

"He’s doing very well," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "He wants to get out there and do whatever it takes. He brings good energy and is working hard."

Tribune

Alfonso Soriano, Joe Girardi happy with Yankees

Ex-Cubs slugger having fun on a winner; manager enjoys lucrative extension after interest from Cubs

By Paul Sullivan

NEW YORK — The “Cubs Way” isn’t just a manual, it’s a way of life.

In the midst of a long-term rebuild in July, the Cubs paid the Yankees nearly $18 million to take Alfonso Soriano off their hands.

Three months later, their stealth interest in Joe Girardi helped the Yankees manager get a four-year, $16 million extension.

Now Soriano gets a chance to punish his old team, while Girardi matches wits against Rick Renteria, the eternal optimist who eventually got the Cubs’ job.

The Cubs and Yankees square off Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, starting a two-game miniseries that’s not lacking for storylines.

Both Soriano and Girardi were relaxed and smiling last weekend in New York, where the Yankees won three of four against the Red Sox.

Leaning back in a comfy chair in the huge Yankees clubhouse, Soriano said he’s happier than he’s been in years. He’s just one of a dozen multimillionaires here and enjoys blending into the background on a probable contender.

"I just want to play baseball and win, and that was not happening with the Cubs," he said. "I was happy mostly when I played for them. But when I saw they weren’t putting out a team to win, I was like, ‘Man, this is kind of like a job now.’ I’d go to the ballpark, work, do my job and go back home.

"I didn’t enjoy it. Here it’s different. Now I’m having fun."

Trading Soriano to the Yankees in July saved the Cubs only $6.8 million of the remaining $24.5 million on his contract, but it accomplished two objectives. It got them a talented low-level prospect in pitcher Corey Black — now in Double A after a sizzling debut at Class A Daytona — and ensured their record would be bad enough to merit a top-five draft pick in 2014.

The Cubs were only 10 games under .500 when Soriano was traded. They went 21-41 afterward, earning that coveted No. 4 pick. While the Cubs’ lineup was lost without Soriano, hitting .228 with a .295 on-base percentage and .364 slugging percentage after the trade, he took off in New York, slugging 17 homers and driving in 50 runs in 58 games.

After another poor start this season, the Cubs are 25-49 since trading Soriano, a miserable .338 winning percentage.

"They haven’t played bad," Soriano insisted. "It looks like the bullpen has been the same (as in 2013).

"I hope they’re going in the right direction," he said. "The city needs the Cubs to win one year."

Girardi was the manager the Cubs hoped could take them to the finish line, and as soon as Dale Sveum was put on the hot seat last September, Girardi became the obvious choice as his successor. His contract was up, and the Cubs sought a manager they could market for the rebuild.

Girardi not only was a popular former Cub. He also won a ring as a manager in 2009 and had that “Yankees cache.”

But the talks never happened. The Yankees declined to let Girardi negotiate elsewhere, knowing of the Cubs’ interest. They quickly locked him up with a four-year extension, making Girardi the game’s second highest-paid manager.

So a Cubs-Girardi reunion never got off the ground.

"No, it never did," he said. "I negotiated with the Yankees and I signed by (Oct. 9), and had really never gotten anywhere. It was important that we tried to get it done early, because family is extremely important to me. I know there are a lot of ties still in Chicago, but my family is ingrained here.

"This has been home for us for the last 10 to 15 years in a sense, New York, and obviously we have a lot of relationships here. I enjoy managing here, and with the opportunity they’ve given me, that’s why we stayed."

The Cubs wound up hiring the little-known Renteria, giving up on finding a big-name manager. Though Girardi said he wouldn’t “ever shut the door” on managing the Cubs some day, that appears unlikely.

"There are other things I want to do in my life besides manage," he said. "I enjoyed broadcasting and someday I think I’ll go back to that. I take it one year at a time. I don’t ever think, ‘I want to manage until I’m 55 or 60.’ I’ll do it as long as I still enjoy it."

Tribune

Series preview: Cubs at Yankees

By Staff

All games on WGN-AM 720.

Season series: Yankees 2-1 in 2011.

Tuesday: 6:05 p.m., CSN.

RH Jason Hammel (2-0, 2.63) vs. RH Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 3.21).

Wednesday: 6:05 p.m., WGN-Ch. 9.

LH Travis Wood (0-1, 2.92) vs. RH Michael Pineda (1-1, 1.50).

Who’s hot: Jason Hammel has limited opponents to a .109 batting average in two starts. Catcher Welington Castillo was 3-for-8 with a home run and four RBIs in a weekend series against the Cardinals. Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury went 5-for-14 with two stolen bases against the Red Sox last weekend. Outfielder Carlos Beltran went 5-for-8 with two doubles, two home runs and four RBIs in his last two games.

Who’s not: Cubs leadoff batter Emilio Bonifacio was 1-for-8 against the Cardinals. Infielder Darwin Barney is 0-for-7. Yankees catcher Brian McCann is 4-for-23. Second baseman Brian Roberts is 1-for-26.

Tribune

Jason Hammel returns to site of his biggest test

Hammel excited about pitching at Yankee Stadium, says he hasn’t felt this healthy since end of 2012

By Mark Gonzales

NEW YORK — Joe Girardi and Masahiro Tanaka will be settled in their Yankee pinstripes Tuesday night, but Jason Hammel will feel just as comfortable trying to beat them at Yankee Stadium.

That’s because Hammel returns to the site of the biggest assignment of his nine-year career — pitching the fifth and deciding game of the 2012 American League Division Series for the Orioles.

Although Hammel suffered the loss despite allowing only two runs in 52/3 innings, a return to Yankee Stadium will bring back pleasant memories.

"It will be a good memory, going back there," said Hammel, who will try to win for the third time in as many starts. "I spent a lot of time in the AL East. There aren’t really many ballparks better than Yankee Stadium. It’s going to be fun. I’ll be reminiscing, and I know a lot of those guys in their lineup.”

The main reasons for Hammel’s eagerness are confidence and health. He admitted his confidence wavered in the final month of the 2011 season with the Rockies, who demoted him to the bullpen.

He was traded the following February to the Orioles but didn’t forget the lessons taught by Rockies pitching coaches Bob Apodaca and Jim Wright.

"(Going to the bullpen) was a demotion and a real knock on me feeling I was a big leaguer," Hammel said. "To go to the AL East, which is one of the most competitive, if not the most competitive, division. To go over there and pitch really well, it was a pick-me-up to prove myself and get my confidence back to where you get guys out at the best level.”

Apodaca and Wright, according to Hammel, taught him to “pitch smart” and not let negative thoughts, such as after surrendering a hit, fester.

"I had to grow up as a person, a man, a human being to learn from my mistakes."

Right knee surgery sidelined Hammel for nearly eight weeks in 2012, but he returned strong enough to pitch in Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS.

After two successful starts with the Cubs, Hammel said he hasn’t felt this healthy since the end of the 2012 season, before he tried to pitch through right forearm tenderness, eventually missing six weeks.

"It’s a big difference when you’re not healthy," Hammel said. "It’s a chain of things that need to go right in your delivery to feel like you’ve executed your pitches. And if you have an injury, or you’re not feeling right, it’s hard to get through that chain to feel confident that you’ve made your pitch you want."

Tanaka talk: During spring training, manager Rick Renteria would greet Japanese media members with a few phrases in Japanese, which they appreciated.

Renteria joked that he might have a few words Tuesday night for Masahiro Tanaka, whom the Cubs will face at Yankee Stadium after they failed to lure him over the winter.

"You know, I might surprise him," Renteria joked.

Renteria learned a few phrases and conversational words through Rosetta Stone and with the help of video coordinator Naoto Masamoto.

"I think it helps," Renteria said. "You’re extending some portion of yourself to communicating, and they appreciate it."

Extra innings: The Cubs and uniformed members from every major league team will wear jersey No. 42 on Tuesday night to commemorate the 67th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. … The Cubs will wear the throwback Chi-Fed uniforms on April 23 when they celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, with the Diamondbacks wearing Kansas City Packers jerseys.

Sun-Times

Former Cubs teammates are eager to say hi to Alfonso Soriano

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

NEW YORK — A lot of these Cubs in New York for this two-game interleague series with the Yankees have never played in the Bronx, much less the new, sixth-year Yankee Stadium.

But almost everywhere they look Tuesday and Wednesday, they will see reminders of what they might have been — and used to be.

From the free-agent pitcher they committed an offseason to chasing, without getting him. To the manager the business-side ­execs claimed they could land, without getting him.

To the outfielder who remains the highest-paid player on the Cubs’ books this year — the last big-money, star-power player they had, until trading Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees for a Class A pitching prospect last July.

New Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka?

“Is he pitching? Cool,” Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “I’m more excited to see Soriano. ­Soriano’s one of my favorite teammates I ever played with, man.”

That was a universal sentiment in the clubhouse when Soriano ­finally approved the trade that sent him back to his original team.

But more than the often underrated teammate he was, Soriano is the $136 million link to the last time the Cubs could dream of Yankee-like Octobers. The link to the last time they were big-market players in the game — to a time when free-agent pitchers (C.C. Sabathia, for one) used to tell friends playing for the Cubs that they would rather sign in Chicago than New York. To win.

Now second-tier free-agent pitchers trying to build value line up for one-year “flip” deals, a rotation-spot commitment and a chance to go to a contender in July.

Soriano wasn’t the ideal free agent fit when ownership ordered the win-now spending spree after the 2006 season just ahead of Tribune Company’s sale. But he was the biggest name, the one they wanted bad enough that then-president John McDonough personally added years and millions to close the deal.

The eight-year, $136 million deal came to define Soriano’s nearly seven-year tenure in Chicago and influenced an often glove-hate, quick-to-boo relationship between the streaky hitter and Wrigley faithful. But a constantly upbeat and energetic Soriano never wanted a day off, often played hurt, led younger players with his attitude and work ethic, and the Cubs don’t make the playoffs in 2007 without him — maybe not in 2008 either.

A two-time All-Star with the Cubs, he played under three managers, three ownership groups, two front office regimes, hit 29 or more homers three times — four if you count last year — and even reinvented himself into a statistically above-average left fielder at age 36.

For all the criticism that came with his contract, he has come surprisingly close to living up to it. Who would have predicted 34 homers and 101 RBI in the seventh year of the deal?

The New York Times recently suggested, “Without any steroid implications against him, Soriano could be slowly creeping into the Hall of Fame conversation.”

Be sure that Samardzija’s not the only ex-Cubs teammate missing Soriano. He’ll be the most popular Yankee with the visiting team during batting practice Tuesday.

But more than that, he represents something the organization has lost, at least for now. Its big-league ­compass, maybe. Its big-market muscle, for sure. But also something as simple as what Lou Piniella used to call Cubbie Swagger.

Remember what that looked like? If not, then take a good look these next two nights at the smiling, 38-year-old kid wearing high socks and pinstripes, the one trying to find October every time he swings the biggest bat in the place.

Sun-Times

Where Cards mine gold, Cubs find failure

BY MARK POTASH

While most Cub fans wait with anticipation for the Big Four — Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora — to lead a player-development renaissance that turns Theo Epstein’s woebegone Cubs into a perennial contender, there’s another faction of Cub loyalists that considers Epstein and Jed Hoyer flim-flam men whose baseball judgment is not nearly as keen as they would like us to believe.

Edwin Jackson continues to be Exhibits A, B and C for that faction and that contention. The signing of a pitcher with such a well-established record of fool’s gold to a four-year, $52 million contract in January of 2013 reeked before the ink was even dry. A fairly predictably dreadful season in which Jackson habitually pitched poorly enough to lose — either falling behind early or blowing sizable leads — made it clear that Epstein & Co. were guilty of either signing a guy off some cherry-picked numbers or terribly misjudging Jackson’s ability to compete.

Now manager Rick Renteria is adding to the folly with an unfortunate defense of yet another losing effort in which Jackson pitched just poorly enough to lose. Given a 2-0 lead in the first inning against the Cardinals and star-in-the-making Michael Wacha on Sunday, Jackson allowed three runs in the second. After the Cubs tied it up against Wacha in the top of the fourth, Jackson allowed a triple to the very next batter he faced — No. 8 hitter Peter Bourjos — and allowed a run that gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead and ultimately led to the Cubs’ 6-4 loss at Busch Stadium.

As Cub fans suffer through another miserable season while the Big Four develop, is it too much to ask them to at least win the games they can win? And isn’t Edwin Jackson the $52 million veteran among the first players responsible for making that happen? Yet Jackson was given two chances to do that Sunday and blew both of them.

‘’It doesn’t matter,’’ Renteria said after the game. ‘’He went out there and grinded it out. We’re still in a limited bullpen situation and he ate up innings for us. And I think all things being equal, he kept us in the ballgame.’’

It doesn’t matter? Really? Did the Cubs hire a manager or a babysitter to replace Dale Sveum? Because Renteria seems more concerned with eating up innings to allow the Cubs to tread water until 2016 or 2017 than he is with the failings of a pitcher who consistently shows that he is incapable of competing and winning.

Apparently, some teams have an eye for that difference-making quality and some don’t. Why is it that while the Cubs were shoring up their beleaguered pitching staff with Edwin Jackson, the Cardinals inserted the 22-year-old Wacha into their rotation and immediately struck gold?

Drafted out of Texas A&M in 2012 — 13 picks after the Cubs took the 18-year-old Almora sixth overall and sent him to rookie ball, stamped with an ETA of 2017 — Wacha is the kind of competitor teams like the Cubs need more than anything else. With the Cardinals facing elimination against the Pirates in the NLDS last season, Wacha pitched a one-hitter in a 2-1 victory. In the NLCS against the Dodgers, Wacha twice beat Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw — allowing no runs and seven hits in 13 2/3 innings. He beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series before finally crapping out in Game 6. But that didn’t come close to diminishing a glorious postseason run that Almora — and Baez, Bryant and Soler, for that matter — might never duplicate.

On Sunday at Busch Stadium, Wacha was beatable but he was not beaten. After Jackson allowed a run to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead in the fifth, Wacha retired six consecutive batters and seven out of eight as the Cardinals turned to their bullpen and pulled away for the victory. Winners win. What a concept.

The Cubs’ reinvigorated farm system is encouraging, but it’s going to take much more than that to turn this thing around. It’s going to take a lot of pitching. Or more precisely a lot of pitchers — guys with a knack for allowing one fewer run than they allow. You and I can find innings-eaters. Theo, Jed & Co. get paid the big bucks to find guys who can win. It’s never too early to start finding those who can and eliminate those who can’t.

14 4 / 2014

Sun-Times

Justin Grimm has eye on Cubs’ closer job

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

ST. LOUIS — Justin Grimm always has seen himself as a starting pitcher. Until the Texas Rangers traded him to the Cubs last summer, all 18 of his appearances last year were as a starter, all but one in the big leagues.

“Then I showed up [for spring training], and they said they wanted to see me out of the bullpen,” Grimm said of the Cubs’ staff, “and I just got fired up about it.”

All of a sudden, just two weeks into the season, the hard-throwing right-hander has another reason to get fired up: The closer job is wide open, and he’s one of three who figure to get a shot at it while demoted closer Jose Veras tries to regain his command.

“I don’t know what’s going on with that. All I know is I’m just going to be ready when I get the ball, whenever it is,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that the thought of closing “definitely creeps into your mind.”

Manager Rick Renteria said he’ll “play it by ear” for now, with Grimm, Pedro Strop and ­Hector Rondon comprising his top ­choices.

Grimm and Strop are tied for third in the majors with seven appearances. Grimm and Rondon (six games) have yet to give up a run.

“For me, if I ever get settled, I just want to have an important role on the pitching staff, wherever that might be,” said Grimm, 25, who’s looking for his first full season in the big leagues. “Either the beginning or the end. I think that’s just all determined on me. I control that destiny, I believe.”

He still has that image of himself as a big-league starting pitcher firmly in his mind. But if he were to get a shot at closing and were to develop into a reliable one, he could let that go.

“When you start having a lot of success at something, you just kind of run with it,” Grimm said. “You don’t want to make too many changes here and there. And ­obviously going from the bullpen to a starting job would be a ­significant change. I think I have the work ethic to do it. I’ve got it in my back pocket if I ever need it, to go back.

“But as long as I’m having success in the bullpen, maybe one day closing could be an option. We’ll just have to see.”

NOTES: Javy Baez, the Cubs’ top prospect, went on Class AAA Iowa’s seven-day disabled list after turning his ankle Friday while taking fielding practice.

The Cubs recalled right-hander Blake Parker to join the bullpen Sunday after sending out lefty Chris Rusin on Saturday following Rusin’s five-inning relief outing.

Sun-Times

After missing on Yankees’ Tanaka, Cubs settled for Hammel; they’ll face off Tuesday

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

ST. LOUIS — Even three months later, 1,000 miles away and a league apart, Masahiro Tanaka stands as the defining player for the 2014 Cubs and represents where their underfunded rebuilding project sits.

The Cubs put the entire weight of their limited offseason resources behind a six-year, $120 million bid for the premier free-agent pitcher on the market, only to watch the megabucks New York Yankees ­casually put another $37 million and a seventh year into the pot to land the Japanese right-hander.

As they ride out of St. Louis on the rails of their eighth loss in 12 games — 6-4 to Michael Wacha and the rival Cardinals — the Cubs finally get their holiday-season wish of seeing Tanaka on the same field as them.

But in this case, it’s as part of a pitching matchup Tuesday that sums up exactly where the two franchises rank in major-league baseball’s hierarchy: the celebrity free agent with the 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings against the admitted “Plan B or Plan C” flip guy, ­Jason Hammel.

Three months ago at the Cubs Convention, Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija alluded to as much when talking about the significance of Tanaka, specifically “the ripple effect” if the Cubs could outlast the big spenders and land him.

“Obviously, it changes that timeline,” said Samardzija, who considers “rebuilding” a four-letter word and who hinted that a successful bid for Tanaka might change his perspective on his own long-stalled extension talks with the Cubs. “I’ve mentioned my frustration with that ‘R’ word before. You bring him in, and that ‘R’ word essentially disintegrates.”

Instead, the only thing disintegrating is another Cubs season — and the time left on Samardzija’s career in Chicago.

What is Samardzija’s take on the Cubs, the “R” word and the future now that Tanaka will start for the opposition?

“As players, you don’t really know how negotiations go or what’s really offered or not offered,” he said. “You can just go by what the results are. The results are he signed with the Yankees.”

A cynic might say the result is Samardzija might be well served to use the Cubs’ day off Monday in New York to look for an apartment.

Because the timeline didn’t move in a positive direction for the Cubs over the winter, Samardzija (barring injury) is the most certain Cub to be traded by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And if the Yankees are in the race, they’ll be one of the teams in Theo Epstein’s ear for pitching help.

Tanaka’s decision kept Edwin Jackson, the losing pitcher Sunday, in the awkward, ultrascrutinized position of being not only the Cub with the largest annual salary, but the only pitcher on the staff signed beyond this season. And, by virtue of his 8-19 record and 5.08 ERA in 34 starts with the Cubs, its biggest disappointment.

If there’s a short-term upside to failing to land Tanaka, it might be Hammel, who takes a better record (2-0) and ERA (2.63) into the duel with Tanaka.

“I just want to win,” Hammel said. “It’s great to go in and beat the Yankees. That’s everybody’s game plan. You want to beat the Yankees because they represent winning. That’s what they do.”

Sun-Times

Cubs airing replay of 2013, fall to Cardinals

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

ST. LOUIS – Nobody in the Cubs’ clubhouse wants to admit how similar this season looks to last.

“You can’t compare them. Last year was last year,” pitcher Carlos Villanueva said this weekend. “Different personnel… different guys.”

And same old stuff.

But by the time $52-million starter Edwin Jackson got done with Sunday’s six-inning re-enactment of his awful 2013 debut season for the Cubs, it was getting harder and harder to deny.

A 6-4 loss to the rival Cardinals in which Jackson blew a lead, left the Cubs with their fourth series loss in as many tries this season – and ninth straight dating to last season.

The weekend in St. Louis even included Jose Veras doing his Carlos Marmol impersonation well enough to lose his closer job 10 games into the season.

Jackson (0-1) turned in his second consecutive poor outing after a modestly encouraging season debut – and now has a three-game ERA (6.19) remarkably similar to his April ERA a year ago (6.27).

In 34 starts since signing that four-year deal with the Cubs, he’s 8-19 with a 5.08 ERA.

The only bright spot for the Cubs on Sunday came three batters into the game when Anthony Rizzo delivered his second home run of the season, a two-run shot off Cardinals starter Michael Wacha.

But back-to-back run-scoring hits with two outs by the Cards in the second inning drove in three runs for a St. Louis lead.

And after the Cubs tied it in the fourth on Welington Castillo’s two-out RBI single, Jackson quickly gave up another go-ahead run in the bottom of the fourth – Peter Bourgos turning a leadoff triple into a run when Matt Carpenter delivered a sacrifice fly to left with one out.

Cubs.com

Jackson, Cubs unable to fend off Cardinals

Right-hander settles down following rain delay, but Chicago falls short

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Rain interrupted Edwin Jackson’s outing on Sunday, but it didn’t seem to bother him, and the right-hander’s effort earned kudos from Cubs manager Rick Renteria.

Matt Carpenter drove in three runs, including a tie-breaking sacrifice fly in the fourth, to lift the Cardinals to a 6-4 victory over the Cubs and take the series.

The Cubs lost leads twice in the game, but Renteria praised Jackson’s resiliency.

"It doesn’t matter," Renteria said of the blown leads. "He went out there and ground it out. We’re still in a limited ‘pen situation and he ate up innings for us."

The Cubs added right-handed reliever Blake Parker on Sunday, and the bullpen was still feeling the effects of extra-inning games over first two weeks. An off-day Monday will help.

"After your team scores, you definitely want to come out and have a clean inning, but you just have to be aggressive — that’s a good hitting team," Jackson said. "When you have opportunities to put guys away, you have to put guys away. That’s pretty much what it boils down to."

Michael Wacha struck out eight over 6 1/3 innings and picked up the win despite serving up Anthony Rizzo’s two-run homer in the first. Rizzo gave the Cubs the lead with one out when he hit his second home run of the season, launching the first pitch from Wacha into the Cardinals’ bullpen in right to drive in Justin Ruggiano, who had singled.

Jackson, making his third start, needed 26 pitches to get through the first, and threw another 30 in the second. He walked Allen Craig to open the second and Jhonny Peralta singled. Two outs later, both scored on Matt Carpenter’s single to tie the game and Kolten Wong followed with a RBI single.

The problem in the second inning, Jackson said, was not just walking Craig, but that he fell behind too many hitters.

"It’s just a matter of making pitches and attacking the strike zone," Jackson said. "If I make those pitches [when the count’s 1-2], that definitely changes the outcome of the game."

Yadier Molina singled to open the Cardinals third, and then rain stopped play for 46 minutes. Jackson returned after the delay, and finished the third efficiently, and kept going. After throwing 59 pitches prior to the rain, Jackson needed 55 to get through his last four innings.

Jackson kept his right arm wrapped during the delay, and said the time passed quickly. He didn’t throw, didn’t change jerseys.

"I just tried to keep the same mind frame and stay ready for whenever the rain delay was over," Jackson said.

He’s had to wait an hour during a game in the past.

"He went out there and ground it out," Renteria said. "We did everything we could to keep his arm warm. We knew the window that was available for us. He’s a veteran and he’s been out there before and I think he’s got a will and a strong body and he was able to go out and do it."

Jackson led the National League in losses last season and says he feels better this season.

"I feel good, I feel like I’m in a rhythm," he said. "You come out, make a pitch and get out of the inning clean, and it changes the whole game. From the third inning on, they scored one run [off me]. … I feel good. I feel I can go out and make them put the ball in play. It’s a grind. You continue to battle and keep a positive mind frame. I don’t feel anything similar to last year now."

Wacha also stayed in the game after the delay, and with two outs in the Chicago fourth, Junior Lake singled off the right-hander, Mike Olt was hit on the left hand by a pitch, and Welington Castillo delivered an RBI single to tie the game.

Peter Bourjos tripled to lead off the Cardinals fourth and scored one out later on Carpenter’s sacrifice fly. Peralta added an RBI double in the eighth, and another run scored from third on Bourjos’ fielder’s choice. Bourjos hit the ball to third baseman Olt, who bobbled the ball, then threw home, but pulled Castillo off the plate. Olt was charged with an error.

Lake tripled with one out in the ninth and scored on Olt’s single off Trevor Rosenthal.

The Cubs may have lost the series but leave St. Louis feeling good about themselves.

"We definitely have a lot of fight in us," Jackson said. "Win, lose or draw, we don’t have a group of guys who are going to give up. We’re going to go out and battle. We may come up short sometimes, but we’re going to go out and give 110 percent on the field. As a team, thats all you want. If we keep fighting like we did today, we’re going to win a lot of ballgames."

The Cubs got off to a rough start last April, but have a new manager and some new faces on the roster. Still, does it feel anything like last year?

"I don’t think so," Jackson said. "I feel there’s a different attitude in here."

Renteria has talked about his team’s fighting spirit early in the season, and repeated that Sunday.

"If we keep fighting like that and we dont quit — [Saturday] was the only game where I could tell you that I thought [they stopped battling] and maybe one game at home against Pittsburgh," Renteria said. "Every day, we’re in it to the end."

The Cubs still have yet to win a series this season.

"I think if we keep pushing, at some point, it’s got to turn," Renteria said. "If we were playing really bad baseball, I’d go, ‘Gosh, I’d be really concerned.’ The reality is they’re showing a lot of fight, guys are picking each other up, they’re going out every single day to try to win a ballgame and today was no different.

"I guarantee you they weren’t very comfortable in that [Cardinals] dugout," he said.

Cubs.com

Cubs excited to honor Robinson at Yankee Stadium

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — On Tuesday, the Cubs will join Major League Baseball in celebrating Jackie Robinson Day. For the Cubs, it’ll be an even more special occasion because they’ll be doing so at Yankee Stadium. The last player to wear Robinson’s No. 42 was Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who retired last season.

"For so long, No. 42 has basically been about Jackie Robinson, and with Mariano recently retiring and him being grandfathered in to wear No. 42, I think they share that moment," Cubs reliever Wesley Wright said. "They both stood and stand for so many great things.

"I think it’s an honor to be there in that moment to wear No. 42 to honor Jackie on that day," Wright said.

Wright was in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26 when Rivera pitched in his last game for the Yankees.

"That’s a moment I’ll never forget," Wright said. "To see that many people be that emotional about someone’s farewell was really touching to me. Just to be standing in the bullpen and looking around and seeing everyone standing on their feet and applauding him and the emotion he showed on the field was very special."

The lefty never had a chance to talk to Rivera, but watched him closely.

"I admire his consistency and his ability to always be confident in his ability," Wright said. "As a relief pitcher, that’s a key thing because you go through tough stretches. You have to remember how you got there. He was the epitome of being consistent."

On Tuesday, Wright will be thinking of Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. But he’ll also be thinking about the other No. 42 who played most recently at Yankee Stadium.

"You can’t ever take anything away from Jackie," Wright said. "His contribution was so significant in so many different ways, it will have its own little section. Mariano, too, his contributions to the game and the way he did it and his class, it should have its own section as well.

"It makes the No. 42 stand for so much more than just the No. 42," Wright said. "It’s kind of like a way of life. The people who wore No. 42, they took pride in it, so it’s pretty special."

"It’s awesome," Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode said of the timing. "You’ve got the greatest reliever in baseball, along with historical Jackie Robinson Day. It’s an awesome day to be at Yankee Stadium — you’ve got three big occasions to celebrate in one day. It’s an honor to be a part of it."

Parker up from Triple-A, available to close

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs restocked the bullpen on Sunday when they recalled Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa, and he will be one of manager Rick Renteria’s options as closer.

Parker took the roster spot of Chris Rusin, who was called up Saturday and pitched five innings in relief of starter Carlos Villanueva, and was then optioned back to the Minor Leagues after the game.

"You’ve got to be ready to pitch at any time, like we saw yesterday with Rusin — whether it’s one day or a couple weeks or the whole season," Parker said. "I’m glad I’m back up here and I want to contribute any way I can."

Parker appeared in 49 games in 2013 with the Cubs and compiled a 2.72 ERA and was a candidate for the bullpen on Opening Day, but struggled in Spring Training and opened at Iowa.

"This offseason, I wanted to come in ready to go and didn’t really pitch the way I wanted to this spring," Parker said. "My arm felt good, my body felt good, I just wasn’t getting it done."

The Cubs are trying to fill in for Jose Veras, who will be used in a different role after his struggles in his first four games. Parker is the career saves leader at Iowa, and knows how hard it is to get the last three outs.

"It’s an unbelievably hard role, especially in the big leagues with the crowd involved and the umpires are a little bit tighter and the quality of the hitters is way better," Parker said. "It’s the hardest job for a pitcher to get those last three outs. To just be able to come in and get outs is my thing, whether it’s the ninth or the sixth."

Renteria said he’ll use Parker, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon or Justin Grimm in save situations.

"They give me various options," Renteria said. "You still have to put them in situations where they feel comfortable."

The Cubs have seen two pitchers — Strop and Rondon — each record a save within the first 11 games of the season. Last April, the Cubs had three different pitchers record a save within the month of April for the first time since the save became an official MLB statistic in 1969.

Extra bases

• The Cubs have two off-days this week, but will not tweak their rotation, which means Jeff Samardzija, Carlos Villanueva and Edwin Jackson will start next weekend against the Reds at Wrigley Field.

Villanueva will stay in the rotation despite lasting three innings Saturday against the Cardinals.

• After an off-day Monday, the Cubs play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the first of eight Interleague series this season.

This will be the Cubs’ first regular-season series at the new Yankee Stadium, which will be the 122nd ballpark in which the team will have played. After Tuesday, the Cubs will have played a regular-season game in every current Major League city and a game in every active ballpark.

"It was a little more traditional, and it was more of a pitchers’ ballpark," Jose Veras said of the old Yankee Stadium. "The [new one] is a hitters’ ballpark now. It’s way different now."

The Cubs did play the first two games in the history of new Yankee Stadium, however, when the teams met in exhibition action prior to 2009. The Yankees won both games.

• This weekend was Renteria’s first exposure to the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry.

"I noticed, looking outside my hotel room, that there were a lot of people waiting to get into [Busch] Stadium and that was early in the morning," Renteria said. "It’s neat. I think the fan base here and in Chicago are unique. I like my fan base."

• Top prospect Javier Baez was placed on the seven-day disabled list with Triple-A Iowa because of a sprained left ankle, injured while taking ground balls on Friday. Baez was 4-for-26 (.154) with two home runs so far this season.

Cubs.com

Tanaka, Hammel set to face off on Robinson Day

Righties will be on hill Tuesday to start Interleague series in New York

By Bryan Hoch and Carrie Muskat

The firsts are out of the way now for Masahiro Tanaka, who has both his Major League debut and his Yankee Stadium debut in the rearview mirror. The touted right-hander hopes that means his comfort level will only continue to grow from here on out.

Tanaka will make his third big league start on Tuesday, welcoming the Cubs to the Bronx as the two clubs kick off an abbreviated two-game Interleague series on Jackie Robinson Day. Tanaka’s starts will always be an event, but now that they are becoming more normal, the 25-year-old has a little bit of experience to draw upon.

"If you look at the first two starts, the beginning of the game, I’m missing my spots and giving up runs," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I need to make my adjustments, try not to do that. Try to keep the damage to a minimum — or no damage at all — at the beginning of the game."

The Cubs will give the ball to Jason Hammel, who is well-versed in the Yankees, having faced them 17 times while pitching for the Rays and Orioles. He’s pitched at both old and new Yankee Stadium, too.

"They’re a perennial powerhouse and find a way to win, and the organization is committed to their players. That’s how they do it," Hammel said. "That being said, there’s still a way to beat them. I’ve faced them many times and had some success. You just have to keep the ball down there."

That’s a lesson that Tanaka learned in his last start. The only three runs that Tanaka gave up to the Orioles came on a Jonathan Schoop three-run homer that was launched down the left-field line, responsible for handing Tanaka a no-decision.

"I pride myself on not giving in after giving up runs," Tanaka said. "From the time when I was in Japan, I would always think that if I gave up a run, I would think to myself that I’m not going to give up any more runs. That’s what I would always try to remind myself."

Tanaka’s early performance has touched upon some franchise history. He is just the second Yankees pitcher in history to strike out at least eight batters in his first two Major League starts, joining Allen Russell of the 1915 club.

"He’s adjusted really well so far, for me," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He’s handled the situation pretty well. I’m sure I’ll learn more as time goes on, but it’s pretty much what I expected, I think."

This series will mark the Cubs’ first regular-season games at new Yankee Stadium, the 122nd different ballpark in which the team will have played. After Tuesday, the Cubs will have played a regular-season game in every current Major League city, and a game in every active ballpark.

The Cubs did play the first two games in the history of new Yankee Stadium, however, when the teams met in exhibition action prior to 2009. The Yankees won both games.

"It’s one of those bucket list-type places," Hammel said. "Yankee Stadium, it’s an eye opener and so much fun to be there." "

Cubs: No. 42 holds special meaning for multiple reasons

The Cubs will wear No. 42 on Tuesday in honor of Jackie Robinson Day, but doing so will have a double meaning for some players. Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear No. 42, retiring from the Yankees at the end of last season.

"He’s one of the best people you can ever meet," said Jose Veras, who was Rivera’s teammate. "I learned a lot of things from him — how to be successful, be prepared. He’s one of the best people you can ever meet in baseball. You can take a lot of positive things from him."

Veras can use some positive reinforcement. He is no longer the Cubs’ closer after a rough four games, and manager Rick Renteria said he will go with matchups in save situations. The candidates include Pedro Strop, Blake Parker, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm.

"They give me various options," Renteria said. "You still have to put them in situations where they feel comfortable."

Strop and Rondon each have a save in the first 11 games. Last April, the Cubs had three different pitchers record a save in April for the first time since the save became an official MLB statistic in 1969.

Yankees: Mandela to be honored with plaque on Robinson Day

The Yankees announced that they will unveil a plaque to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday afternoon, coinciding with the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day by Major League Baseball.

Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa Mandela, will be present at the stadium, and the Yankees said that South African Consul General George Monyemangene and Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang will also attend

The Yankees announced their plans for the Mandela plaque last December. The plaque will celebrate the life of the former South African leader and commemorate his June 21, 1990, visit to Yankee Stadium.

Following a day of meeting and addressing New Yorkers in various locations around the city, Mandela arrived at Yankee Stadium and spoke to the assembled crowd, then donned a Yankees cap and jacket before declaring, “You know who I am. I am a Yankee.”

Worth noting

• Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran had three hits, including a two-run homer, in Sunday night’s win over Boston. Beltran played first base after an injury to Francisco Cervelli.

•  Cervelli (right hamstring) is likely headed to the DL. Brian McCann is day to day with a bruised right hand, but said following Sunday night’s game that he was “fine.”

• The Cubs restocked the bullpen on Sunday when they recalled Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa.

ESPNChicago.com

What to do with struggling Edwin Jackson?

By Jesse Rogers

ST.LOUIS — It might be premature right now, but the time could be approaching for the Chicago Cubs to consider doing something with pitcher Edwin Jackson besides letting him start a game every five days.

He has picked up where he left off last season, and that’s not a good thing.

“I feel like it’s better [than last year],” Jackson said after losing to the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday. “It’s just a matter of a pitch here or there. I feel good. I feel like I’m in a rhythm.”

However, Jackson’s stuff simply isn’t good enough for a starting pitcher right now. Even if he’s not getting rocked when he takes the mound, he’s still not fooling anyone, either.

Bat is hitting ball and the contact is enough to make things happen for the opposition. He went six innings giving up four runs on eight hits and four walks on Sunday. And that was a good day for him. His ERA actually went down.

On the days he doesn’t have his control, it’s even worse. He gave up one lead, then gave another one back to the Cardinals after the Cubs tied it.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said in trying to defend Jackson. “He went out there and grinded it out. We’re still today in a limited bullpen situation, and he ate up some innings for us. And I think all things being equal, he kept us in the ballgame.”

That’s probably not going to sit well with Cubs fans, because six innings of four-run ball isn’t exactly exemplary stuff.

Former Cubs manager Dale Sveum used to say that struggling players eventually will play to the back of their baseball card. Meaning that over time, a player’s production — especially for a veteran with a résumé — will lead back to his career numbers.

But that sentiment doesn’t account for aging and wear and tear on a pitcher’s arm. Or the notion that the more money a player has made the less potential motivation he might have.

Who knows the reasons, but the bottom line is Jackson was an average major league starter before his struggles.

Now, it seems, he barely gives his team a chance.

Consider:

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jackson has a strike rate of 61 percent going back to the beginning of last year. That ranks 88th out of 92 pitchers that qualify for the category. Is there anything more important for the foundation of a pitcher than throwing strikes?

“It’s early in the season and clearly you want to get off to a good start; we haven’t been able to do that,” Jackson said. “It’s a pitch here or there.”

It’s actually been a year and three starts of frustration for Jackson. So what to do with him?

The angriest of fans would say release him. But that’s not how it works when a guy is owed nearly $33 million. The better solution is to send him to the bullpen. That’s not unheard of for players of his stature and contract.

Carlos Zambrano was banished to the pen with the Cubs in 2010 and again with the Marlins in 2012. Barry Zito pitched in relief during his time with the San Francisco Giants after signing a monster contract. Roy Oswalt was demoted, as was Ryan Dempster and Phil Hughes. They were all at varying degrees in their careers and contracts, but the point is, it happens.

At some point, trade value and earning a big paycheck have to take a back seat to common sense and doing what’s right — not just for the fans but for the team.

Jackson is going to cash his paycheck whether he starts or relieves, so doing what’s best for the squad is the best option.

It might be early in the season, but the Cubs need to start thinking of ways to mitigate a disastrous free agent signing.

As everyone knows, this isn’t about three starts in 2014; this is about 34 starts since Jackson came to the Cubs.

They could use a long man with Carlos Villanueva still in the rotation. And even when Jake Arrieta returns from injury, the Cubs could go with 13 pitchers on the staff and 12 position players. The versatility of Emilio Bonifacio allows for it. That way they can hide Jackson even more if that’s what they wanted.

Obviously Jackson’s contract plays a big part in these types of decisions. But the Cubs can’t really believe Chris Rusin or even Kyle Hendricks couldn’t do better than Jackson right now.

There’s one way to find out.

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 6, Cubs 4

By Jesse Rogers

ST.LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs lost 6-4 to the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, dropping their fourth consecutive series to begin the season. Here’s a quick look at the game.

How it happened: Anthony Rizzo’s two-run home run in the first inning was quickly erased when the Cardinals scored three times in the second. The Cards’ scoring came on four hits and a walk off of starter Edwin Jackson, three of the hits coming with two outs. After a 46-minute rain delay the Cubs tied the game in the fourth on a two-out rally as Welington Castillo knocked in Junior Lake, who had singled earlier in the inning. But Jackson gave it right back after Peter Bourjos tripled to lead off the bottom of the inning and Matt Carpenter brought him home with a sacrifice fly. The Cardinals tacked on two more off of newly recalled reliever Blake Parker in the eighth to seal the deal, though a Junior Lake triple and Mike Olt single in the ninth scored one more for the Cubs, who left the tying runs on base.

What it means: Once again, Jackson failed to give his team a quality start as he gave up eight hits and four walks in six innings. He was actually better after the rain delay, but throwing over 50 pitches in the first two innings is a recipe for a short afternoon. He made it to six innings but still wasn’t very good. The Cubs fell to 4-8 on the season by losing 2 of 3 in every series so far. They’ve been in games, but keep coming up short in one or another aspect of the game.

Wright pitches: Lefty reliever Wesley Wright got into a game for the first time since April 4. He came in with two outs and two on in the eighth inning and got Carpenter to line out to first base.

What’s next:The Cubs will travel to New York from St. Louis before an off-day on Monday there. Then comes a two-game series against the Yankees, including a Tuesday night contest against Masahiro Tanaka. Jason Hammel will pitch for the Cubs while Alfonso Soriano will face them for the first time since being traded to New York last summer.

ESPNChicago.com

Baez joins Soler on DL

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — Chicago Cubs top prospect Javier Baez is on the seven-day Triple-A minor league disabled list after turning his ankle taking ground balls on Friday, according to the team.

Baez is hitting .214 with two home runs and three RBIs in eight games this season. He joins fellow prospect Jorge Soler, who is on the DL in Double-A after re-injuring a hamstring running out a double in his first at-bat of the season.

Baez is the seventh-ranked prospect in baseball, according to ESPN.com. Soler is 26th.

ESPNChicago.com

Staying sharp not easy for Cubs’ Olt, Wright

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — Trying to stay sharp while not playing is any baseball player’s challenge, so when guys like Chicago Cubs third baseman Mike Olt or reliever Wesley Wright do get into a game they have to make sure not to be too anxious. It’s not always easy.

“It’s a little difficult but it comes with the territory,” Olt said before Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. “You have to be ready to pinch hit, you have to be ready to play when you do play. I have more respect for the guys that do come off the bench and perform like that, for sure.”

Olt is starting his sixth game of the season as the Cubs play their 12th. Coming up through the minors he was used to playing every day so it’s been an adjustment. He’s hitting .174 with two home runs in 23 at-bats. He has yet to take a walk.

“I feel like I’m 0-2 every at-bat,” Olt stated. “Early on when I was pinch hitting I may have been pressing. Now I’m feeling better.”

Olt knows “pressing” can come from not starting a couple days in a row. Lefty pitcher Wright only wishes he could be sat down for just a couple of games. He hasn’t pitched in nine days going into Sunday’s contest. The Cubs have starters that have appeared in more games than the two Wright has seen.

“I try to do enough stuff before the game to stay as sharp as possible,” Wright said. “This is a game based on results. Excuses because of time off don’t get you anything.”

Manager Rick Renteria claims Wright’s inactivity is due to matchups and James Russell’s familiarity with the National League.

“We’ve been mixing and matching with some of the other guys,” Renteria stated. “We gave Russell some of the situations we’ve had against Pittsburgh.”

But then the Cubs called up lefty Chris Rusin to pitch the last five innings of Saturday’s blowout win by the Cardinals before sending him right back down. Wright could have gotten into that one, but Renteria chose to stick with Rusin the whole way. That could be detrimental to Wright since nothing can replicate game action — and he hasn’t see any in a while.

“I’ll be ready,” he said. “I have no choice.”

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs recall Parker, option Rusin

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs recalled righty pitcher Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa and sent lefty Chris Rusin back down to Triple-A after he threw five innings in Saturday’s 10-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Parker gives a fresh arm,” manager Rick Renteria said Sunday morning.

The Cubs have been using their right-handed relievers often this season, having played three extra-inning games already. Parker was one of the last cuts at the end of spring training.

“I didn’t really pitch the way I wanted to,” he said. “My arm felt good, my body felt good but I just wasn’t getting it done.”

Parker posted a 2.72 ERA in 49 relief appearances for the Cubs last season and is the all-time saves leader for Iowa with 42. The Cubs have an opening at closer now that Jose Veras has been relieved of those duties.

“It’s the hardest job for a pitcher, to get those last three outs,” Parker said. “I just want to get outs whether that be in the ninth inning or the sixth inning.”

Renteria has indicated he’ll use the best matchup when it comes to closing out games right now, until someone emerges as a longer-term solution.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs could use Soriano’s swagger heading into Yankee Stadium

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — “Another day in The Show, babe.”

Alfonso Soriano’s smiling face will be greeting the Cubs on Tuesday in The Bronx. They could use some of that $136 million swagger heading into Yankee Stadium. They will need his sunny outlook, every ounce of positive energy, to get through what promises to be a very long season.

The Cubs sat through another “Cardinal Way” weekend and packed for New York after Sunday’s 6-4 loss inside Busch Stadium’s sea of red. They have begun this season by losing four series after talking about the importance of getting off to a fast start since … September 2012?

On Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, the home-run hire will be on the top step of the dugout (Joe Girardi) while the dream free agent (Masahiro Tanaka) will be on the mound. A symbol of the veteran leadership that’s been stripped from the clubhouse will be there, too, not to mention the 30-homer/100-RBI potential in the middle of the lineup.

“(Sori) took care of us, all the Latin guys,” catcher Welington Castillo said. “I remember one thing he always used to say: ‘They pay you for what you love to do, so why not go and play hard every day?’

“We take that example from him, because that’s a guy that has a lot of money and he comes every day to the field. He gets into his routine. He gets here early, goes to the cage, goes to the gym and prepares himself for the game and goes 100 percent.”

The Cubs have slashed their on-field payroll to around $75 million this season when you factor in the Soriano money going to The Bronx Bombers.

Everyone understands you need to build a good farm system. Whether or not you choose to ignore the financial handcuffs since the Ricketts family entered into a highly leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009, you can admit this isn’t all that “healthy” or necessarily building it “the right way.”

Foreclosing on major-league seasons. Making A-ball players faces of the franchise. Getting trade-deadline questions in spring training.

Last summer, three St. Louis sources had a hard time remembering the last time the Cardinals were sellers. The consensus answer: 1990, when the Cardinals shipped Willie McGee to the Oakland A’s, or the same year Starlin Castro was born.

“It’s stating the obvious, but we made a lot of those trades because we feel like we have to do that for the future,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s obviously something you want to get away from in time. It’s not a great thing for a team culture for you guys (in the media) to be asking questions of guys early on: ‘Are you going to be moved in July?’

“You guys are doing your job, and we’ve made that a trend by doing it two years in a row. But, ultimately, we want to be the opposite: ‘Who are you guys going to add? Which prospects could be traded at the deadline?’ We need to move more towards that, because that’s a much better culture for the team than this currently.

“But given the CBA and the restrictions on getting young players, you wouldn’t be looking at Mike Olt and Justin Grimm (and those other prospects) if we didn’t make those tough decisions.”

The 4-8 Cubs have lost four one-run games, dropped Jose Veras from the closer role and shown few signs of gaining ground in a tough division, sounding like a team that will lead the league in moral victories.

“Every day, we’re in it until the end,” manager Rick Renteria said. “If we keep pushing, at some point, it’s got to turn. If we were playing really bad baseball, I’d go: ‘Gosh, (I’m) really concerned.’ But you know what, the reality is they’re showing you a lot of fight.

“I guarantee you they weren’t very comfortable in the other dugout.”

The Cardinals (7-5) didn’t seem to have a problem with ex-teammate Edwin Jackson, who got a 2-0 lead before he threw a single pitch once Anthony Rizzo drilled Michael Wacha’s 94-mph first-pitch fastball into the right-field bullpen. The $52 million pitcher didn’t step on their throat, working around a 46-minute rain delay to go six innings, giving up four runs and lowering his ERA to 6.19.

“We definitely have a lot of fight,” Jackson said. “Win, lose or draw, we’re going to have a group of guys that won’t give up.”

Soriano’s genius became his ability to block out all the noise, shrugging off the boos while enjoying the cheers, a flashy player who enjoyed the grind. And it’s definitely going to be a grind for a Cubs team trying to find its identity.

CSNChicago.com

Samardzija backs Northwestern football players in union fight

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS – Jeff Samardzija worked a broken NCAA system, using Notre Dame’s national platform and leveraging his two-sport skills to get a $10 million deal from the Cubs.

Samardzija’s also a union guy who realizes he’s the outlier and understands why the Northwestern football team’s fighting for the right to collectively bargain.

“Something needs to change,” Samardzija said. “Everyone loves college football and loves the conferences and the bowl games. But something needs to be done, because let’s be honest: Football careers aren’t that long.

“Some of these kids that don’t go play in the NFL – or aren’t stars in the NFL – could really benefit from a lot of the positive things that come from the revenue they generate from being on the field.”

Standing in front of his locker inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse on Sunday morning, Samardzija said he’s followed the Northwestern test case from a distance. But the former All-American wide receiver sees the battle lines forming.

Last month, a regional director in the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern football players have the right to unionize as university employees. On April 25, the athletes will vote on organizing under the College Athletes Players Association.

“Is it a paycheck?” Samardzija said. “No, I don’t think that’s necessarily the right idea. But maybe something down the road. You got to graduate, obviously, first. But some kind of compensation for the amount of years you played. Once you graduate, maybe it activates or maybe it’s a long-term CD.

“There’s a way to compensate these kids for the work they do. It’s hard work. They risk a lot. A lot of no-name kids have back surgeries and neck surgeries and knee surgeries and hip surgeries. Guys that you don’t hear about. With all the money that is being produced, it would be nice to see if they did a little bit more to try and help these guys out in the long run.”

ESPN locked up the new college football playoff with a 12-year deal reportedly worth $7.3 billion. Alabama head coach Nick Saban will be making $7 million a year. The SEC is launching its own cable network as part of the arms race with the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Samardzija comes from a union family. His father, Sam, works at Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO), an energy distributor. That background taught the Cubs pitcher about work ethic, accountability and the sense of responsibility he feels inside the Major League Baseball Players Association. That’s making sure he doesn’t sign a below-market deal that costs future players.

Samardzija said: “I remember being a kid and (my dad) prepping us months beforehand that he might have to leave town for awhile to go find a job in Texas or Oklahoma, because they knew their agreement was coming up and they were going to have to renegotiate their contract.

“When you’re a four- or five-year-old kid planning on your dad leaving for six months to go work because his job’s about to strike, that’s tough. But you also see the benefits of it. He’s had constant work for (about) 30, 35 years now. They haven’t been on strike (and they got) great benefits. My dad’s done well for himself, put food on our table and provided for us.”

Another game-changer could be Ed O’Bannon’s class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, which is heading toward a trial in June after last week’s ruling from a federal judge. The former UCLA basketball star has challenged the way schools control an athlete’s image and likeness, profiting from big names.

“There were no 83 (jerseys) at Notre Dame before me,” Samardzija said, laughing. “There were guys wearing it, but they weren’t selling like John Smith’s jersey from the ’88 championship team. So, obviously, if they were selling 83 jerseys, I had a pretty good idea who it was representing. Now the name wasn’t on the back, but there’s just so much money going around that’s generated by college football. Something needs to be done, because the numbers don’t add up, that’s for sure.”

CSNChicago.com

Cubs put top prospect Javier Baez on disabled list

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — Javier Baez is taking a detour on his road to Wrigley Field.

A Cubs official confirmed the Triple-A Iowa shortstop went onto the disabled list on Sunday with a left ankle sprain. Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect turned his ankle while taking groundballs before Friday’s game in Memphis.

After a strong showing in spring training — impressing Cubs coaches and executives with his talent and professional attitude — Baez hasn’t picked up where he left off last season.

Baez was hitting .154 with 10 strikeouts in 26 at-bats for Iowa, though two of his four hits have been home runs. Last weekend, he got ejected from a game for arguing a check-swing call, and then got into a dugout dispute with veteran catcher Eli Whiteside.

Baez is only 21 years old, which is very young for the Pacific Coast League. He put up 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last season. The Cubs hope he’ll prove he’s ready to make his big-league debut later this season.  

Tribune

Cubs’ Renteria stands by Jackson

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS – Since taking over as manager of the Chicago Cubs, manager Rick Renteria has been consistent in his praise of his players, no matter how much they have struggled in the past and in the present.

So Renteria didn’t budge when asked about his assessment of Edwin Jackson, who needed 59 pitches to get through two-plus innings before a 46-minute rain delay and failed to either hold a lead or stop the St. Louis Cardinals from scoring after his teammates tied the game in a 6-4 loss Sunday.

“You know what?’’ Renteria said. “Tip your cap to the kid (Jackson) because we go out there (after) the rain delay, as their guy (Michael Wacha) did, and Edwin got us through six innings.’’

Jackson needed only 55 pitches to record his final 12 outs and retired 10 of the final 13 batters he faced. But there were other flaws in addition to letting a 2-0 lead slip away and allowing the Cardinals to regain the lead in the fourth after the Cubs tied it on a single by Welington Castillo.

Such as walking Allen Craig to start the second that led to a three-run rally and wiped out any momentum built on Anthony Rizzo’s home run in the first inning.

“It doesn’t matter,” Renteria said of Jackson’s inability to hold a lead or keep the game tied.“He went out there and was grinding. We’re still in a limited bullpen situation, and he ate up some innings for us. I think all things being equal, he kept us in the ballgame.’’

Renteria said there was no thought of pulling Jackson after the rain delay and running up a high pitch count in a short span.

“We were going to send him back out,” Renteria said. “We were trying to keep him ready. We did everything we could to keep his arm warm. We knew the window (to resume the game) that was available for us. He’s a veteran. He’s been out there before. I think he’s got a will and a strong body and he was able to go out and do it.’’

Jackson said he spent more time during the delay on the Cardinals’ batters than his arm during the delay, saying he once returned from a one-hour delay. But he took responsibility for not keeping a lead or the game tied.

“It’s just the short end of a stick,” Jackson said. “Make a pitch, get out of the inning clean. It changes the whole game from the third inning on. They score one run after that, and I was able to get a couple double plays.

"(But) I was 1-2 on (Matt) Carpenter and (Kolten) Wong. They both get singles. It’s a matter of being able to put guys away after getting them 1-2. But I feel good and I feel like I can go out and make them put the ball in play.”

With days off on Monday and Thursday, Jackson will receive six days of rest before his next start at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds. Not only will that give him time to recover after throwing a season-high 114 pitches, but it also will give the Cubs’ bullpen time to recover so that Renteria will have more options should Jackson struggle early again.

But when Jake Arrieta returns from a minor league rehabilitation assignment, it’s highly likely that Carlos Villanueva - not Jackson - will head to the bullpen.

Tribune

Edwin Jackson can’t hold lead as Cubs lose

Right-hander’s inconsistency a bigger concern for team right now than anointing a new closer

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — As the Cubs enjoy a day off Monday in New York, they’ll need to address two pitching issues of varying levels of urgency.

First is the lingering inconsistency of Edwin Jackson, whose latest struggles involved his inability to hold his opponent scoreless after his teammates gave him early run support.

Second is identifying a closer — in the wake of Jose Veras’ demotion — among a cast of candidates with little or no closing experience in the major leagues.

Given the state of the Cubs (4-8), the latter issue might not be an urgent one. Sunday’s 6-4 loss to the Cardinals at soggy Busch Stadium gave the Cubs their ninth consecutive series loss dating to last season.

With the addition of Blake Parker from Triple-A Iowa, manager Rick Renteria said he has another closer candidate to join Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop.

"They all have good arms," Renteria said. "Depending on what the situation is and how we can use them, they give me various options.

"You want to make sure they’re in a comfortable place when they get in that situation. It’s not easy."

Those four relievers have a combined seven major league saves. Strop, 28, who joined the Cubs in a trade with the Orioles in July, has five saves, but he has been used mostly as a setup man in his career.

Rondon, 26, has improved the fastest since joining the Cubs as a Rule 5 pick before the 2013 season, but he was used primarily in middle relief before this season.

Grimm, 25, told the Tribune last month he would like a shot at closing in the future and has the repertoire of pitches necessary for the role, but he has walked four in seven innings.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s biggest achievement Sunday was retiring 10 of 13 batters after a 46-minute rain delay in the bottom of the third that allowed him to pitch six innings.

But Anthony Rizzo’s two-run homer in the first inning was wasted when Jackson walked Allen Craig to start a three-run second, and Jackson gave up the lead again in bottom of the fourth after the Cubs tied the game on a single by Welington Castillo.

"When you have opportunities to put guys away, you have to put them away," Jackson said. "It’s pretty much what it boils down to.”

Renteria was more supportive of Jackson, who threw 59 pitches before the delay, because he lasted six innings despite the rain.

"I’m sure he’s a resilient person and will be fine," Renteria said.

After Thursday’s day off, the Cubs will play 30 games in 31 days and will need more consistency from Jackson or risk taxing their bullpen.

Tribune

A lot riding on Yankees prize Masahiro Tanaka

Bronx Bombers outbid Cubs for Japanese pitcher; now he’s trying to live up to $155 million deal

By Paul Sullivan

NEW YORK — During a polar vortex in early January, Cubs President Theo Epstein and a group that included Chairman Tom Ricketts escaped Chicago to meet with Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and his agent in Los Angeles.

After going 24-0 with a 1.27 earned-run average in Japan last year, the 25-year-old Tanaka was the biggest free-agent pitcher on the market, and new posting rules ensured he would cash in like no Japanese star before him.

Tanaka’s suitors, including the Cubs, Yankees, White Sox, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, all ventured to sunny Southern California to woo him. Team Theo gave a short video presentation and spoke to him about the Cubs’ plans for the future, which included a renovated Wrigley Field with Tanaka in the middle of a talented core of young players.

For weeks the Internet was abuzz with speculation on where Tanaka would wind up, and more than one “expert” declared the Cubs would not be outbid for his services.

On Jan. 22, Tanaka finally announced his decision: He was taking his talents to the Bronx.

Three months later, the Cubs will get a chance to see what they missed out on. In his third big-league start, Tanaka will face the Cubs on Tuesday in the opener of a two-game series at Yankee Stadium.

The Cubs said they were serious suitors but never considered themselves favorites to land him. Was Tanaka impressed enough by their presentation to seriously consider becoming a Cub?

"I really can’t go into the details of what went on, including the talks with the Cubs," Tanaka said through a team interpreter. "But there was not one specific team I already had in mind at the beginning. I looked at every team equally and evenly and made my decision."

The Cubs and the Yankees may have been given equal consideration, though the deck seemed stacked from the outset. The Yankees have a commanding 27-0 lead over the Cubs in World Series titles since 1909 and owners determined to pay whatever is necessary to get what they want.

But Tanaka said he was unaware that the Cubs had not won in 106 years and knew nothing about their history.

"Not just the Cubs, but all the teams," he said.

It’s easy to understand why the Cubs may have glossed over their century of ineptitude during their sales pitch, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t know anything about the Yankees’ storied history.

One thing is certain — he knows a little about math, and that $155 million for seven years is considerably more than the $120 million the Cubs offered him.

Now that he’s here, playing under the biggest microscope in baseball, Tanaka is out to prove he was worth the risk. It’s way too early to make any judgments on his major league career, but handing $155 million to someone who has never thrown a pitch in the majors made Tanaka an easy target.

Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, rapidly becoming baseball’s version of Charles Barkley, tried his best to deflate the Tanaka hype after facing him last week.

"Am I (supposed) to go home and say I faced Tanaka tonight?" Jones said afterward. "Just go throw a party that I faced Tanaka? It’s another pitcher — another pitcher in the rotation. (He’s) nothing special to me. It’s just another guy that we have to go through to get to where we want to be."

Tanaka struck out 10 Orioles over seven innings that night, inducing 22 swings and misses during a 101-pitch outing. He’s 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA in his first two major league starts with 18 strikeouts and one walk over 14 innings.

"I think he’s done a really good job of making adjustments," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "As much as the hitters haven’t seen him, he hasn’t seen the hitters. He seems to get better as the game goes on. That’s what we’ve seen. He’s given up some runs early and then been able to shut the door."

Yankees outfielder Alfonso Soriano concurred with his manager, saying Tanaka looks like the real deal and will only get better once he becomes more consistent locating his fastball and slider.

"You can see the reaction he has when he misses a pitch, when he throws a high pitch that he wanted down," Soriano said. "I can see that we’re not seeing the best from him yet. Maybe it’s the weather or the pressure he has had on him.

"But when he gets comfortable he’ll be much better. From what I see, he’s thrown a lot of pitches (up in the zone). Most of those Japanese guys, they like to pitch low."

The transition from Japan to the majors isn’t easy for anyone, much less someone dealing with as much hype as Tanaka. He’s adjusting to a new country, a new team and a new workload, since starters in Japan typically pitch only once a week.

Tanaka is fortunate to have two veteran Japanese teammates — Ichiro Suzuki and fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda — who’ve experienced many of the same things he has, including massive media coverage. There were four dozen or so Japanese media members covering this weekend’s Yankees-Red Sox series, where even his stretching was chronicled.

"I’ve got to believe it’s a little bit of a shock for him," Girardi said. "But I think he’s handled it well and has embraced the changes that he’s made. It doesn’t help having Ichiro and Kuroda around in a sense because that’s even more (media).

"But I think (starting the season on) the road has helped him. He saw the changes that Kuroda made and what a five-man schedule is like as opposed to being the Friday night pitcher or the Saturday night pitcher. And it’s helped him."

Tanaka said he hadn’t yet gone over the reports on the Cubs with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who is in his fourth season in New York after outlasting four managers over nine seasons in Chicago.

How much does Tanaka know about the Cubs?

"Not much at this point," he said. "That goes for basically every team I’ll be facing."

There’s a lot at stake here. The Yankees need Tanaka to succeed to get back to the postseason. MLB needs a new star to promote. Japanese stars need Tanaka to live up to his hype so they can one day make the move and cash in themselves.

So far, Tanaka doesn’t seem fazed.

"Everything is new for me," he said. "So I’ve got to experience it, learn from it and just go on from there."

Tribune

Cubs’ prospect Baez on DL with ankle sprain

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs sent shortstop Javier Baez to Triple-A Iowa last month to dominate the competition and eventually work out at second base, but those objectives will be put on hold.

Baez, 21, the Cubs’ top prospect, was placed on the seven-day disabled list Sunday because of a sprained left ankle suffered Friday at Nashville.

Before the injury, Baez was 3-for-8 with a double and home run. But he was off to a slow start, batting 4-for-26 (.154) with 10 strikeouts after batting .310 with five home runs in 42 at-bats in spring training and receiving an extended look after Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro suffered a strained right hamstring on March 2.

Arismendy Alcantara, another highly regarded prospect, moved from second base to shortstop to take Baez’s place.

Renter’s respect: Hector Rondon was hesitant to discuss his aspirations for the closer’s role out of respect for teammate Jose Veras, who lost the duties after blowing his second save Friday, which enabled Rondon to earn his first major league save.

“It’s really tough for me because we trust our closer,” Rondon said. “(Veras) didn’t have a good outing, but we support him. They gave me the opportunity to close that game, and I enjoyed the moment. But (Veras) helped a lot of us in the bullpen, so we stay by his side.

“We still go to him (for help). We still trust him. Everyone has a bad moment. We’ll stay positive for him.”

No explanation needed: Blake Parker says he still can’t figure out why he didn’t pitch well this spring, but he was delighted to return to the Cubs after two weeks at Iowa, where he didn’t allow a run in three appearances and became Iowa’s all-time saves leader with 42 from 2009-2014.

“I wish I knew why one year you could pitch well and the next year not so good,” Parker said. “But I’m here now and ready to pitch.”

Parker posted a 2.72 ERA in 49 appearances with the Cubs in 2013, but he allowed seven runs in nine appearances this spring. Parker allowed two runs in the eighth inning Sunday.

Extra innings: Manager Rick Renteria took note of his first Cubs-Cardinals series from the short trip from the hotel to Busch Stadium.

“I noticed a lot of people (Saturday) waiting to get in, and that was early in the morning,” Renteria said. “It was neat. The fan base in St. Louis and Chicago are unique. I like my fan base.”

Tribune

Cubs’ prospects Bryant, Almora hit HRs

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, two of the Chicago Cubs’ top prospects, each hit home runs Saturday to lead their respective teams to victories.

Bryant, rated as the second-best player in the farm system, hit a home run and a double to lead Double-A Tennessee to a 5-1 victory over Chattanooga. Bryant is batting .269 with three home runs.

Almora went 2-for-5 with a home run and three RBIs to lead Class-A Daytona to a 7-1 win over Tampa. Almora is batting .324.

Rob Zastryzny pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball for Daytona.

Also, Nick Struck, who won 14 games for Tennessee in 2012, was released and signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, according to Baseball America. Struck, 24, was a combined 7-10 at Triple-A Iowa and Tennessee last season.

13 4 / 2014

Chicago Tribune

Cubs recall Rusin, send out Schlitter

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — The need for pitching insurance resulted in the Chicago Cubs recalling left-hander Chris Rusin from Triple-A Iowa on Saturday.

Rusin will serve as a long reliever with Carlos Villanueva starting Saturday’s game at St. Louis.

Reliever Brian Schlitter was optioned to Iowa.

Rusin, 27, was 0-2 with a 6.52 ERA in two starts for Iowa. He allowed just two earned runs in six innings in his last start against Nashville. Rusin was 2-6 with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts for the Cubs last season and has a 4-9 lifetime major league record.

"We need some length," manager Rick Renteria said. "We’ve used the pen a lot, and Rusin will give us some length today.

"(Schlitter) pitched well. This has nothing to do with Schlitter’s performance. We need the length, and (Rusin) is the one we can do it with now. Rusin threw well in the spring and can give us quite a few innings."

Rusin had a streak of 12 consecutive scoreless innings before he was tagged for nine runs against the Diamondbacks on March 26.

Chicago Tribune

Wildness dooms Veras as Cubs’ closer

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — After a quick night to assess matters, manager Rick Renteria changed his mind and removed embattled Jose Veras as the Chicago Cubs’ full-time closer before Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Right now, we’ll see who emerges,” Renteria said after meeting with Veras, who has blown two save chances. “We’ll use some of the other guys, and we need to help him work through some things right now. I told him I have all the confidence in the world in him and think he’ll be back.”

Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop are the candidates to replace Veras, who allowed two runs after hitting two batters and hurling a wild pitch in the ninth inning that cost Jeff Samardzija a victory.

Grimm walked two but struck out Yadier Molina get out of a jam Friday night. Rondon has a streak of 16 consecutive scoreless innings dating to last season and earned his first save Friday night. Strop has been a reliable set-up reliever.

"(Renteria) wanted to sleep on it long and think about it," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "That’s his decision. It’s up to him to decide who he wants to go in the ninth inning with the game on the line. I totally respect that.

"It’s been a struggle. Not enough strikes. One of the biggest things late in the game has got to be strikes. He’s proved when he throws strikes, he gets guys out.

"Once he gets back in the strike zone, I think he’ll be fine. But right now, the ball is not in the strike zone enough."

The blown saves have resulted in the Cubs not having a .500 record and taxing a bullpen.

"Our record should not be 4-6 right now," Hoyer said. "We should have had a couple more wins. The domino effect of a blown save is that it cost some of our guys innings in Pittsburgh and it cost a couple innings last night. When you try to get a guy a night of rest to be fresh the rest of the year, it would have been nice not to use Grimm and Rondon.

"It was nice to get the win, but there’s a cost associated with that win because we had to use some relievers more than we should have."

Rondon’s control might give him the immediate edge over Grimm, who could be the Cubs’ closer of the future because of his ability to get strikeouts as he did against Molina.

"One key is the ability to throw strikes. We all feel better if the (other) team has to get hits to beat us. Especially in a one-run save, the walk and the bunt, all of a sudden, it happens in a hurry. Strikes will be at a premium back there."

Before the meeting with Renteria, Veras took responsibility for his struggles.

"I can’t find myself," Veras said. "It’s kind of tough. My body feels good, I’m 100 percent. For some reason, I can’t get three outs right now.

"I’ll pitch in (any) role. I’m fine with that."

Veras appreciated the support from his teammates and coaching staff.

"I never give up, brother," Veras said.

"My stuff is there. For some reason, I can’t get it done. Pitch inside, hit a guy. Try to throw a breaking ball, hit a guy. Make a good pitch, they don’t swing. Make a good pitch, but I don’t receive a (strike) call by the guy behind home plate. Too much stuff at the same time.

"It’s not an excuse, I got to get my job done. I can’t get it right now. What can I say?

It’s not about one pitch. It’s about getting it done and getting it done now.”

Chicago Tribune

Cubs lose to Cardinals; Veras loses closer role

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — Left-hander Chris Rusin saved the bullpen but couldn’t avoid a demotion as the Cubs try to resolve their closer situation.

An eventful Saturday started with Jose Veras losing his full-time closer role after blowing two saves and causing the Cubs to seek help before a 10-4 loss to the Cardinals.

Rusin arrived at Busch Stadium more than two hours before the game and pitched five innings of three-hit ball in relief of starter Carlos Villanueva.

While Rusin’s endurance allowed a well-worked bullpen to rest before he returned to Triple-A Iowa after the game, the Cubs must sort out their closer duties on a short- and long-term basis as well as try to correct Veras’ problems.

"There are a number of guys who have a chance to fill that role," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "One key is the ability to throw strikes. We all feel better if the team has to get hits to beat us — especially in a one-run save (situation) with the walk and the bunt, all of a sudden, it happens in a hurry. Strikes will be at a premium back there."

Hector Rondon, who has pitched 16 consecutive scoreless innings and earned the save in Friday’s 11-inning win, could get the first chance. But the Cubs have been taking subtle looks at Justin Grimm, who walked two with no outs but struck out Yadier Molina and worked out of a 10th-inning jam to earn the win Friday.

After a short night of sleep, Renteria changed his stance on Veras, whose two blown saves caused the bullpen to be stretched out and result in Rusin’s brief promotion.

"We’ll see who emerges," Renteria said of the closer duties. "We’ll use some of the other guys and we need to help (Veras) work through some things. I told him I have all the confidence in the world in him and think he’ll be back."

Veras made no excuses for his struggles.

"I can’t find myself," he said. "It’s kind of tough. My body feels good, I’m 100 percent. For some reason, I can’t get three outs right now."

Veras’ struggles weren’t lost on Hoyer.

"The domino effect of a blown save is that it cost some of our guys innings in Pittsburgh (in a 16-inning game), and it cost a couple innings (Friday)," he said. "When you try to get a guy a night of rest to be fresh the rest of the year, it would have been nice not to use Grimm and Rondon. It was nice to get the win, but there’s a cost associated with that win because we had to use some relievers more than we should have."

Meanwhile, seven of the 10 hits off Villanueva on Saturday were singles, and the Cubs failed to get an out on two bunt plays. A throwing error by Ryan Sweeney allowed two runners to advance and score later during a four-run second.

Villanueva refused to compare last year’s start to the Cubs’ 4-7 start because of different personnel.

"We won’t have negative minds," Villanueva said. "Thinking about last year, stuff like that puts negative thoughts into people’s heads, and we haven’t played 15 days yet.

"That’s as simple as you have to look at. Because if you’re not, negative things creep in, and you don’t want it to be extended. You come back (Sunday), everyone is happy going into the off day (Monday) and that’s what everyone should be thinking about now.”

Rusin hoped his preservation of the bullpen scored points toward his future.

"Anything to help the team, I’m willing to do," Rusin said. "(Saturday) it was just to be the one guy to save the bullpen for upcoming games in the season."

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ Bonifacio receives break vs. Cardinals

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — Manager Rick Renteria finally has decided to give Emilio Bonifacio a break as Junior Lake will handle the leadoff duties Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Bonifacio has batted leadoff in the Cubs’ first 10 games, leading the majors with 20 hits, and his .480 on-base percentage is eighth in the majors.

Darwin Barney will make his sixth start at second base, with Luis Valbuena starting at third.

Lake is 2-for-5 lifetime against Wainwright, while Barney is a lifetime .308 hitter against him.

Welington Castillo, who hit a game-winning home run in the 11th inning late Friday, will get a rest as John Baker will start at catcher.

Chicago Tribune

Epstein reportedly watches high school pitcher

Texas teen Kolek could be on Cubs’ radar in draft

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs are keeping all their options open with the fourth overall pick in the June amateur draft.

But that could change, as they discovered last spring when Kris Bryant’s stock soared and he became the second overall pick in the 2013 draft.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Cubs President Theo Epstein watched Shepherd (Texas) pitcher Tyler Kolek on Friday. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Kolek and left-hander Brady Aiken of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego are regarded as the top high school pitchers in the 2014 draft, and Kolek’s fastball has been clocked at 101 mph.

This marks at least the second time a high-ranking Cubs talent evaluator has scouted Kolek in the last five weeks. Amateur scouting director Matt Dorey watched Kolek on March 6 along with multiple representatives from teams with the first 10 picks.

The Cubs haven’t selected a high school pitcher with their first pick since 2005, but Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ senior vice president of scouting and player development, hasn’t shied away from selecting high school players with the first pick dating back to his days as the scouting director with the Red Sox.

Last week, Epstein said he planned to watch more top prospects after the Cubs’ talent evaluators held meetings Monday to discuss candidates for their picks in the first four rounds.

"We always have to remind ourselves that it is fluid," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Guys do come on late, guys struggle late. A lot of things happen that can change things up. You never want to get off a guy too early, and you never want to oversell on a couple guys early.

"But it is amazing. We’re dealing with 18-year-old kids and 21-year-old kids. Guys can really improve in a hurry, guys get hurt. One of the biggest challenges with pitching is you think a guy definitely is not going to be there in the second round, but all of a sudden he has an arm injury or velocity dips and we have to be prepared to make an educated decision. That is a real challenge.

"We’re certainly not in a position to rule out anything at this point. Maybe that will be different a month or six weeks from now, but not yet."

Pitching is a priority for the Cubs, but they could select a position player with their first pick and stock up on pitchers with their subsequent picks, starting with the 45th overall pick.

North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon and East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman are regarded as the two top college pitchers.

Rodon struck out 12 in 72/3 innings Friday in a 2-0 loss to Duke. According to Baseball America, Rodon’s fastball topped out at 98 — 5 mph faster than last week against Clemson — in a 134-pitch performance.

Hoffman has struck out 52 in 53 innings.

Revolving roster: Reliever Blake Parker could be the favorite to get promoted from Triple-A Iowa. Parker would take the roster spot held briefly by left-hander Chris Rusin, who pitched five innings of three-hit ball Saturday in a long relief role caused by a taxed bullpen.

Parker, who had a 7.00 ERA in nine spring appearances, has struck out five and hasn’t been scored upon in three appearances.

Rusin took the spot of reliever Brian Schlitter, who was optioned to Iowa before Saturday’s game.

"(Schlitter) pitched well," manager Rick Renteria said. "This had nothing to do with Schlitter’s performance. We need the length."

Extra innings: Emilio Bonifacio, who leads the Cubs with 20 hits and has a .480 on-base percentage, rested for the first time Saturday. … Renteria successfully challenged a safe call at first base that took away a run from the Cardinals to end the third after the play was reviewed. Renteria is 3-for-5 on challenges this season. … Nate Schierholtz has six hits in his last two games. He hit two doubles in a game for the 10th time in his career.

Chicago Sun-Times

To compete with Cards, Cubs have to strike gold deep in the draft

By Gordon Wittenmyer

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs are not shy about pointing out how popular their farm system has become with the baseball trade publications.

Their system is ranked anywhere from second to fourth heading toward the 2014 draft, depending on the outlet.

But just how much of that is a reflection of the player-development “machine” team president Theo Epstein talked about building when he took over the baseball operations in the fall of 2011?

And how much of it is a function of having a $30 million Cuban free agent in the system and of being so bad in recent years that they’ve had single-digit overall picks in the last three drafts?

The short answer is it’s far too early to tell just how good the new regime is at player development. And how well Javy Baez and Kris Bryant eventually perform in the big leagues will tell only part of the story.

“Anybody can pick out a No. 1 selection and think that’s a great deal,” ex-Cubs general manager Dallas Green said during a recent conversation. “But you make 30 or 40 selections [in a draft], and three or four of those guys have gotta play. They’ve gotta be good players along the way. That’s what scouting is all about.

“You can’t take 40 or 50 kids [each draft] and not have the 30th selection be a good player somewhere along the line.”

That’s where a team such as the Cardinals will hold a decided edge on the Cubs until Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and their scouting and minor-league staffs prove they can hang with their division rivals and the other big boys on baseball’s player-development block.

And with so little money coming into the baseball department these days relative to the revenues and market size, it has never been more critical to the Cubs creating big-league success again.

And they know it.

“We always talk in the draft room about how you obviously can’t miss on your first-round picks,” Hoyer said. “You’ve got to really nail those because that’s where you get your impact talent. But the ability to get key contributors late in the draft, that’s really the mark of a good draft and of good scouting. The Cardinals obviously have done a great job of that.”

Baez, Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and C.J. Edwards are getting the attention, the pressure and the kinds of high marks that have elevated the Cubs in the farm-system rankings.

But until the Cubs develop an eighth-round All-Star (like the Cards’ Allen Craig), a 13th-round All-Star (Matt Carpenter), a 21st-round closer (Trevor Rosenthal) or a 23rd-round cleanup hitter (Matt Adams), the Epstein-Hoyer rebuilding job won’t be complete.

And it’ll be hard-pressed to catch up to an already well-oiled Cardinals development machine, which would again put the onus, as in years past, on significantly outspending their mid-market rivals to compete.

“The success of our system is that we have every-day major-league players [acquired in the middle and late rounds],” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. “That’s giving us the ability to really have more sustainability because of the fact that we’re not picking in that top 10 every year.”

The Cardinals haven’t had a single-digit overall draft pick in 16 years, and they’ve had only 10 in what will be 50 June drafts this year.

Yet they had the top-ranked farm system, according to most analysts, as recently as last season.

“You need to hit all over the place because all the [No.] 1s aren’t going to hit,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who became one of those first-round disappointments after being drafted ninth overall in 1975. “All the 3s aren’t going to hit. You’d like to think that all the $20 million players that you hire from the outside the organization [will succeed], but they don’t all hit. And you know that going in.”

That’s the reason Cubs brass always talks about volume in the minors. That’s why they’ll spend a lot more man hours on their 45th overall pick — and the 39 picks that come after that — than their fourth overall pick.

“To be an impact organization,” Hoyer said, “you have to hit on those [later] guys and develop them.”

Chicago Sun-Times

Wild mess: Jose Veras out as Cubs’ closer

By Gordon Wittenmyer

ST. LOUIS — That didn’t take long.

In about 12 hours, Cubs manager Rick Renteria went from sticking with his struggling closer Jose Veras to demoting him out of the role.

Renteria, who met with Veras on Saturday morning, won’t identify a replacement and calls it a temporary move.

“I told him I have all the confidence in the world in him, and I think he’ll be back,” said Renteria, who on Friday night responded to Veras’ worst inning as a Cub by saying the right-hander was still the closer.

“We’re going to try to find some spots that he can continue to work through whatever things we need to work through and get better. Right now what I think we’re going to do [in save situations] is see who emerges. We’re going to use some of our other guys.”

Veras, who was signed to a one-year, $4 million deal over the winter, said he appreciated how Renteria handled it.

“He’s got to do his job; I’ve got to respect that,” he said. “And I haven’t done my job. . . . He was a good professional [about it]. I know what I can do, and he knows what I can do.

“It’s just not my time now. That’s what I think.”

In 32/3 innings, Veras has allowed seven walks, has thrown a wild pitch (with a passed ball Friday that could’ve been ruled another one) and leads the National League with three hit batters.

He has blown both save chances, costing his heavily used bullpen mates four additional innings April 2 in Pittsburgh and two extra innings Friday.

“I do think that a lot of the bullpen has done really well, and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I think we should have a couple more wins. . . . And it would have been really nice [Friday] night not to use [Justin] Grimm and not to use [Hector] Rondon.

‘‘We did get the win, but there is a cost associated with that win because we had to use some relievers more than we should have.”

For all the command problems he has had since joining the Cubs — even in the spring — Veras said he hasn’t lost confidence. And he said he’s not pressing.

“It’s only 10 days,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s going to be fine. It’s better now than later. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.”

Of course, this is the way the Cubs started last year with Carlos Marmol (eventually traded), then Kyuji Fujikawa (eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery). That’s why the bullpen became an offseason priority.

Notes

Because of the bullpen strain, the Cubs recalled Chris Rusin from Class AAA Iowa to back up Carlos Villanueva, and Rusin pitched the last five innings of the Cubs’ 10-4 loss Saturday, allowing one run, three hits and a walk against the Cardinals.

He was optioned back to Iowa after the game.

Rusin, who pitched well in 13 starts for the Cubs last year, is expected to get that shot again when pitchers start to get traded this summer, if not sooner.

“I have confidence in myself now,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep doing it, and hopefully one day I’ll stay up here.”

Blake Parker (2.72 ERA last year with Cubs) is expected to join the pen Sunday after being recalled from Iowa.

Park Ridges Brian Schlitter was optioned out to make room for Rusin on Saturday.

Chicago Sun-Times

Saturday’s result: Cards 10, Cubs 4

By Gordon Wittemyer

ST. LOUIS – No closer controversy in this game. Not the way the rival Cardinals knocked around Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva early in a 10-4 rout of the Cubs Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium.

Villanueva lasted five batters into the fourth, without recording an out in the inning, as the Cardinals tagged him for nine runs – far more than enough for St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright, who pitched seven innings for the victory.

The Cubs actually led early, when Junior Lake led off the game with a first-pitch home run. But it was short-lived as the Cards scored four times in the second and five more in the fourth.

Cubs.com

Villanueva endures rocky outing as Cubs fall to Cards

Rusin delivers valuable relief outing in brief stint from Triple-A

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Chris Rusin arrived in time to give the Cubs’ bullpen a breather, but the Cardinals had already scored nine runs off Carlos Villanueva by the time the lefty got in the game.

Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay each drove in two runs off Villanueva, who served up nine over three innings in his second start, as the Cardinals roughed up the Cubs, 10-4, on Saturday to even the series.

Rusin was added to the 25-man roster prior to the game to give the bullpen a fresh arm and someone who could go long after three extra-inning games in the first 10. A candidate for the fifth-starter spot, Rusin was needed quickly, and he filled in with a five-inning relief appearance in which he allowed one run on three hits.

His effort was appreciated, but the reality hit after the game when Rusin was told he was headed back to Triple-A Iowa on Saturday night. It’s not clear if he packed an overnight bag or thought he was staying for an extended stretch.

"They called me and I was up ready to go and here by 11 [a.m.]," Rusin said. "Two quick flights, no delays, no problems."

Did he know it might be a one-day appearance?

"Anything can happen," Rusin said. "When they tell you to go pitch, you just go pitch. Whatever happens after that — if they want you to stay, you stay, if they need you to go back and pick somebody else up, you do what they say."

The Cubs do have two days off next week, and were expected to recall right-handed reliever Blake Parker from Iowa on Sunday. Whether Villanueva gets another start is yet to be determined.

“‘Villa’ was battling, he was grinding,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “There were a couple plays that changed the dynamic of our defense — we had a ball get away on a throw from the outfield and any time you have a bunt play and don’t get an out, it puts you in a different position. We kept battling, ‘Villa’ kept trying to pitch through it and Rusin came in and did a nice job.”

Rusin’s effort allowed everyone else in the bullpen to regroup.

"Anything to help the team, I’m willing to do," Rusin said. "Today was to be the long guy and save the bullpen. I just went out there and ate up some innings."

Junior Lake launched the first pitch from Adam Wainwright into the left-field seats for his second home run and a quick 1-0 lead. Lake is the first Cubs player to open a game with a home run since David DeJesus did so last May 15 against the Rockies.

"He’s an aggressive hitter, I should have known he was swinging there," Wainwright said of Lake. "That’s OK to throw a fastball when you know they are swinging, you just have to locate your heaters. It’s one of those times today where I left it over the plate."

It’s only the second time Wainwright has ever served up a leadoff homer in his career; Ichiro Suzuki also did so on June 14, 2010.

The Cardinals answered in the second. Matt Adams led off with a home run to tie the game. Yadier Molina reached on an infield single that third baseman Luis Valbuena overran, and Allen Craig singled to right. One out later, Daniel Descalso hit an RBI single that center fielder Ryan Sweeney threw home, but Anthony Rizzo had trouble handling the throw. Sweeney was charged with an error and another run scored. Wainwright and Carpenter each hit RBI singles for a 4-1 lead.

After the Cubs added two runs in the fourth, the Cardinals attacked in their half, sending 10 batters to the plate and adding five more runs. The Cubs extended the inning with poorly executed plays. Descalso doubled and advanced on Wainwright’s sacrifice, which Rizzo fielded and threw to third, but missed getting the force. Carpenter and Kolten Wong followed with RBI singles, and another run scored on Matt Holliday’s fielder’s choice despite a throw home from Valbuena. Villanueva was lifted for Rusin and he gave up a two-run single to Jay.

"The two innings were tough," Villanueva said. "I got two swinging bunts, and a couple forceouts that went the other way. Things unraveled quick. I didn’t feel bad, I felt I had the stuff. They’re a good team and they took advantage of our mistakes and they got me out of there quick."

Nate Schierholtz, who posted his first four-hit game of the year on Friday, and Sweeney added RBI doubles in the Chicago sixth off Wainwright, who was making his first start at home this season.

Rusin has been scheduled to start Sunday for Iowa, and he was pitching on four days rest, but said he didn’t feel rushed, just felt “ready.”

"Like I said in the spring, you have to be ready for any callup at any time," he said. "This time, it happened early in the season."

Cubs.com

Veras out as closer after latest blown save

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Cubs manager Rick Renteria met with Jose Veras Saturday morning and told the right-hander that as of now, Veras is no longer the closer and will be used in non-save situations to try to get back on track.

Veras blew a two-run lead on Friday against the Cardinals and is 0-2 in save situations so far.

"I was just telling him we believe in him and we’ll try to find spots where he can continue to work through things he needs to work to get better," Renteria said of his talk in his office.

If this scenario sounds familiar to Cubs fans, it’s because last year, closer Carlos Marmol lost the job after struggling in the first week of the season, and was eventually traded. Kyuji Fujikawa took over until an elbow injury required Tommy John surgery. Kevin Gregg was picked up after being released by the Dodgers, and finished with 33 saves.

"He’s proven when he throws strikes, he gets guys out," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of Veras. "We’ve seen it as a closer, we’ve seen it in the playoffs. Once he gets back in the strike zone, I think he’ll be fine. I just think the ball’s not in the strike zone enough."

In four games so far, Veras has given up two hits and walked seven over 3 2/3 innings. He knows there’s a problem.

"I don’t have an answer," Veras said. "I can’t find myself. It’s kind of tough. I feel I’m good, my body feels good. I’m not hurt, I’m 100 percent healthy, thank God. For some reason, I can’t get three down. I’ve got to get going. Today is a new day and [I need to] find a way to get out of there.

"Everybody has been in that position. … I know how to handle it, I’m not going to put my head down," Veras said. "A couple bad outings, hopefully it’s going to stop. If it doesn’t, I’m going to keep fighting, keep working. I’ll never give up, brother. My stuff is there. For some reason, I can’t get it done. I try to pitch inside, hit a guy, try to throw front-door breaking ball, hit a guy. Make good pitches, and they don’t swing at them. Make good pitches, and I don’t receive a call by the guy behind home plate. There’s too much stuff at the same time. It’s no excuse. I’ve got to get the job done."

Who will be the Cubs closer? That’s to be determined on a game-by-game situation. Among the options are Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm.

"Right now what we’re going to do is see who emerges," Renteria said. "We’ll use some of our other guys. We need to help [Veras] work through some things right now. I told him I have all the confidence in the world in him and I think he’ll be back."

Renteria made the decision after talking with Veras.

"You have to be able to talk to your players and kind of get a feel where they’re at before you make decisions," Renteria said.

Veras, who the Cubs signed to a one-year contract this offseason after he pitched for the Astros and Tigers last season, is not used to this.

"Seventeen years in pro baseball, and my first time I’ve been in this position," he said. "I feel good. I feel 100 percent. I worked enough in Spring Training and the offseason, and the season starts and I can’t get the job done. I feel like I’m a warrior and I can handle it. I will step up and look up and keep going."

Veras was hoping Renteria would call on him Saturday.

"I want the ball today," Veras said. "That’s the only way you can get out of this. You can’t get out of this sitting at home, sitting on the bench. I’m going to be there. I’m good to go today. If I get the ball today, I will be 100 percent with my heart to try to do my job."

Rusin gives needed relief in brief stint from Triple-A

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs restocked the bullpen Saturday when they added Chris Rusin, and are expected to make another move on Sunday after the lefty delivered five innings in relief.

Rusin was recalled from Triple-A Iowa prior to Saturday’s game, and reliever Brian Schlitter was optioned to Iowa to make room.

The Cubs have played three extra-inning games in the first 10 and wanted depth, especially Saturday with Carlos Villanueva starting. Villanueva lasted three innings Saturday, and Rusin finished up, giving up one run on three hits over five innings in a 10-4 St. Louis win.

"We need some length," manager Rick Renteria said. "We’ve used the pen a lot."

Rusin, 27, was 0-2 with a 6.52 ERA in two starts with Iowa, and had been scheduled to start Sunday against Memphis. Instead, he was to rejoin the team as he was optioned back to Iowa. The Cubs were expected to recall right-handed reliever Blake Parker on Sunday.

Red-hot Bonifacio gets a break from Cubs’ lineup

ST. LOUIS — Emilio Bonifacio began Saturday leading the Major Leagues in hits, but manager Rick Renteria decided it was a good time to give the versatile player a breather.

Bonifacio had started in the Cubs’ first 10 games, and was the leadoff man. On Saturday, Junior Lake filled in, hitting the first pitch from St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright to left for a home run.

Bonifacio was batting .435, which ranks among the top five National League batters.

"When someone is as hot as he is, you’d love to have him in there all the time," Renteria said. "We’ve played a lot of night games and extra-inning games, and he’s on the bases a lot. Guys when they’re on the bases a lot, there’s a little wear and tear on the body. You want to be mindful of that."

Bonifacio also has seven stolen bases, the most in the Majors. He is closing in on the Cubs’ record for most steals in March and April of 12, which Brian McRae set in 1996.

Renteria has used a variety of lineups so far, but Bonifacio has been the constant at the top of the order.

"I’m pretty comfortable and confident with all the guys we have, obviously," Renteria said. “‘Boni’ has been playing every single day. We’ve got some guys we’d like to get out there and have them perform against some of these guys, too."

Cubs begin process of honing in on Draft strategy

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs have the fourth pick overall in the June 5 First-Year Player Draft, and the scouts and crosscheckers met last Monday in Chicago to go over their strategy, general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday.

"We’re trying to make sure we get looks at the right guys," Hoyer said. "It was a chance to gather for a day and figure out if we’re light in certain areas or if we need to focus on certain guys. We’re a couple months away and a lot has to shake out."

And a lot can change in the next couple of months.

"We’re dealing with 18-year-old kids and 21-year-old kids, and when that’s the case, guys can really improve in a hurry and guys can get hurt," Hoyer said. "One of the biggest challenges with pitching is you think a guy won’t be there in the second round, but all of a sudden he has an arm injury or his velocity dips, and we might well be looking at him and we have to make an educated decision. That is a real challenge."

The Cubs have the 45th selection in the second round, so they’re also looking beyond the first pick. They’re not in a position to narrow the list down to a final 25, Hoyer said.

"That may be different a month from now or six weeks from now," he said.

Cubs.com

Cubs prevent a run as challenged call overturned

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged a call at first base that was overturned in the third inning on Saturday and prevented a run from scoring.

The Cardinals led 4-1 and had a runner at third with two outs in the third when Jon Jay hit a grounder to shortstop Starlin Castro, who snared the ball behind second base, spun and threw to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who stretched and did the splits. First-base umpire Jerry Layne ruled Jay was safe, but Renteria challenged the call, and after a review of one minute and 25 seconds, the call was overturned.

Yadier Molina would have scored on the play if Jay had been safe. The Cardinals did have plenty of runs, beating the Cubs, 10-4, to even the series.

Rizzo and Castro both reacted to Layne’s call, which was part of the reason Renteria wanted to challenge it.

"Your eyes tell you something, that it’s kind of close," Renteria said. "You’re also looking at the situation because it keeps the inning going, it gives them another run. As I’m walking out, everyone is doing the same thing, we’re still reviewing it in our head and getting our looks into the dugout and it just worked in our favor."

Castro made a stellar play to get to the ball, and has impressed Renteria so far.

"From the other side, when we saw him as a player, we saw what he was capable of doing," Renteria said. "All we’re trying to do is get to know him. He comes to the park every day wanting to play, wants to get out there, do whatever it takes. He’s improving his game. Right now, defensively he’s playing probably as good as you guys have seen him for awhile."

It was the first overturned call at Busch Stadium this season.

Cubs.com

Cubs, Cards square off with series win at stake

Chicago’s Jackson opposes St. Louis’ Wacha at Busch Stadium

By Carrie Muskat

Everybody wants to play. It’s in a players’ DNA. No matter how many at-bats someone gets, they want more.

On Sunday, the Cubs and Cardinals play for the series in the finale at Busch Stadium. So far, Chicago edged St. Louis 6-3 in 11 innings on Friday, and Matt Adams helped power a 13-hit attack in a 10-4 Cardinals victory on Saturday.

The Cubs will trot out Edwin Jackson, who will oppose the Cardinals’ young phenom Michael Wacha.

Who will be in the lineups? Cubs manager Rick Renteria will most likely insert Emilio Bonifacio back atop the lineup after giving him a day off, which isn’t easy to do because the switch-hitter ranks among the Major League leaders in hits.

"They’re all capable young men, they’re all pros," Renteria said. "You see these guys every single day and they all want to play. I don’t want any player who doesn’t want to play. If any of my players comes in here and he’s satisfied with not being in the lineup, we don’t want that guy.

"I’m glad to have the opportunity to have these guys with that mentality and we’ll continue to use them and benefit in the long run by the way we use them," he said.

The Cardinals are dealing with their own lineup issues. On Saturday, Jhonny Peralta sat and Daniel Descalso started at shortstop. Peralta was hitting .063 to begin the season and was 0-for-3 on Friday before he was lifted in a double switch in the eighth.

"More reading his body, reading how everything was going, we could have given him one that last day on Wednesday before the off-day, giving him two days," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But we’re more concerned with just getting him going, sometimes just throwing him back in there, but when that doesn’t work, sometimes you give them some extra rest and hopefully they’ll get in some extra swings and figure out what they need to do."

Peralta has two hits in the first 10 games, both of which were home runs. Descalso ended an 0-for-10 start with two hits on Saturday, and scored two runs. Peralta isn’t the only Cardinals batter scuffling. Allen Craig (.105) and Matt Holliday (.214) continue to struggle as well.

Matheny was confident the offense, including Peralta, will get on track.

"This is a hard game, every aspect of it, especially on the offensive side, and we’re going it the same way," Matheny said. "The guys are putting their time in and they are controlling everything they can control, with their attitude, their work level, their concentration. All the things that they can do, they’re doing. They’re just not getting the results and that’s part of this tough game, but it’s going to come around."

And everybody wants to play.

Cardinals: Yadier keeps hitting against Cubs

After Sunday, the Cubs will be happy to not have to deal with Yadier Molina for a few weeks. The Cardinals catcher has 43 RBIs against the Cubs, the most in the Majors since 2011.

Molina recorded his fifth multi-hit game of the season on Saturday and now has hit safely in eight of 11 games this year. He also has three doubles in his last five games.

Holliday also seems to like facing the Cubs. He leads all Major Leaguers in home runs (11) against them since 2011. Holliday drove in a run on Saturday, and has an RBI in five of 11 games so far.

Cubs: Veras out as closer

The Cubs will use either Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon or Justin Grimm in closer situations after deciding that Jose Veras needs time. Veras was 0-for-2 in save situations, and has given up two hits and walked seven over 3 2/3 innings. He knows there’s a problem.

"I don’t have an answer," Veras said. "I can’t find myself. It’s kind of tough. I feel I’m good, my body feels good. I’m not hurt, I’m 100 percent healthy, thank God. For some reason, I can’t get three down. I’ve got to get going."

It’s the second straight season the Cubs have had to make an adjustment.

"It’s a volatile position," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "You look around baseball and we’re not the only team that’s gone through it. You always want a clean ninth inning for our hearts and hair and everything. It’s not anomalous, it happens, and hopefully we can start closing games in the ninth."

The Cubs players don’t feel it’s deja vu all over again.

"You can’t compare," Carlos Villanueva said. "Last year was last year, there’s different personnel, different guys. We don’t have a negative mindset, and thinking about last year puts negative thoughts in people’s heads. We haven’t even played the first 15 days yet.

"We won a good game [Friday] and lost today and have a chance to win a series [Sunday]," Villanueva said. "That’s as simple as we have to look at it and if not, then negative things creep in. You come back tomorrow, everyone’s happy going into the off-day and that’s what everyone should be thinking about."

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs’ closer problems trickle down

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer called the pitching problems associated with the Cubs closing situation right now, “collateral damage.” That’s because with blown saves come extra-inning games which can tax a bullpen.

Twice in the first two weeks, pitcher Jose Veras has given up a lead, sending a game (Friday night) into overtime and extending another one (in Pitt) even longer into the night. It’s added six more innings of work for the relief group and some of them have been struggling. The Cubs bullpen has a collective 4.14 ERA, that ranks 18th in baseball right now. Their three blown saves are already the most in the game as of Saturday afternoon.

That was the reason for the emergency call-up of Chris Rusin on Saturday morning. He threw five, good innings of one-run ball in relief of Carlos Villanueva — and then was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa — in the Cubs’ 10-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon.

“That was a great pick up for us today,” manager Rick Renteria said afterwards regarding Rusin saving his bullpen. “Right now we’re just happy he was able to give us the (five) innings that he did.”

He helped save a bullpen that Veras has thrown into flux, though Renteria hasn’t been using everyone equally. Lefty Wesley Wright hasn’t pitched since April 4 while Rusin threw five innings the day he was called up.

“Wes was available for us,” Renteria said.

But he didn’t get into a blowout game, which is curious. Meanwhile Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm had thrown in seven of the first 10 games. Both have struggled with their command as has Veras but Grimm in particular has avoided major damage. And with Villanueva getting knocked around Saturday the Cubs could use some help.

“All our right-handers have been throwing quite a bit,” Renteria said.

There should be some growing optimism that ailing righty Jake Arrieta should be able to join the team soon. He’s thrown several rehab starts at Double-A Tennessee and is due for at least one more. The addition of Arrieta means Villanueva can move back to being a long reliever and the musical chairs might slow down.

It’s important because the Cubs need to figure out roles for their top arms and when the closer fails, it has an effect on everything. That’s the collateral damage Hoyer talked about.

“The domino effect of blown saves cost our guys innings in Pittsburgh and cost our guys innings on (Friday),” Hoyer said.

And it’s cost the Cubs some games.

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 10, Cubs 4

By Jesse Rogers

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 10, Cubs 4ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs lost 10-4 to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: The Cubs were up 1-0 after one pitch as Junior Lake took Adam Wainwright out to left field, but things began to fall apart in the second inning as the Cardinals tallied four runs.

After Matt Adams homered to open the frame, five singles off starter Carlos Villanueva put St. Louis ahead for good. The Cubs got one back in the fourth on a Starlin Castro RBI groundout, but a five-run bottom of the inning sealed the deal for the Cardinals.

Villanueva gave up 10 hits and nine runs in just three innings of work. The Cubs scored two in the sixth on an RBI double by Nate Schierholtz, followed by one by Ryan Sweeney, but that’s as close as they would come.

What it means: All of a sudden the Cubs’ pitching staff is in flux. Brian Schlitter was sent out while Chris Rusin was called up. He pitched in relief for the first time in his career after Villanueva was pulled. Villanueva might not be in long for a starter’s role as Jake Arrieta is getting very close to returning.

Jose Veras won’t close games for the time being — and we don’t know who will.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ offense has improved greatly in the second week of the season. Castro and Anthony Rizzo remain consistent, and Schierholtz has joined them as a hot hitter. He has six hits in the first two games of the series, and as a team, the Cubs did all right against the ace Wainwright.

But as is the case with mediocre squads, the Cubs can’t seem to get all the parts going in the right direction at the same time, dropping to 4-7 on the season.

What’s next: The series finale is Sunday at 1:15 p.m. when Edwin Jackson takes on Michael Wacha. The Cubs are looking for their first series win of the season.

ESPNChicago.com

So who’s the Cubs’ closer now?

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — Alright, now that the Chicago Cubs have completed their annual pulling of their closer from his job, who should be next in line to save games?

Last year was a more obvious situation as Kyuji Fujikawa was signed as a late-inning guy and when Carlos Marmol lost the closer’s gig, Fujikawa was next in line — until he got hurt. Then the Cubs had to bring Kevin Gregg back and he actually stabilized things for a while. Fast forward to this year, Gregg is gone, Fujikawa is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and Jose Veras has been banished like so many before him.

Who’s next?

There are three obvious in-house candidates, all right-handers:

•Pedro Strop: 7G, 0-1, 4.76 ERA, 1-1 SV, 5.2 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 8 K’s

•Justin Grimm: 7G, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 7 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 9 K’s

•Hector Rondon: 6G, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 7 IP, 3 H, 3 BB, 9 K’s

The favorite to take the job is Strop. Most observers thought he might be the closer as last season ended as he was being groomed for that role. But Strop has had some control issues and he’s already given up two home runs, not the kind of stuff that works in the ninth inning of close games.

“One big key is the ability to throw strikes back there,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Saturday morning. “We all feel better if the other team has to get hits to beat us and in the one-run save, the ability to get a walk and a bunt, it could (evaporate) in a hurry. So throwing strikes is going to be at a premium back there.”

Strop’s 1.41 WHIP wouldn’t lend itself to being the guy, according to Hoyer’s description, but that’s in limited innings over the course of less than two weeks of the season. If Rick Renteria wants to go with who’s hot right now then Rondon is the guy. He hasn’t given up a run in 16 innings going back to last year when he really came on late in the season. He was a Rule 5 pick in 2013 and he didn’t disappoint the Cubs by being on the roster for the whole year as required by rules. After a crazy night, his 1-2-3 first career save Friday in the 11th inning stood out.

Grimm brings a little bit more of the classic closer’s mentality to the job and has no problem getting into and out of jams as he did in the 10th inning Friday. He’s already walked hitters in high-pressure situations in front of Andrew McCutchen and Yadier Molina, then went on to strike them both out.

If not for his own slow start Strop would be the choice, but Renteria may as well ride Rondon until he cools off. If it’s closer by the committee, then the hot hand should be the guy barring a massive match-up edge. Rondon could be a long-term bullpen arm so some experience at the back-end couldn’t hurt. Same applies for Strop, who should eventually get a chance to close games this season as well. But if Veras needs to right his ship, so does Strop right now. The choice is Rondon.

Or else call Gregg again. He’s available.

ESPNChicago.com

Jose Veras won’t give in to failure

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — It was a composed but frustrated Jose Veras who met with reporters Saturday morning just hours after blowing his second save of the young season and only a few minutes before Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria relieved him of his closer duties.

“For some reason I can’t get three down (out) right now,” Veras said. “I know how to handle it. I’m not going to put my head down or anything. It’s a couple bad outings, hopefully it’s going to stop one day. I’m going to keep fighting, keep working. I’ll never give up, brother.”

Veras has struggled since the spring, especially with his command. He’s hit seven batters between Cactus League games and the first 11 days of the regular season. That tells the whole story but doesn’t explain why it’s happening.

Plus, he feels like he can’t get a break. He wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact as he sees it.

“Try to pitch inside, hit a guy,” Veras said. “Try to throw a front door breaking ball, hit a guy. Make a good pitch they don’t swing. Make a good pitch I don’t receive a call by the guys behind home plate. It’s too much stuff at the same time. It’s not an excuse I have to get my job done and I can’t get it (done) right now.”

Scouts during the spring called his fastball “flat” but his off-speed stuff has been all over the place during the regular season. As Veras indicated, nothing is going right.

“My body feels good,” he said. “I’m not hurt. I’m 100 percent healthy. … I’ve been having support from all my teammates, the coaches too. I can’t complain about it.”

As bad as he’s been, Veras won’t give in. He wants the ball as soon as he can get it. Even before Renteria told him he wouldn’t be closing, Veras offered to reporters he would pitch at any point in the game. He didn’t care — as long as he could get back on track.

“I feel like I’m a warrior. I can handle it,” Veras stated. “I’ve been in that position before and I step up and keep going. … I want the ball today. That’s the only way to get out of it. If I get the ball today, I promise I’m going to (give) 100 percent with my heart and try to do my job.”

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs recall Rusin, option Schlitter

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs recalled left-handed pitcher Chris Rusin from Triple-A Iowa while optioning righty Brian Schlitter to Iowa.

Rusin, 27, has appeared in 20 games for the Cubs over the last two seasons, all as a starter. He’ll initially pitch in relief as the Cubs have played three extra-inning games so far and seven of 10 have been decided by two runs or less. They’re in need of a long reliever as Carlos Villanueva is in the starting rotation until Jake Arrieta returns from shoulder problems.

Rusin is 4-9 with a 4.69 ERA over two seasons. Schiltter, 28, was a surprise addition to the roster out of spring training but isn’t suited for long relief. He had a 6.35 ERA in six appearances this season.

ESPNChicago.com

Jose Veras out as Cubs’ closer

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — On second thought, Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria has decided to pull Jose Veras from the closer’s role.

Renteria announced his decision Saturday, just hours after giving Veras a vote of confidence after the right-hander blew a save opportunity in Friday’s 11-inning victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

"We’re going to try and find some spots that he can continue to work through whatever things we need to work through and get better," Renteria said Saturday morning. "Right now we’re going to see who emerges. We’re going to use some of our other guys."

Veras couldn’t hold a 3-1 ninth-inning lead Friday as the Cardinals tied the game on a hit, walk and two hit batters. For the season, Veras is 0-for-2 in save opportunities with a 12.27 ERA and seven walks in 3 2/2 innings pitched. He’s also hit three batters.

"For some reason, I can’t get three down [out] right now," Veras said. "I know how to handle it. I’m not going to put my head down or anything. It’s a couple bad outings, hopefully it’s going to stop one day.

"I’m going to keep fighting, keep working. I’ll never give up, brother."

After the game on Friday, Renteria declared Veras was “still our guy” before changing course Saturday morning.

"I talked to Ricky after the game and he wanted to sleep on it and think about it, that’s his decision," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "It’s been a struggle. Not enough strikes. He’s proven when he throws strikes, he gets guys out."

The Cubs had a similar problem last year to begin the season when Carlos Marmol was pulled from the closer’s role in the first week. He was eventually traded. Veras signed a one-year, $4 million contract this past winter after becoming a closer for the first time last year in Houston.

Candidates to save games in his place include Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop. Rondon pitched a perfect 11th inning for his first career save Friday and has a 16-innings scoreless streak going back to last season.

"We’ll kind of play it by ear," Renteria said.

CSNChicago.com

Crushed by Cardinals, Cubs say it won’t be last year again

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs say this isn’t a 2013 rerun.

But for all of Rick Renteria’s let’s-keep-fighting, don’t-quit messaging, the Cubs manager can’t fix everything with his power of positive thinking. There are no closer controversies when you’re down seven runs in the fourth inning.

The St. Louis Cardinals cruised to a 10-4 victory on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, knocking out Carlos Villanueva after three innings and restoring order to the rivalry in front of 45,302 fans.

“You can’t compare,” said Villanueva, who gave up nine runs on 10 hits. “Last year is last year. There’s different personnel. You don’t want to have a negative mindset.”

The Cubs are 4-7 and have already lost four one-run games. They have bullpen issues and a lineup that will struggle to score runs and waste good starting pitching. They have a brutal early schedule. They will keep getting questions about the trade deadline sell-off and the ups and downs of their young players.

“Thinking about stuff like that just puts negative thoughts into people’s heads,” Villanueva said. “We haven’t even played the first 15 days yet. We won a good game yesterday and lost today, but we have a chance to win a series tomorrow. That’s as simple as we have to look at it. Because if not, then negative things creep in.”

Something looks different when Emilio Bonifacio (.480 on-base percentage) runs all over the field and puts pressure on the other team. Jeff Samardzija (1.29 ERA in three starts) is beginning to resemble someone who could start Game 1 of a playoff series. Starlin Castro is hitting .326 and appears to be playing with a new defensive focus.

“There’s more intensity in every game,” Castro said. “We got good energy in the dugout.”

Just called up from Triple-A Iowa, Chris Rusin looked sharp against the Cardinals (6-5), allowing one run across five innings in relief of Villanueva. Rusin will go back down to the minors to keep starting, with Blake Parker expected to join the Cubs bullpen on Sunday in St. Louis. Rusin will be waiting if — when? — the Cubs trade away 40 percent of their rotation again.

“It’s just frustrating because I do feel like we’ve played good baseball this year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “For me, it’s less about the fast start or the record. Ultimately, 10 games is not going to (make or break us). This is like the equivalent of one football game, right?”

The Cubs shouldn’t be covered like an NFL team on a 16-game schedule, but the trend lines will be hard to ignore. They played hard for Dale Sveum, too.

“The sad thing is we should be talking right now about how well we’re playing and we’re playing good competition,” Hoyer said. “That’s really the negative of some bullpen failures or taking away from what really has been a pretty good team effort.”

CSNChicago.com

MLB Draft: Cubs GM Jed Hoyer keeping an open mind

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — This weekend the Cubs are getting an up-close look at the St. Louis Cardinals and their player-development machine.

That assembly line has helped the Cardinals win World Series titles in 2006 and 2011, make the playoffs 10 times since 2000 and become baseball’s model franchise.

Behind the scenes, the Cubs are trying to close the talent gap. They recently emerged from midpoint meetings with their scouts and crosscheckers, trying to narrow their focus and decide where to seriously invest their time and energy for the June draft.

The Theo Epstein administration has used first-round picks on hitters the last two years (Albert Almora and Kris Bryant), studying the historical trends that say position players are a safer bet at the top of the draft.

North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon and East Carolina’s Jeff Hoffman headline a deeper class of college pitchers. Knowing the risks involved, it appears unlikely the Cubs would take a high school pitcher with the No. 4 overall pick. General manager Jed Hoyer is keeping an open mind.

“We’re certainly not in a position to rule out anything at this point,” Hoyer said Saturday at Busch Stadium. “Maybe that will be different a month from now or six weeks from now but not yet.”

Bryant’s stock soared during a monster junior season at San Diego, hitting 31 homers, getting drafted No. 2 overall, winning the Golden Spikes Award (college baseball’s Heisman Trophy) and signing for $6.7 million.

“It’s very fluid — we always have to remind ourselves of that,” Hoyer said. “Guys do come on late. Guys struggle late. A lot of different things happen that can change things up. You never want to get off a guy too early, and you never want to oversell on a couple guys early.”

After drafting at No. 4, the Cubs won’t select again until the 45th overall pick. There’s nothing like the NFL combine or a March Madness event that puts draft prospects on the same big stage. Whatever way Cubs scouts and executives are leaning now, it won’t necessarily be the same feeling inside the room on June 5.

“We’re dealing with 18-year-old kids and 21-year-old kids,” Hoyer said. “When that’s the case, guys can really improve in a hurry — and then guys can get hurt. One of the biggest challenges with pitching is you think a guy is definitely not going to be there in the second round.

“But all of a sudden, he has an arm injury or his velocity dips. And now all of a sudden, we might well be looking at him. We have to be able to make an educated decision. That is a real challenge.”

CSNChicago.com

Cubs drop Jose Veras from closer’s role

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — Less than 12 hours after Rick Renteria declared Jose Veras is “still our guy,” the Cubs manager moved onto other options for the ninth inning.

Renteria met with Veras on Saturday morning and told him he’s out as closer. Veras had another meltdown late Friday night at Busch Stadium, forcing the Cubs to go 11 innings to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, wearing out a bullpen already running on fumes.

“We’re going to see who emerges,” Renteria said. “We’re going to use some of our other guys. We need to help him work through some things right now. I told him I have all the confidence in the world in him and I think he’ll be back.”

Pedro Strop has been viewed as a potential future closer, while Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon helped bail out Veras by combining for two scoreless innings in Friday’s 6-3 win. The Cubs also reinforced their bullpen by calling up lefty Chris Rusin and optioning right-hander Brian Schlitter to Triple-A Iowa.

Veras says he’s “100 percent” healthy now. But he didn’t look right in spring training and those control issues didn’t go away when the lights went on for the regular season. Veras has blown two saves in four appearances, given up five runs while walking seven and hitting three.

“For some reason, I can’t get three outs right now,” Veras said. “I got to keep going. Today is a new day. Just find a way to get out of this. I know how to handle it. I’m not going to put my head down. It’s a couple bad outings. I hope it’s going to stop one day. I’m going to keep fighting. I’ll never give up, brother.”

General manager Jed Hoyer discussed the Veras situation with Renteria. But Hoyer said Renteria made the decision after sleeping on it. This time, it only took 10 games into the season. Dale Sveum dropped Carlos Marmol after five games last year.

“It’s a volatile position,” Hoyer said. “You look around baseball and we’re not the only team that’s gone through it. We’re not even the first one this year and it’s April 12.

“You always want a clean ninth inning — for all of our hearts and our hair. It’s a lot easier (that way). But this is not anomalous. It happens. Hopefully, we can start closing games out in the ninth.”

This winter, the Cubs signed Veras to a one-year, $4 million deal (plus an option) with the idea they could build his value as a closer and flip him to a contending team looking for bullpen help. Veras saved 19 games for the Houston Astros last season before getting traded to the Detroit Tigers.

Judging by the backlash on Twitter, Cubs fans were going to lose patience fast after watching the Marmol rollercoaster. Veras got booed off the mound during his Wrigley Field debut last weekend but insisted that closing for the Cubs is nothing different.

“You got to get your job done, no matter where you go,” Veras said. “That’s why you get paid. That’s why you get a contract. Any player here goes out onto the field with everything they got to try to be successful. Don’t think anybody here goes out there like they don’t care. Everybody here cares.”

13 4 / 2014

ESPNChicago.com

Samardzija loves being center of attention for Cubs-Cardinals

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS — This is what Jeff Samardzija wants.

The defending National League champs. Nirvana and Pearl Jam blasting inside the clubhouse before his start. A rivalry game with a crowd of 43,903 into every pitch. (OK, maybe excluding the people on the AT&T Rooftop, a new Wrigleyville knock-off.)

Samardzija enjoyed Friday night’s 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, even if it took 11 innings and lasted four hours and nine minutes. He gave props to his catcher, Welington Castillo, who won it by drilling Trevor Rosenthal’s 95 mph fastball an estimated 426 feet into the left-center field seats.

Samardzija doesn’t mind being the villain, getting booed after hitting Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly’s left arm with a 93 mph fastball in the fifth inning. Samardzija moonwalked off the mound after striking out Peter Bourjos looking to end the seventh with his 98th and final pitch.

“It feels good,” Samardzija said. “There’s really no other way to put it. I like to compete. And if I’m going to compete, I like to compete against the best and that’s the Cardinals. Over the past five years, you can’t say there was a better team in the league.

“The history they have, the lineup they have – it goes on and on. I praise them every time we play them.”

Samardzija gave up one run in seven innings, working efficiently with four strikeouts against zero walks while leaving his ERA at 1.29 through three starts. Until Ryan Sweeney’s RBI single in the seventh, the last time the Cubs (4-6) scored a run for Samardzija was last September.

“Jeff just loves to pitch,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s a very emotional, very driven individual. There’s a lot of fire in him. He’s a competitor. He wants to be out there. Does this heighten it a little bit? It might. But I know every time he goes out there, he’s going to give us his best.”

Samardzija has a track record in big games, from his emergence as an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame to last year’s complete-game shutout against the White Sox to his seven scoreless innings on Opening Day against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  

“Now he’s learning how to pitch,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He repeats his delivery, fields his position and controls the running game. He’s definitely growing. (He’s a) fierce competitor.

“I love the guy. I love watching him pitch.” 

Trade or extend Samardzija is a space-filler debate. All indications are he will be gone by the July 31 trade deadline, unless something completely unforeseen happens. (This is where Matt Garza struck out Matt Holliday with a 96 mph fastball and reached for his elbow in July 2012.)

Both sides know the score. Samardzjia understands the market forces – even bad starting pitchers strike it rich in free agency. He knows it’s about getting paid for what he might do more than what he’s actually done so far. But he’s putting up top-of-the-rotation numbers now, even if it hasn’t translated into wins and losses yet.

Samardzija also wants to win. He doesn’t want to get stuck in an endless rebuilding cycle. He still thinks the Cubs could make it interesting this summer.   

“We know we’re going to play a lot of close games and we’re ready for that,” Samardzija said. “The more close games you win, the more confidence you build. And then all of a sudden you start seeing yourself win by four or five runs. You got to start somewhere. If we need to start this thing off by scraping up some one-run victories, then so be it.

“Sometimes it takes a game like this to prove to yourself and to the team that we belong here and we’re going to be here for awhile.”

ESPNChicago.com

Renteria says Cubs are sticking with Veras as closer

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS – This is where Carlos Zambrano once went off on his “We stinks!” rant after watching another Carlos Marmol meltdown.

Strange things happen to the Cubs at Busch Stadium, and right now Jose Veras looks lost out there in the ninth inning. Still, manager Rick Renteria gave his closer a vote of confidence after Friday night’s 6-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in 11 innings.

“He’s still our guy,” Renteria said.

Veras put up a 7.00 ERA in spring training, blew a save in his Cubs debut and got booed off the mound last weekend at Wrigley Field. He couldn’t protect a two-run lead against the Cardinals, getting bailed out by relievers Justin Grimm (1-0) and Hector Rondon (first career save) and Welington Castillo’s three-run bomb off Trevor Rosenthal.

Veras has two blown saves, seven walks in four appearances and a 12.27 ERA.

“His stuff is there,” Renteria said. “I think he just gets a little excited. He starts pulling some pitches. He overthrows some pitches. He’s just got to find his rhythm.”

The sense of doom started in the ninth inning with Yadier Molina’s single up the middle. Veras hit Allen Craig, who sold it by leaning away from a pitch Castillo caught with his glove. Home-plate umpire Gabe Morales signaled it brushed Craig’s arm. Pinch-hitter Jon Jay laid down the perfect sacrifice bunt. Molina scored on a passed ball that went wide left of Castillo.

Veras continued to give Cubs fans Marmol flashbacks by hitting Peter Bourjos and walking Daniel Descalso to load the bases for Matt Carpenter, who lifted a sacrifice fly to right field that tied the game.

“What happened to him (can happen) to anybody,” Castillo said. “I talked to him: Just keep your head up. Just go hard the next time you have an opportunity. He’s working really hard, but sometimes you just don’t know what to do with that kind of stuff. Just get the ball tomorrow and get a save.”

Remember how Dale Sveum yanked Marmol from the closer’s role after Game 5 last season and the overall reaction became: What took so long? Ten games into this season, Renteria is getting the same questions about Veras: Why not now?

“It’s too early to decide anything like that,” Renteria said.

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs situation leaves Darwin Barney in a tough spot

By Patrick Mooney

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs are riding out Emilio Bonifacio’s hot streak while waiting for Javier Baez to burst onto the scene. That leaves Darwin Barney in an awkward spot.

The Gold Glove second baseman became a bench player again on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Let the St. Louis Cardinals deal with Bonifacio, who began the day tied for the major-league lead with 19 hits. The “Lo Viste” leadoff guy also had a .500 on-base percentage and seven stolen bases, or two more than anyone else in baseball.

Barney will have to wait for the chance to show he can still be a core player alongside shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, an idea that sounded realistic at this time last year, given his elite defensive skills and natural leadership abilities.

“He’s dealing in a situation right now where he sees the landscape,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He kind of sees what’s going on. He’s trying to do everything he can to make sure he maintains himself. We use him sometimes in double-switches. We use him in other situations right now. But he continues to work hard. He’s still doing what he’s always done.”

Barney actually rewired his offensive game after hitting .208 last season, trying to mesh with ex-manager Dale Sveum’s philosophy, the top-down organizational message and a hitting program that got an offseason overhaul.

The front office liked the way Barney swung the bat in spring training, getting back to where he felt most comfortable. He’s seeing 4.29 pitches per plate appearance, walking six times and putting up a .429 on-base percentage.

Baez is still on the horizon as Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect. The Triple-A Iowa shortstop still needs to mature and get some more exposure to second base. The service-time considerations will be taken into account. But a midsummer promotion would make sense.

Leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, a National League contender might value Barney’s slick fielding and versatility. A powerful American League lineup could give him some cover. His intangibles would play well in October. He’s 28 years old and under club control through 2016, making this a possible turning point in his career.

Renteria is trying to keep everyone happy while juggling a roster filled with multiple utility guys, role players and unproven big-leaguers. The manager’s riding the hot hand and analyzing the numbers – and hoping that doesn’t backfire in the clubhouse.

“I think they’ve been maintaining their positive-ness throughout the whole process,” Renteria said. “It’s still really early in the season and things kind of shake out and play themselves out.”

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ Samardzija skipping to success

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS – Jeff Samardzija skipped off the mound Friday night after striking out Peter Bourjos to cap his seven-inning, one-run performance at St. Louis.

It would have been understandable had Samardzija performed cartwheels in the dugout had the Chicago Cubs preserved a two-run lead for him.

Instead, Samardzija saw his effort go for naught as he remains winless since Aug. 24, 2013, at San Diego.

The only improvement was the support provided to Samardzija, as the offense snapped a streak of 32 consecutive scoreless innings while Samardzija was on the mound dating back to last season.

“It’s the way it goes,” Samardzija said after receiving no decision in the Cubs’ 6-3 win in 11 innings. “You keep pitching and give your team a chance to give you runs. I learned my lesson when I was in the bullpen. Go out and get quick innings and you come back in, and a lot of times you get runs.”

Samardzija admitted he had some adrenaline running while facing the defending National League champions, which was evidenced by his hopping off the mound after the seventh.

“It’s a great team you’re playing against, when you do have success against a team that’s coming off some World Series wins, the history they have, the lineup they have, it goes on and on, “ Samardzija said. “I praise them every time we play them. It feels good. There’s no other way to put it. I like to compete and compete against the best. And that’s the Cardinals.

“Over the past five years, you can’t say there’s a better team in the league.”

The San Francisco Giants, with World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, might beg to differ. But Samardzija continued his improvement with another efficient performance as he needed only 98 pitches to throw seven innings while walking none against one of the toughest lineups in the majors.

Samardzija also kept his cool with two out in the fifth after taking a few steps off the mound in anticipation of a called third strike on Matt Carpenter with runners at first and second in the fifth.

Umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a ball, but Samardzija eventually retired the dangerous Carpenter on a fly to center.

“It’s a perfect example of what my game plan has been,” Samardzija said. “Previously, if I don’t get that call, maybe in 2012 or 2013, I might walk Carpenter. To take a step off the mound and take a deep breath, and (say), ‘hey I still got two chances to get him out,’ and I end up getting a flyout and out of the inning.

“It’s part of the growth process and part of learning and trusting yourself and understanding you have a good game plan.’’

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ Renteria stands by Veras

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS – Rick Renteria joked that his hair has been turning gray since he was 11 years old.

But after Friday night’s zany 6-3 win at St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs’ manager stood firm in his support of embattled closer Jose Veras after Veras’ second blown save.

“Shaky outing, but he’s still our guy,” Renteria said after Veras hit two batters, allowed one single and one walk during the Cardinals’ two-run ninth that deprived Jeff Samardzija of a win and sent the game into extra innings.

Two long-term candidates to take Veras’ spot could be Justin Grimm, who pitched a scoreless 10th and struck out Yadier Molina, and Hector Rondon, who earned his first save while extending his scoreless streak to 16 innings dating back to last season.

“(Veras’) stuff is there,” Renteria maintained. “I think he gets a little excited and starts pulling some pitches. He overthrows some pitches. He’s go to find his rhythm. … It’s too early to decide anything like that.’’

Catcher Welington Castillo also defended Veras, who has allowed seven walks, hit three batters,and hurled a wild pitch in addition to two hits in 3 2/3 innings covering four games.

“What’s happened to him is what’s happened to everybody,” Castillo said. “So I just talk to him, tell him ‘just keep your head up and just go hard the next day you have an opportunity.’ I try to get  him right. He’s working very hard. But sometimes stuff like that, he just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of stuff.”

Two other plays raised some eyebrows. After the Cubs tied the game at 1 and had runners at first and second with no outs, Renteria called for the hit-and-run play with Starlin Castro at the plate, but Nate Schierholtz was thrown out easily by Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina for the first out, and the rally quickly evaporated.

Renteria did raise the possibility of asking Castro to execute a sacrifice bunt with Ryan Kalish hitting behind him, but that Renteria wasn’t sure the Cardinals would pitch to Kalish with first base open.

“Starlin hits a lot of ground balls,” Renteria said. “My hope is we put the ball in play and they’re at second and third.”

The other possibility is a line drive triple play. “And that’s happened to me before,” Renteria said.

Prior to Castillo’s three-run home run in the 11th, Kalish attempted a bunt with runners at first and third with one out, but Kalish popped to Molina.

“We just didn’t execute it,” said Renteria, who declined to say whether he called for a safety squeeze or suicide squeeze bunt.

Chicago Tribune

Emilio Bonifacio advises Javier Baez to bide time

Cubs infielder knows what it’s like to spend time in minors so franchise can delay arbitration for a season

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — Emilio Bonifacio gave shortstop Javier Baez a thorough explanation of the super two arbitration eligible process and told him not to expect a sudden promotion after he was sent to Triple-A Iowa to start the season.

Baez’s 4-for-26 start has defused much of the talk about a promotion, and a recent tweet from Ryan Galla of Creative Artists Agency predicted the cutoff for this year’s super two candidates would be two years, 128 days of major league service.

But the cutoff dates fluctuate on an annual basis, which is another reason the Cubs are likely to wait until well after the current May 24 cutoff date to consider promoting Baez, who has yet to work out at second base in what many believe will be the final step in his advancement to the majors.

Perhaps no one on the Cubs is better prepared to talk about this subject than Bonifacio, 28, who said he was sent down to the minors to start the 2010 season to ensure he wouldn’t not qualify for salary arbitration in 2011.

Bonifacio got a measure of revenge as he experienced a breakout season in 2011 and beat the Marlins in an arbitration hearing for $2.2 million in 2012.

"I told (Baez) he won’t be the first one or last one," Bonifacio said. "Besides, (Starlin) Castro is the shortstop and playing well. I told him he’s still young and to keep working hard. From my experience, it’s part of the business, and it always has been."

The fluctuation in service time from year to year can have a significant financial impact on teams and players. First baseman Brandon Belt of the Giants qualified as a super two player with two years, 128 days of service time and settled for a $2.9 million contract, about $2 million more than he would have received if he had fallen short of qualifying.

Players who qualify for super two status must have between two to three years of service time, have earned at least 86 days of service during the preceding year and rank in the top 22 percent in total service time in the two to three year service class.

Rooftop mission: Crane Kenney, Cubs’ business president, and Carl Rice, vice president of stadium operations, scouted the Cardinals’ new Ballpark Village.

The area behind left field at Busch Stadium features several restaurants, a Cardinals Hall of Fame museum and several musical stages. And a rooftop area with more than 300 seats, which is of interest to the Cubs because of their battle with rooftop owners beyond the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals, who are in a partnership with Ballpark Village businesses, count the seats as part of their paid attendance.

Arrieta strong: Jake Arrieta will remain with Double-A Tennessee for his next rehab start.

Arrieta has given up no runs on three hits with seven strikeouts in 62/3 innings in two starts.

Building blocks: Unlike the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny, who inherited a World Series champion when he took over for Tony La Russa in 2012, the Cubs’ Rick Renteria is saddled with a rebuilding program.

But Renteria has no qualms about the team he inherited from Dale Sveum.

"I’m really fortunate to be here in this particular situation," Renteria said. "I do like all the guys we have and the guys we have coming. It’s a situation where hopefully we’re developing a particular type of mentality.

"Everybody talks about trying to do it. I’m no different. I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel. But we’re trying to maintain consistency and positive approaches throughout the whole process.”

Renteria emphasized that players must gain a manager’s trust and it will come gradually.

"So far it’s an on-going and developing relationship," Renteria said. "I think it’s going in the right direction, and I’m happy with the way they’ve gone about their business."

Close watch: Renteria said he will continue to monitor use of his bullpen, which has been worked often since two extra innings games to start the season.

"We have used them quite a bit, but they have gotten us out of a lot of jams," Renteria said. "We’ll continue to manage who we have now and see how we move forward and depending on our usage, we’ll have to make some determinations."

Chicago Tribune

Cubs almost waste another Jeff Samardzija gem

Jose Veras’ wildness blows save in 9th but Welington Castillo comes through in 11th with 3-run homer for 6-3 victory over Cardinals

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — For the first six innings Friday night, it looked like Jeff Samardzija would receive long-awaited and ample run support only with another team.

The Cubs’ offense finally broke through with three runs in the seventh and eighth innings while Samardzija held his own with seven innings of one-run ball against the National League champion Cardinals.

Those were the first runs scored by the Cubs with Samardzija on the mound since the seventh inning against the Brewers at Miller Park on Sept. 17, 2013.

But even that breakthrough wasn’t enough, as closer Jose Veras hit two batters and issued a walk that led to two runs in the ninth and deprived Samardzija of a well-deserved victory.

Still, it turned out all right as catcher Welington Castillo, whose passed ball allowed a run in the ninth, gained a measure of redemption when he smacked a three-run homer off Trevor Rosenthal that traveled 426 feet and gave the Cubs a 6-3 triumph in 11 innings.

The Cubs finally capitalized on second baseman Kolten Wong’s error in the seventh inning to give Samardzija some support. Ryan Sweeney, starting in center field as manager Rick Renteria went with a predominantly left-handed hitting lineup against Cardinals starter Joe Kelly, poked a single to left to score Anthony Rizzo and snap a streak of 32 consecutive scoreless innings while Samardzija was pitching.

Samardzija’s performance further bolstered those who believe he is or is close to being a top of the rotation starter for a playoff contender as teams are expected to resume their pursuit of Samardzija later this season.

In three starts this year, Samardzija has allowed three runs while walking five and striking out 15 in 21 innings — 14 innings against 2013 playoff teams.

Before the game, Renteria sensed Samardzija relished the challenge of facing a playoff contender like the Cardinals.

"He’s very emotional, a very driven individual," Renteria said. "This (game) does heighten it a bit. (But) every time he goes out there, he’s going to give his best.”

Samardzija kept his composure after he thought he struck out Matt Carpenter on an 0-2 pitch with two outs and runners at first and second in the fifth.

Samardzija took a few steps off the mound, only to see umpire Gabe Morales had called the pitch a ball. Samardzija rebounded to retire Carpenter on a fly to center.

Samardzija capped his 98-pitch performance with a pair of strikeouts to end the seventh, and then the Cubs snapped a tie in the eighth on Rizzo’s sacrifice fly and Nate Schierholtz’s third hit, which bounced past Matt Holliday in left field.

The Cardinals’ lone run off Samardzija occurred in the second when Matt Adams ripped a double past Rizzo at first, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a Yadier Molina single.

Molina is 10-for-20 lifetime against Samardzija.

Chicago Tribune

Valbuena returns to Cubs’ lineup

By Mark Gonzales

ST. LOUIS — Thursday probably won’t be the last time this season that Mike Olt and Junior Lake will get to start against a right-handed pitcher.

But left-handed hitter Luis Valbuena returns Friday night to the Chicago Cubs’ lineup, where he will bat second against Joe Kelly at Busch Stadium.

Valbuena will be making his fifth start at third base as he and Olt have shared the position. But manager Rick Renteria is employing a predominately left-handed hitting lineup against Kelly.

Valbuena gets the nod even though he’s hitless in five at-bats against Kelly. Right fielder Nate Schierholtz will start in right field and is 4 for 10 lifetime against Kelly.

The Cubs have scored 25 runs in their paset four games after scoring only eight times in their first five games. The Cus are batting .333 with runners in scoring position in their past four games after hitting only .100 (4 for 40) in that situation in their firest five games.

Chicago Sun-Times

Welington Castillo’s homer in 11th lifts Cubs over Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — It’s pretty difficult for a guy to build a reputation as a No. 1 starting pitcher when he doesn’t, you know, win any games.

Snakebitten Jeff Samardzija will live to fight another day. As a closer, Jose Veras perhaps should not. In full-blown meltdown mode Friday, Veras allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to score two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to force extra innings, costing Samardzija the victory.

Manager Rick Renteria said

afterward that the job still belongs to Veras for now.

Welington Castillo came through with a three-run home run, a 426-foot bomb to left-center in the 11th, to give the Cubs a 6-3 lead. Hector Rondon then pitched a scoreless bottom half to earn his first save as a member of the Cubs and run his scoreless streak to 16 innings.

But back to Samardzija and the question of whether he’s blossoming into a legitimate No. 1 starter. It’s too early to say yes, but why jump to a quick no?

Right now, the 29-year-old right-hander is dominating. He’s staying poised. He’s controlling what Renteria describes as his ‘‘energy and fight,’’ a big part of the battle for an emotional pitcher.

Samardzija was at it again against the Cardinals, throwing deep into another ballgame and daring the Cubs’ offense to take advantage.

After Samardzija gave them seven innings of one-run, six-hit ball, the Cubs scratched out a pair of runs in the eighth — their first earned runs of the game and the only runs they’ve scored for

Samardzija all season.

The Cubs have gotten quality starts in seven of their 10 games, and Samardzija is 3-for-3 in that

department. He has thrown seven innings in each of his starts and has surrendered a combined three runs. His ERA held strong at 1.29.

‘‘We need him going as long as he can,’’ Castillo said, ‘‘so every time he pitches, he gives us a chance to win.’’

In the visitors’ dugout before the game, Renteria made a ‘‘knock on wood’’ gesture when discussing how well Samardzija has been pitching. What his Opening Day starter really needs, though, is for the Cubs’ hitters to put wood to baseball, then for his bullpen to keep from coming unglued.

‘‘It’s the way it goes,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘Just keep pitching.’’

The three runs he got were the first scored by the Cubs in a game he had started in a hard-to-believe 36 innings. Dating to last season, it was Samardzija’s sixth consecutive quality start.

After striking out Peter Bourjos to end the seventh, Samardzija skipped backward off the mound before turning toward the Cubs’ dugout.

‘‘It feels good,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s really no other way to put it.’’

Castillo believes Samardzija still is improving. Wouldn’t it be nice to see where that improvement goes? Of course, there has been speculation the Cubs eventually will deal Samardzija to a contender.

‘‘It’ll be hard if we lose him,’’ Castillo said, ‘‘because every year it looks like he gets better and better.’’

 NOTE: Right-hander Jake Arrieta, who missed all of spring training with tightness in his pitching shoulder, might be ready to rejoin the Cubs soon. Manager Rick Renteria said Arrieta will make at least one more minor-league start, after which his status will be evaluated.

Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs’ task gets tougher on road trip against Cardinals, Yankees

By Gordon Wittenmyer

The current events and celebrity faces around Wrigley Field have changed.

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo hung out in the owner’s seats Thursday. Ryan Dempster watched from the bleachers.

One of the Cubs’ owners, Pete Ricketts, is hanging out with Sarah Palin while he runs for governor of Nebraska. And the Cubs’ answer to a faceless, do-nothing offseason is a pants-less, do-nothing mascot.

But don’t be fooled. Nothing has changed with this team since last year except a handful of names on the jerseys.

Nothing’s different when it comes to the lack of scoring, the blown leads and the generally outmanned look of a place-holder club trying to compete against teams that actually have MVPs, home-run champs and playoff aspirations.

If this season-opening 3-6 run against Pennsylvania’s finest wasn’t convincing enough, the Cubs hit the road for three against the division-favorite St. Louis Cardinals and two against the $209 million New York Yankees.

“Every road trip is tough. There’s no easy game in the big leagues,” eternal optimist/manager Rick Renteria said. “Every major-league baseball game is tough to win.”

Certainly from where he sits.

When the Cubs blew a four-run lead in the span of seven batters in the seventh inning to lose 5-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, it sent them to their eighth consecutive lost series, dating to Sept. 9-11, 2013.

They haven’t won a home series since the last one that started in August last year.

One of their hottest hitters, Starlin Castro, says that despite the remarkable similarities, this feels nothing like last year — though it might be easier for him to say, given he’s 11-for-his-last-21 as he puts a personally rough 2013 behind him.

“This is [feels like] closer games, more intensity in every game,” he said. “We’ve got energy in the dugout, [a feeling] we can tie the game or [come back and] win the game. It’s tough sometimes losing a game like [Thursday’s], but that’s the game.”

But Castro’s not going to try to claim this upcoming trip is like any other. If these guys want to prove their defiant optimism has any reality behind it, the next week of games is their chance.

“It’s good when you go play against really good teams,” he said. “We’ll see where the team is at; we’ll see what we can do, where we can be better.

Against less-touted teams, the same level of intensity doesn’t always show, he said.

“Sometimes you go to home plate like it’s easy because they don’t have a good team” he said. “But you play against good teams like the Yankees or St. Louis, you have to put 200 percent on yourself to win the game.”

Where they will get anything extra is unclear at best. Nine games in, Renteria has shown a tendency to lean hard on four bullpen guys, with Justin Grimm, James Russell, Brian Schlitter and Pedro Strop having worked six games each.

Russell, the most heavily used reliever in the league over the last two years, gave up the go-ahead, three-run homer in the seventh on the first pitch he threw to the first batter he faced, Pedro Alvarez.

He credited Alvarez with jumping on a bad pitch.

“It’s tough,” said the workhorse lefty, “especially as well as [starter Travis Wood] pitched, you never want to mess [that] up.”

Renteria: “Everybody in that [clubhouse] kept battling. They fought. We fell short. I’m sure we’ll think about it a little bit, and then put it to bed and get ready for [Friday].”

Daily Herald

Castillo saves Cubs’ brutal bullpen

By Bruce Miles

One of these days, Jeff Samardzija is going to get what he deserves.

A trade away from the Cubs? Well, maybe that.

But how about a victory? The way Samardzija’s luck has been going in the first two weeks of the season, that might be a long time in coming.

Samardzija, the ace of the Cubs pitching staff, tossed his third straight quality start Friday night at Busch Stadium. Just when it seemed he would get his first victory of the year, closer Jose Veras blew a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning allowing the Cardinals to tie the game.

The Cubs eventually won the game 6-3 as Welington Castillo crushed a 3-run homer off Trevor Rosenthal in the 11th inning. Second-year man Hector Rondon worked the bottom of the inning to earn his first major-league save, withi Justin Grimm earning the victory.

Samardzija has made 3 starts and has posted a stingy 1.29 ERA. All he has to show for it is a loss and 2 no-decisions.

That’s what happens when a team’s offense doesn’t do much and/or it has a leaky bullpen. Samardzija has been the victim of both in April.

In Friday night’s game, the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Yadier Molina’s RBI single.

Things stayed that way until the seventh, when Ryan Sweeney’s run-scoring single tied the game. Samardzija worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh before the Cubs took their 3-1 lead in the eighth, on a sacrifice fly by Anthony Rizzo and a single by Nate Schierholtz, who had 4 hits.

Pedro Strop held the Cards in the eighth, setting the stage for Veras. Veras’ line in the ninth was an ugly one: 1 hit, 1 walk and 2 hit batters, as the Cardinals ended up tying it on a sacrifice fly by Matt Carpenter.

The Cubs signed Veras this past off-season, marking the second winter in a row they went after a veteran closer. Before last season, they signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two-year deal out of Japan, but he came down with elbow problems, which lead to surgery.

With the Cubs having been in a major rebuilding mode since Theo Epstein took over as team president in the fall of 2011, it’s fair to wonder why this front office has spent the money on older closers when cheaper — and most likely no less ineffective — options always seem to be readily available.

If Veras continues to be ineffective, the Cubs could turn to any combination of Strop, Grimm or Rondon to get them through this season.

It couldn’t be much worse.

Cubs.com

Castillo’s three-run jack lifts Cubs to extra-inning win

Veras tagged for two runs in blown save before Cubs retake lead in 11th

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs finally scored a few runs for Jeff Samardzija, won an extra-inning game, and delivered in the clutch on Friday night. The only question is who’s the closer, although manager Rick Renteria said it isn’t a matter worth debating.

Welington Castillo smacked a three-run homer with two outs in the 11th inning to lift the Cubs to a 6-3 victory over the Cardinals, who had rallied with two runs in the ninth off Jose Veras in front of 43,903 at Busch Stadium.

Veras, who was booed at Wrigley Field in his first appearance April 6 when he gave up two runs, is now 0-2 in save situations. Last year, the Cubs began the season with Carlos Marmol as the closer, then switched after one week to Kyuji Fujikawa. An elbow injury sidelined the Japanese pitcher, who needed Tommy John surgery. The Cubs eventually signed Kevin Gregg.

"It was a shaky outing but he’s still our guy," Renteria said of Veras. "His stuff is there. I think he gets a little excited and he starts pulling some pitches and he overthrows pitches and he just has to find his rhythm.

"I don’t know how many times he’s actually closed for us now — maybe a couple times this season in 10 games," Renteria said. "It’s too early to decide anything like that."

The Cubs had a 3-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth when Yadier Molina singled to lead off against Veras, who then hit Allen Craig with a pitch, which Renteria challenged, only to have the call upheld. Molina and Craig moved up on a sacrifice, and Molina scored on a passed ball charged to Castillo.

Veras then hit Peter Bourjos and walked Daniel Descalso to load the bases for Matt Carpenter, who hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game.

"What happened to him has happened to anybody," Castillo said of Veras. "I just talked to him and said, ‘Keep your head up and just go hard the next day you have the opportunity.’ He’s working really hard, but sometimes stuff like that, he just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of stuff. I talked to him, and said, ‘Get your head up, get the ball tomorrow and get a save.’"

Nate Schierholtz doubled to lead off the Chicago 11th against Trevor Rosenthal and moved up on Ryan Sweeney’s sacrifice. Starlin Castro was intentionally walked, and the Cubs had a play on when Ryan Kalish popped up to Molina on a bunt attempt.

"We just didn’t execute," Renteria said of Kalish’s at-bat.

Castillo came through, launching a 1-1 pitch into the left-center seats for his second home run of the season.

"Welington got a good fastball, got a pitch up to hit and did a nice job with it," Renteria said. "I don’t think he was thinking too much in terms of innings. I think he just wanted to get in there and do his job and he got a good pitch to handle, and he drove it out of the ballpark."

"I was looking fastball," Castillo said. "I know he throws really hard, so I just waited for something over the plate that I could drive and I put my best swing on it."

It may have been the 11th inning, but Castillo wasn’t tired, and he told himself not to give up.

"I was talking to myself, ‘Just don’t give up, don’t give up, just go hard, go 100 percent, even if you’re body feels tired,’" he said.

The Cubs finally scored some runs for Samardzija, but couldn’t give him the win. In 14 innings in Samardzija’s first two starts this season, the Cubs had failed to score, and they were held scoreless through six on Friday. The streak could be extended even further as the right-hander lost, 4-0, in his last start of the season, Sept. 29, against the Cardinals. He went six innings in that game.

"When we took him out, he said, ‘Hey, pinch-hit for me and get me the runs,’ and we did," Renteria said of Samardzija.

"You keep pitching and keep giving your team a chance to come out and give you runs — I learned my lesson when I was in the bullpen," Samardzija said. "You go out and have quick innings and come back in, and a lot of times, you get some runs."

After striking out Bourjos to end the seventh, Samardzija seemed to moonwalk off the mound. He was just caught up in the moment.

"That’s a great team we’re playing against," Samardzija said of the Cardinals. "When you do have success against a team like that, which is coming off World Series wins and getting to the World Series and the history they have and the lineup they have, it feels good, and there’s really no other way to put it.

"I like to compete, and if I’m going to compete, I like to compete against the best, and that’s the Cardinals," he said. "Over the past five years, you can’t say there’s a better team in the league. I was happy to do my job."

The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the second on Molina’s RBI single, and the Cubs tied the game in the seventh on Sweeney’s RBI single off starter Joe Kelly.

Pinch-hitter Justin Ruggiano singled to open the Chicago eighth, moved up on Emilio Bonifacio’s sacrifice, and reached third on pinch-hitter Mike Olt’s single. Lefty Kevin Siegrist threw six straight fastballs to Anthony Rizzo, who then choked up on the bat and flared a curve to right to score Ruggiano. Olt scored on Schierholtz’s single to left.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had Rosenthal bat for himself in the 10th with two on and two outs even though he had Pete Kozma on the bench.

"Trevor had a very efficient inning, throwing six pitches the previous inning," Matheny said. "He’s arguably our best guy in the ‘pen. We had an opportunity to get him back out there and start off the next inning with Bourjos, Descalso and then the top of the order, we like throwing our best guy out there and thinking it’s going to get us a zero to get us a chance to get back in."

The Cubs know all about missed opportunities. They played two extra-inning games against the Pirates in their opening series and lost both. They could’ve folded against the Cardinals.

"We needed this one real bad," Castillo said.

"We know we’re going to play a lot of close games and we’re ready for that," Samardzija said. "The more close games you win, the more confidence you build, and then you see yourself winning by four, five, six runs. You have to start somewhere. If we have to start this off by scraping off some one-run victories, then so be it.

"Anything you can do to get confidence going and just the team going in the right direction, that’s what it takes, and sometimes it takes a game like this … to prove we belong here and we’ll be here for awhile."

Cubs.com

Call upheld after Cubs challenge in ninth

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Cubs manager Rick Renteria challenged whether the Cardinals’ Allen Craig was hit by a pitch by Jose Veras in the ninth, and the call was upheld.

The Cardinals were trailing 3-1 in the ninth when Yadier Molina singled off Veras. Craig was hit on the second pitch from Veras, but Renteria challenged the call.

Home plate umpire Gabe Morales needed a little extra time before he could review the play because the umpires didn’t know which dugout had the headset and equipment.

After a short review, the call was upheld. The Cardinals ended up scoring twice in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings.

Cubs.com

Bonifacio’s hot bat shifts Barney to new role

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — Emilio Bonifacio ranks among the Major League leaders in hits, and Cubs manager Rick Renteria has tried to get the versatile switch-hitter in the lineup every day, either in the outfield or at second. That means Darwin Barney sits.

Barney, 28, has started five of the Cubs’ 10 games at second, and was not in the starting lineup Friday night for the series opener against the Cardinals.

"I’m still getting used to finding ways to get myself prepared during the game," Barney said. "In the past, off-days were to rest. Now, I have to find a way to be mentally prepared for that first at-bat, which could be a big at-bat in the game. For me, that’s the mindset I’m taking. I’ve got a ‘C’ on my chest, and we’re trying to win as many games as I can."

Renteria has had Bonifacio in the outfield against left-handed starters, and said he will continue to go with matchups as the season progresses. Renteria does make sure all the players get the lineup the night before a game so there are no surprises.

"I think we’re trying to give ourselves the best chance to stay in it," Renteria said.

Barney has been used as a pinch-hitter, and then stayed in the game defensively in three of the other nine games prior to Friday. A Gold Glove second baseman in 2012, he isn’t used to not being in the lineup every day.

"I think he’s a pro," Renteria said of Barney. "He’s in a situation now where he sees the landscape and knows what’s going on. He’s trying to do everything he can to make sure he maintains himself.

"He’s been continuing to work hard and is still doing what he’s always done," Renteria said. "I think [all the players] have maintained their positiveness in the whole process. It’s still early in the season and things kind of shake out and play themselves out."

Arrieta makes further progress in rehab start

ST. LOUIS — Jake Arrieta continues to make progress in his rehab from tightness in his right shoulder, and he will make another Minor League rehab start with Double-A Tennessee.

Arrieta made his second start for the Smokies on Thursday, and went 3 2/3 innings.

"He’s on track and moving forward," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said.

Arrieta will make at least one more Minor League start for Tennessee, and the Cubs will then re-evaluate the right-hander’s status at that time. He reported to Spring Training with the shoulder problem.

In his two outings so far, Arrieta has given up one unearned run on three hits and three walks while striking out seven over 6 2/3 innings.

Extra bases

The Cubs have played two extra-inning games this season, and even though they have six quality starts in the first nine games, the bullpen has been busy.

Chicago’s relievers rank sixth in the National League in innings pitched with 32 1/3 heading into Friday’s game against St. Louis.

Renteria said they’re keeping tabs on how much work the relievers get. Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon are tied for eighth in the NL in innings pitched with six each, while Brian Schlitter is right behind with 5 2/3 innings.

One pitcher who hasn’t gotten much work is lefty Wesley Wright, who has been in two of the nine games, and last pitched April 4.

"Wesley is up and ready to go," Renteria said Friday. "We haven’t used him, but he’s available."

Cubs.com

Rivals Cubs, Cardinals set to face off again Saturday

St. Louis turns to Wainwright to even series vs. Chicago’s Villanueva

By Carrie Muskat

ST. LOUIS — This weekend is Cubs rookie manager Rick Renteria’s first taste of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, and he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s not as if Renteria hasn’t been in a competitive series. When he was with the Padres, they had to contend with the Dodgers.

But Saturday will be the 20,425th meeting between the Cubs and Cardinals, and as much as St. Louis manager Mike Matheny tries to downplay it, the intensity will be high.

"I think we’ve all been kind of conditioned to make every game a rivalry to be consistent, regardless of who it is, but you can’t help but feed off the life the fans have," Matheny said. "The Cubs fans show up here just like our Cardinal fans show up in Chicago.

"It’s a great atmosphere whenever we play these guys," Matheny said. "It just seems to be that extra excitement that you kind of feed off of."

Renteria can only hope for the same kind of success Matheny had. The Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, and Matheny took over the next year for Tony La Russa and led the team to the National League Championship Series. St. Louis reached the World Series in 2013, only to lose to the Red Sox in six games.

"I’m really fortunate to be here in this particular situation," Renteria said of the Cubs. "Obviously, I do like all the guys we have and I like the guys who are coming. It’s a situation where hopefully we’re developing a particular type of mentality. Everybody talks about trying to do it, I’m going to try to do it, I’m no different. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we are trying to maintain some consistency and positive approaches throughout the whole process."

Matheny, 43, played 13 seasons in the big leagues; Renteria, 52, played five years. Does that playing time help him as a manager?

"In the long run, the players have to gain trust," Renteria said. "I think you do it a little bit at a time. You can’t come in too hot. They have to get to know you, they have to get to know your personality, also. They have to get to know that if you say something, you’re going to do it.

"[They have to know] if you’re pulling for them, that you show them you’re pulling for them. I think it’s been an ongoing and developing relationship, and I think it’s going in the right direction. I’m happy with the way they’ve been going about their business. We’ve been fighting the last nine days, every single game. But that’s indicative of them. They’re pros, they can keep fighting and we want to keep the energy going as long as we can."

Cardinals: Wainwright readies to face Cubs

The Cardinals have scored two runs in Adam Wainwright’s first two starts, and the right-hander, who faces the Cubs on Saturday, will be looking for a few more. Wainwright faced the Cubs four times last season and was 2-1, striking out 23 over 25 1/3 innings.

Wainwright will tie Matt Morris, Larry Jackson and Max Lanier for 10th on the Cardinals’ all-time wins list with his next victory.

Right-handed hitters have had a little better success against Wainwright in the first two starts, going 7-for-31 compared to 1-for-16 by left-handed batters. The Cubs may start more right-handed batters, such as Mike Olt and Junior Lake, on Saturday.

Cubs: Villanueva set to make second start

Carlos Villanueva will be making his second start and fourth appearance of the season on Saturday. The perfect swingman, Villanueva picked up a win in his first start against the Phillies, giving up one run over five innings. In 31 games (10 starts) against the Cardinals, Villanueva is 5-4 with a 3.44 ERA, but was 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in six games (three starts) last season.

The win in his first start was even nicer for Villanueva, who took the loss in back-to-back extra-inning games in Pittsburgh in the opening series of the season.

"You have to forget about it," Villanueva said of the losses. "You want to do whatever you can to help the boys out and keep everybody happy."

ESPNChicago.com

Renteria on closer Veras: ‘He’s still our guy’

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria is sticking with Jose Veras as his closer despite Veras’ second blown save in as many chances this season.

"Shaky outing, but he’s still our guy," Renteria said after the Cubs eventually won 6-3 in 11 innings against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night. "It’s too early to decide anything like that."

The Cubs were leading 3-1 in the ninth when Veras gave up two runs on a hit, a walk and two hit batters to send his ERA skyrocketing to 12.27.

"His stuff is there, but I think he just gets a little excited," Renteria said. "He starts pulling some pitches. He overthrows pitches. He just has to find his rhythm."

The problem is Veras hasn’t found his rhythm since the Cubs signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal with a team option for another one.

He was just as bad in spring training as he is now, but the Cubs chose to ignore the signs, claiming the veteran knew how to get himself ready for the season. In 3⅔ innings pitched so far this season, he’s given up two hits and seven walks to go along with three hit batters.

"What happened to him has happened to everybody," Cubs catcher Welington Castillo said. "I talked to him, ‘Just keep your head up.’"

The Cubs had a similar problem at the beginning of last season when Carlos Marmol struggled just as he did in spring training of 2013. Marmol lost his job on the first Saturday of that season.

Renteria is in dangerous territory when it comes to the psyche of his team.

It’s one thing when a middle reliever struggles in a matchup, as James Russell did on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Cubs loss. It’s quite another thing if someone is blowing games at the very end when the Cubs are about to win. And to allow it to happen at the hands of a player who has struggled since the first days of spring training is just asking for trouble.

Castillo gets the thanks

Maybe Veras will get to keep his job for at least one more day because the Cubs actually ended up winning the game on Friday due to Castillo’s three-run home run in the 11th inning.

"I was looking for a fastball," Castillo said. "I was just looking for something over the plate that I can drive and put my best swing on."

Castillo caught all 11 innings Friday, just as he did all 16 last week against the Pirates in an extra-inning affair. His maturity is starting to show, as he helped reliever Hector Rondon to his first career save. Rondon pitched the 11th.

"I said, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you. We need to work together.’" Castillo said. “‘I’m going to try and do all that I can to help you save the game.’"

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Rapid Reaction: Cubs 6, Cardinals 3 (11)

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs won a seesaw game with the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-3 in 11 innings. Here’s a quick look:

How it happened:  Welington Castillo hit a two-out, three-run homer in the top of the 11th after Jose Veras blew a save in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cubs scored a single run in the seventh and two more in the eighth to erase a 1-0 deficit and give Jeff Samardzija his first run support of the season. After Anthony Rizzo reached on an error, Ryan Sweeney brought him home with a base hit to tie the game at one.

In the eighth, Rizzo had a great at-bat that led to a sacrifice fly to score pinch hitter Justin Ruggiano who had singled. Nate Schierholtz then drove one home with a bloop to left — he had four hits on the night — but Veras couldn’t shut the door. He gave up two runs on a hit, walk and two hit batters. Samardzija lasted seven innings, giving up six hits and just a solo run in the second inning without walking a batter and striking out four. He’s piling up the quality starts after a third straight dominant performance.

What it means: Like Carlos Marmol before him, Veras can’t be long for the job. His stuff has been bad since the day the Cubs signed him.

Samardzija continues to take the next step in his career. He’s simply being so much more economical with his pitches than ever before. He’s outlasting opposing starters by keeping his pitch count down; on Friday, he walked none and struck out four. The fewer the strikeouts the better for him. Yes, that seems counterintuitive, but because his stuff is so good, he can pitch to contact and not be hurt by it. Through three starts, his ERA is 1.29. Enough said.

Barney sits:  Nearly an every-day starter the past few seasons, second baseman Darwin Barney has played only against left-handed pitching so far this season. Most of that has to do with the start to the season for Emilio Bonifacio, who has been red hot through the first two weeks.

"He sees the landscape," Renteria said of Barney. "He sees what’s going on. He’s trying to do everything he can to maintain himself [be ready]."

Wright rusty: Reliever Wesley Wright hasn’t thrown in a game since April 4. He says he’s healthy. Renteria indicated that Friday could have been his night to get in. It never happened.

"Wesley is up and ready to go for us today," Renteria said before the game.

What’s next: Game 2 against the Cardinals takes place on Saturday afternoon at 1:15 p.m. CT with Carlos Villanueva taking on Adam Wainwright.

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Foes appreciate Cubs are work in progress

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — It’s hard to find an opposing baseball executive that doesn’t like how the Chicago Cubs are going about their rebuilding plan.

Maybe they like the fact that it’s going to take some more time, which means their team can rack up some wins against the Cubs. Or maybe they’re just jealous of the long leash the front office has from ownership.

Not many general managers get five or more years before winning becomes essential.

But one thing baseball people like about president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer’s plan is their patience. It’s hard not to waver in the face of so much criticism.

"It’s not a quick fix," St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said before his team played the Cubs on Friday night. "They’ve maintained that discipline not to try and do it just because of the pressures of winning now.

"Clearly, they have resources, but they are not going to make irrational decisions for short-term gains."

Whether “they have the resources” or not is an ongoing debate in Chicago. The question is will they have the resources when they need them. The Cardinals are well aware the Cubs could have a contending run in them.

"They have some good young talent and I don’t think you want to rush them," said Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday, a six-time All-Star. "Let them grow up together in the minor leagues, because once you get to the big leagues you sort of have that bond."

Unsolicited, Holliday brought up the names of Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, among others. He is well aware of their reputations to the point of reciting how they did in spring training this year. The Cubs train in Arizona, the Cardinals in Florida. Holliday might be the exception to the rule in terms of knowing other team’s players, but he realizes the Cubs could be a young contender with a modest payroll.

"Then you have an advantage because then you can have a bigger payroll if they need to bring in free agents here and there," he said. "They can go in and supplement their young players with a free agent on the market.

"They’re on the right track. A lot of good, young prospects will be here soon."

But will they be managed by the right guy? The Cardinals hired Mike Matheny when Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa stepped down. He’s getting universal praise as potentially the next special guy in the dugout, as he’s gone to the playoffs his first two seasons as manager.

"The guy just exudes leadership," Holliday said. "He doesn’t try. I think that’s the thing. He’s just a natural leader of men."

It’s hard to know if Cubs manager Rick Renteria will be described that way after his first two seasons, but Mozeliak reminds everyone he was hired in a different situation.

"[Renteria’s] coming into an organization that has different expectations," Mozeliak stated. "I’m not sure which job is tougher."

Matheny was unproven but had a support system around him starting with better players. Renteria was hired to make the ones he has become better.

"[Matheny] walked into a good situation," Holliday said.

Matheny is described as having the “it” factor: the attributes to be a great manager that can’t be defined. You just know it when you see it.

"When you’re looking for that one secret sauce, it’s always harder to define or even articulate," Mozeliak said.

Holliday agreed.

"There’s just something about him that guys respect," he said. "Guys want to play hard for him."

Holliday said being a prominent former player helps but, as everyone knows, it isn’t a prerequisite to becoming a great manager.

"It’s a guy that treats people the right way," Holliday stated. "Lives what he says."

In the early going of Renteria’s career, those words could apply to him. We already know he connects with his team and is doing his best to keep 25 players involved, though that can’t, and won’t, always be the case. He’s stuck to the things he’s said publicly and has certainly taken the optimistic view. We won’t know if he has the “it” factor for a while, but we might know if he’s headed in the right direction.

Same goes for the Cubs. The arrow looks to be pointing up as their prospects continue to progress, but we won’t know for sure about them for quite some time — just like Renteria. All that can be done is what’s being done.

"From a strategic standpoint, they are doing it right," Mozeliak said.

ESPNChicago.com

Lineup: Back to the lefties vs. Cards

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — It’s back to the mostly lefty lineup for Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria as his team opens a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night.

One day after giving infielder Mike Olt and outfielder Junior Lake their first starts of the season against a right-handed pitcher, they’re both on the bench as righty Joe Kelly throws for St. Louis. Kelly was 3-0 against the Cubs last season with a sparkling 1.96 ERA.

11 4 / 2014

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Bonifacio’s energy just what Cubs need

By Jon Greenberg

CHICAGO — If you’re watching a Cubs game and you see a player get a hit and flash a sideways V over his eye, then “lo viste.”

You saw “it.”

So, what is “lo viste?”

It’s leadoff hitter/utility man Emilio Bonifacio’s personal catchphrase, one of many things the team’s one-man pep band brought over to the Cubs this season.

As Bonifacio explained, it means “‘Did you see it?’ or ‘you see it.’ It’s not like a question.”

Bonifacio started doing the “lo viste” during a 26-game hitting streak in 2011 with the Marlins, but it didn’t really catch on until the 2012 season as the Marlins started doing it in spring training.

Plenty of teams have little inside jokes and rally gestures, like the Pittsburgh Pirates doing the “Zoltan” salute last season. Will this work to embody the new, fun-loving #CubsWay?

Well, it should be noted that the 2012 Marlins were a dumpster fire of a team that cost manager Ozzie Guillen his job, so it’s not like this rally cry has a ton of success behind it.

But, hey, it’s fun, and fun was in short supply the past two seasons as the Cubs lost 197 games combined.

"It’s perfect," Starlin Castro said. "We enjoy it a lot."

Bonifacio, a minor league spring training invite turned one-week folk hero, even had shirts printed for the season opener that feature a Cub (not Clark) doing the “lo viste.”

"[Baseball] is a job, but it’s still a game," he said after the Cubs blew a four-run lead in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday. "You gotta enjoy it. When you enjoy it, it makes your life a little easier."

The addition of Bonifacio, who is hitting .452 with nine runs and seven stolen bases in his first nine games, has been a boon for what was expected to be a meager Cubs offense. Instead, the Cubs’ offense is just … meh.

And in a clubhouse lacking that veteran mainstay leadership, he was the perfect addition.

"Yeah, he can change things," Castro said. "We’re having fun here. He’s one of the guys. He makes you enjoy the game, makes you play hard."

On Thursday, Bonifacio went 0-for-4 with a walk and a run, but he continued to wreak havoc on the basepaths. He walked to lead off the game, stole second and was thrown out at third. But then, he reached in the third on Gerrit Cole’s throwing error, then stole second and scored on catcher Tony Sanchez’s throwing error.

Five spots down in the order, the guy we thought might lead off continued to rake.

Castro has had success hitting leadoff, and manager Rick Renteria insinuated he might return him to that spot. Instead, Castro has hit second and third, and, on Thursday, he hit sixth for the third game. He’s 7-for-12 with six RBIs in that spot. Small sample size, yes, but he’s happy there.

"Yeah, we got men in scoring position," he said.

Castro, now hitting .342, had three hits — all singles — against the constantly shifting Pirates. He hit one past first base, one past third to score a run and one past shortstop in the Cubs’ failed rally in the ninth.

While Bonifacio’s early production is a nice surprise, getting Castro back to his 2011 form is key to the Cubs putting together at least a mediocre season, not to mention those grandiose future plans we hear so much about.

"Tough year," Castro said of a disastrous 2013 that helped cost the previous coaching staff their jobs. "I don’t want to think about last year. This is a new year."

No more trying to get Castro to be a different hitter. He’s doing him and it’s working out, offensively and defensively.

"I’m trying to be me — be aggressive," he said. "If I strike out, I strike out. If I get a hit, I get a hit. I come back the next game and be aggressive the same."

The Cubs are only 3-6 with a tough road trip on tap. No one is expecting much from this team, with good reason. But with Bonifacio at the top of the order and Castro feeling comfortable somewhere below, they could at least have some fun. That would be something we’d all like to see.

ESPNChicago.com

Series preview: Cubs at Cardinals

By Jesse Rogers

ST. LOUIS — The Chicago Cubs hit the road for five games including their first look at the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend. Here’s a preview:

The series: Friday, 7:15 p.m., Jeff Samardzija versus Joe Kelly

Saturday, 1:15 p.m., Carlos Villanueva versus Adam Wainwright

Sunday, 1:15 p.m., Edwin Jackson versus Michael Wacha

The rivalry: Manager Rick Renteria will get his first taste of Cubs-Cardinals. He was asked if he was aware of the rivalry.

"I’m going to find out," he laughed. "I don’t take one club more important than another, but if there is something there, great. We welcome it."

Who’s hot: Emilio Bonifacio has reached base at least once in every game this season but slowed down on Thursday going 0-for-4 with a walk. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo each hit .500 on the just-completed six-game homestand, and pitcher Hector Rondon has a career-high, 14-inning scoreless streak to start the season.

Who’s not: Nate Schierholtz was 2-for-15 on the homestand, while reliever Pedro Strop ’s ERA rose to 5.79 for the season.

Last season: The Cardinals were one of three teams to celebrate a playoff-clinching situation against the Cubs. On the last Friday of the season, the Cardinals beat the Cubs 7-0 to clinch the NL Central division.

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No challenge a curious move by Hurdle

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made a curious move in not challenging a fourth-inning play at the plate involving Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro in the Pirates’ eventual 5-4 victory on Thursday afternoon.

With two outs and Castro on second base, catcher Welington Castillo singled to left field, where Starling Marte came up throwing. The ball beat Castro to the plate as catcher Tony Sanchez was sitting on top of it, but, according to plate umpire Mark Carlson, he didn’t apply the tag in time.

"His foot touched the plate before the catcher had possession and control of the ball," Carlson said after the game.

It was close enough that Hurdle could have asked for a replay challenge, as that run made the score 4-0 in favor of the Cubs.

"I chose not to challenge," Hurdle said.

He was asked why not.

"Because I chose not to challenge," he reiterated. "If I give you any other answer, we [have] 10 more questions."

There was some speculation that the Pirates would have lost a challenge anyway because Sanchez could have been called for the new obstruction rule since he might have been blocking the plate before he had the ball. But that wasn’t the case.

"I didn’t have him violating any rules for the collision play," Carlson said.

The ball clearly beat Castro to the plate. At that point, the catcher can block the plate or stand wherever he wants.

"If he has the ball securely, he would have been able to block the plate," the umpire said.

Replays were inconclusive because Sanchez might have bobbled the ball as Castro slid in, but Hurdle chose not to review it anyway.

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Happy with a loss? You should be

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — OK, happy might be a strong term, but there were plenty of positives in the Chicago Cubs’ just-completed 2-4 homestand. You simply need to ignore the negatives, because most of them don’t matter.

First off, Starlin Castro just might be back to his old self.

“Castro is probably as hot as [Emilio] Bonifacio is now,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after his team’s 5-4 win over the Cubs on Thursday. “This kid is looking like the player that first came up. I mean, balls off the plate, balls down, balls up, barreling balls. He’s fighting at-bats.”

Castro had three more hits on Thursday, raising his batting average to .342 after starting the season 0-for-9. He hit .500 (12-for-24) on the six-game homestand, and, considering he missed all of spring training, that 0-for-9 doesn’t really count.

“I feel really good at the plate,” Castro said after the game.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo is just as hot. He also hit .500 on the homestand while continuing to go the opposite way and is hitting lefties better than ever. His on-base percentage through nine games is .463.

“They look like they’re having fun coming out to the ballpark, playing the game,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said.

That’s a statement former manager Dale Sveum never made, not with the struggles that Rizzo and Castro endured last season. This is why you can smile if you’re a Cubs fan — even in a loss. Players who are considered core or possible core guys are starting to come through.

Travis Wood threw six great innings on Thursday, newcomer Mike Olt hit his second home run of his career on Tuesday and Bonifacio is tearing up the league. Junior Lake also homered on Tuesday. When the bullpen blows a game, it hurts, but the long-term implications are meaningless. Consider this: Not one reliever has a contract past this season. When the Cubs turn the corner as an organization, they might employ seven new faces down in the pen. That’s the least of their worries right now.

“At the end of the day, we want better results,” Renteria said.

Everyone does, but those results won’t come until individuals take the proper steps in their careers. When the Cubs lose because of Castro and Rizzo — as they did a lot last season — that’s of concern. No offense to pitchers Brian Schlitter or James Russell — they lost the game for Wood on Thursday — but their losing effort is just not as big of a deal.

It’s hard to see it through the fog of a 3-6 start, but major strides are being taken early in this season. No one knows if it will happen for sure, but if the Cubs do become a contender, moments like this past homestand will be looked back on as a building block.

The losses might pile up, but if production continues from the people who matter, then the Cubs are actually making strides. It sounds crazy, but it was a winning 2-4 homestand.

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Rapid Reaction: Pirates 5, Cubs 4

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs lost the rubber game of the series to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, 5-4. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: The Cubs bullpen ruined a nice effort by Travis Wood as the Pirates scored five runs in the seventh inning. The big blow was a go-ahead three-run homer by Pedro Alvarez. That was preceded by a two-run shot by pinch hitter Travis Snider. Just like that the Cubs’ 4-0 lead was gone. Emilio Bonifacio’s legs scored the first run of the game in the third inning when he came around from first on a throw into center field on a stolen base attempt. The Cubs added three more in the fourth on four singles, including RBI hits by Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo. Wood pitched into the seventh inning, giving up just one run which he wasn’t even in the game to see cross the plate as Snider went deep off of Brian Schlitter soon after. Three batters later Alvarez left the park off James Russell.

What it means: The Cubs were on their way to a second consecutive solid win over the Pirates until the bullpen got involved. On paper the bullpen looked better heading into 2014 but several questions emerged toward the end of spring training and now it could be a fluid situation. Is Schlitter ready for prime time? And is Russell feeling the effects of leading the league in appearances among lefties the past two seasons? Even late-inning guys Pedro Strop and Jose Veras have struggled some in the early going. To be fair, this was the first complete meltdown by the bullpen in nine games, but the Cubs season was derailed early last season because of such happenings. So far there are mixed reviews. More important long term is Castro’s day. He went 3 for 4, raising his batting average to .342.

Pitching rotation: Before the game manager Rick Renteria said there will be no change in the pitching rotation despite two off days next week. Pitchers will simply get extra days of rest.

Arrieta rehab start: Starter Jake Arrieta threw 3 2/3 shutout innings in a rehab start for Double-A Tennessee on Thursday afternoon. He gave up three hits and two walks while striking out four. He’s due for at least one more start at Double-A.

What’s next: The 3-6 Cubs start a five-game road trip with a weekend series in St. Louis. Jeff Samardzija takes on Joe Kelly at 7:15 p.m. CT Friday.

ESPNChicago.com

Teammates marvel at Bonifacio’s ‘epic’ start

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — As the milestones pile up for Chicago Cubs infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, so do the accolades from all over the baseball world, including his teammates.

"It’s pretty epic," outfielder Ryan Kalish said on Wednesday before the Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-5.

Bonifacio is putting up numbers that haven’t been accomplished by a Cub in many years.

For example, not since 1914 has a Cubs player had 17 hits in his first seven games; Bonifacio added hits 18 and 19 in his eighth game on Wednesday night.

Only one other player has had 19 hits in eight games; that was Randy Jackson in 1954, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

No one before Bonifacio ever had a one-, two-, three-, four- and five-hit game in his first seven tilts. Check that one off for him, as well.

He’s been outstanding.

But it’s the praise from teammates that Bonifacio loves hearing.

"I think we were in awe the second day," outfielder Nate Schierholtz said. "When you collect nine hits in two games to start the season, I guess that’s every guy’s dream. It’s been impressive. You think it’s going to slow down, and it hasn’t."

If it’s not praise from teammates, Bonifacio has plenty of family and friends letting him know how he’s doing. He doesn’t need to look at the stats to know he’s leading the league in hitting.

"A lot of friends they send me texts," Bonifacio said. "They’re happy for me. Sometimes they send me texts telling me what I did and I’m like, ‘I was there. I did it. I know.’ But I know they are excited, especially in the Dominican Republic."

Friends, teammates and even former teammates are wanting some time with Bonifacio, whose .500 batting average is tops in the majors entering play on Thursday.

"Jose Reyes [of Toronto], I talk to him almost every day. He says, ‘Keep doing it,’" Bonifacio said.

Bonifacio has made it easy on Cubs manager Rick Renteria. No matter who’s on the mound, Renteria can pencil him in as a switch-hitter who can play nearly anywhere on the diamond. With the Cubs’ lineup in flux each day, Bonifacio has become entrenched.

"It’s a unique skill to have," Renteria said of getting on base. "He’s using it to the best of his ability. We’re glad that we have him out there as often as we can. If you have a leadoff guy you can slot in, it’s really big."

In a matter of a few weeks, he’s become a leader on the team. Quiet by nature, Bonifacio is being sought out by teammates.

"Now we’re just expecting it with him right now," Kalish said. "He’s super educated; just picking his brain. He really has a good idea of what he’s trying to do. That’s huge for any player. It’s really fun to watch right now."

Most Cubs say they’ve never seen or experienced a hot streak like the one Bonifacio is on, especially at the start of the season.

It takes time to get locked in and usually some warm weather. The Cubs haven’t played a game in a warm-weather city yet, but that hasn’t stopped Bonifacio.

"That’s a serious hot streak any time of the season," Schierholtz said. "He’s found a home here. He’s so valuable because he can play everywhere. Something that every team needs."

The Cubs need it more than most. Getting on base and causing havoc isn’t something they’ve had in great supply lately. That might be prospect Albert Almora’s future role. Right now it’s Bonifacio’s role, as he has more natural speed than just about any other Cub.

"I think he’s always going to have a really good chance when he goes up to the plate because of his overall knowledge of the game and experience," Kalish said. "He’s been through it all and can get on base in so many ways. I love having him as our leadoff man."

CSNChicago.com

MLB Draft: Cubs could be looking for their Gerrit Cole

By Patrick Mooney

Right now, this is the stuff of video-game commercials: Who would the Cubs start in the deciding game of a World Series?

The Pittsburgh Pirates already have their answer in mind. Gerrit Cole has the No. 1 overall pick pedigree and a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame. He’s UCLA-educated, with Boras Corp. polish, a nasty curveball and 100 mph velocity.

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said everyone else wants to put the hotshot pitcher in “the HOV lane,” but the Pirates fast-tracked Cole, who made only 38 starts in the minors. He became the National League’s Rookie of the Month after going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA last September. He split two playoff games against the St. Louis Cardinals last October. He’s 23 years old and under club control through the 2019 season.

“He’s 20 percent of your rotation in place and it’s the No. 1 pole,” Hurdle said before a 5-4 victory at Wrigley Field. “Down the road, it’s a No. 1 horse. That’s the spot everybody’s looking to fill. We feel we’re going to have that spot filled.”

Cubs fans will be seeing a lot of Cole, who fell into a four-run hole, battled through six innings, notched 10 strikeouts and earned the win. It was more tough luck for Travis Wood, the All-Star lefty who walked off the mound in the seventh inning with a 4-0 lead and wound up with a no-decision after a bullpen meltdown.

The Cubs view Wood as part of their future, but Jeff Samardzija is an extreme long shot to stick around here after the July 31 trade deadline. So far, Edwin Jackson has been a $52 million disappointment. The Cubs have missed on free-agent targets like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Anibal Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka.

C.J. Edwards, the centerpiece of last summer’s Matt Garza’s deal with the Texas Rangers, has emerged as the organization’s best pitching prospect, showing a big personality and an advanced feel for the game. But Baseball America’s No. 28 overall prospect weighs about 165 pounds and just spent his first week above the A-ball level.

The Cubs have the fourth overall pick in the June draft, right behind the White Sox. The Houston Astros and Miami Marlins hold the first two selections in a draft that was supposed to revolve around North Carolina State University lefty Carlos Rodon and East Carolina University right-hander Jeff Hoffman, who haven’t quite lived up to the enormous expectations so far this season.

As Cubs executive Jason McLeod acknowledged: “There’s been other guys who’ve really stepped up.”

The vice president of scouting and player development described a more fluid situation than last year, when the Cubs could really narrow their focus. They grabbed University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick after heavily scouting two college pitchers. Mark Appel went first overall to the Astros and the Colorado Rockies snapped up Jon Gray at No. 3.

The Cubs could be heading toward another pitcher vs. hitter decision, knowing that historically position players are the safer bet up top and believing Bryant and 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora will be key pieces to the next contending team at Clark and Addison.

“We’ve got certainly a handful of guys that we’re discussing,” McLeod said. “There are some high school players in the mix. It comes back to what we said the last couple years: Who’s going to provide the most impact for our organization?

“We’ve made no secret that we’ve tried to acquire as much pitching as we can. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face. But if you look at our last two drafts, we’ve taken two position players with our first pick, because we felt Albert and Kris were the best players at those picks.

“That’s how we’re going to approach this draft as well. We’re not going to draft on need. We’re going to draft the guy that we feel will provide that long-term impact for us. But you probably will see a more pitching-heavy draft after the first pick.”

The Pirates drafted Cole first overall in 2011, during the middle of Hurdle’s first season in Pittsburgh. They’ve gone from 72 to 79 to 94 wins across the last three seasons with a mixture of homegrown players, under-the-radar free agents and international talent.

“There are different ways to add to the depth of your system,” Hurdle said. “It’s based on organizational philosophy, what you look for, what’s inherent. Some people believe you develop hitters and you just try and go get pitchers. I’ve heard it the other way, where you develop your pitchers and you go buy bats. It all depends on what the organizational philosophy is at the time.”

The Cubs already have a farm system stocked with intriguing position players. Maybe Rodon or Hoffman will surprisingly drop to No. 4. Maybe a high school pitcher like Tyler Kolek or Brady Aiken really will be that once-in-a-lifetime talent. Maybe Vanderbilt University’s Tyler Beede or Texas Christian University lefty Brandon Finnegan could be the next one on the fast track.

There are no sure things. Just ask Hurdle, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 as “THIS YEAR’S PHENOM.”

“You need to hit all over the place,” Hurdle said, “because all the No. 1s aren’t going to hit. All the No. 3s aren’t going to hit. You’d like to think all the $20 million players you hire from the outside are going to hit. They don’t, (but) you know that going in.

“Every pick at the time – it’s kind of like that’s your most important pick. (So) in the 14th round, we got to get the best player we can right here. I know that every organization has a level of belief in doing that. Some are just more successful at it than others. That’s kind of the way the world works.”

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Cardinals, Yankees will be tough test for Cubs and Anthony Rizzo

By Patrick Mooney

Whether he wants to admit it or not, this is a big year for Anthony Rizzo, who got $41 million guaranteed before his first full season in the big leagues.

The Cubs have a brutal early schedule and a patchwork lineup that will put pressure on Rizzo to produce. It won’t get any easier after losing 5-4 to No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs left Wrigley Field on Thursday knowing they’d face Joe Kelly, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha this weekend at Busch Stadium. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to start Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

The Cubs made Rizzo a No. 3 hitter and a face-of-the-franchise focus, the kind of instant responsibility that doesn’t happen with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even if the Pirates did have Francisco Liriano on the mound, a brutal Opening Day performance (0-for-4, three strikeouts) brought back those questions about facing left-handers and hitting with men in scoring position (.191 last season) and how Rizzo would handle it all.

Rizzo responded during this homestand, putting together a five-game hitting streak (11-for-18) and riding a hot streak that has lifted his average to .371 and boosted his OPS to .978.   

“It’s a long season,” Rizzo said. “We went through a long season last year and another two weeks isn’t going to make or break your season. But it’s just nice to rack up some hits early.”

Rizzo is 24 years old and has already been traded twice, playing for three different managers and working with at least four different hitting coaches in the last year. He still doesn’t get as much heat as All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, the other core player dissected in the Dale Sveum firing.

“Even in batting practice, you see (Rizzo) working the other side of the diamond,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with two strikes. (Offensively), they have peaks and valleys. Right now, he’s in a pretty good place. The shift doesn’t hurt him. He’s hitting the ball the other way. He’s able to take advantage of it.” 

Rizzo can defend last year’s 23-homer, 80-RBI, 76-walk season, but it didn’t live up to expectations. The first baseman is trying to keep it all in perspective. 

“It’s just really not doing too much,” Rizzo said. “The first few games, I was hitting balls right at guys and it was very frustrating. I learned from (that) in years past. You can’t press. It’s early. It’s a long season. You just got to keep going through the grind and get into your routine.”

A road trip through St. Louis and New York will show the Cubs what sustained success looks like up close.

“We’ll see where we’re at,” Castro said. “We’ll see what we can do and where we can be better. It’s good (for us). When you play a good team like the Yankees and St. Louis, you have to put up 200 percent to win the game.”

CSNChicago.com

Castro’s play at home plate creates questions for Cubs, Pirates

By Patrick Mooney

Major League Baseball’s collision rule and expanded replay have created a gray area behind home plate. It left a lot of questions to be answered after Starlin Castro slid into Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez.

The Cubs caught a break during that fourth-inning sequence on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Starling Marte’s throw from left field clearly beat Castro, who still gave his team a four-run lead that would vanish in a 5-4 loss.

Home-plate umpire Mark Carlson told a pool reporter: “I didn’t have (Sanchez) violating any rules for the collision play. (Castro’s) foot touched the plate before the catcher had possession and control of the ball.”

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle walked out from the visiting dugout for an explanation from Carlson and told reporters postgame: “I chose not to challenge.”

Why?

“Because I chose not to challenge,” Hurdle said. “If I give you any other answer, we got 10 more questions.”

Castro – whose left-leg-first slide knocked Sanchez on his back – didn’t have an exact answer either.

“I don’t know if he called safe because the catcher blocked home plate before he got the ball,” Castro said. “I came inside and watched the replays and it looked out.

“It’s kind of like a bang-bang play. I think he bobbled the ball before it got in his glove. I think that’s the reason the umpire called it safe.”

Cubs manager Rick Renteria gave the thumbs-up sign to reporters in the interview room, but said he didn’t get any Castro details from Carlson.

“He called him safe – that’s all I know,” Renteria said. “As soon as he called him safe, that was good for us and we moved on.”

This experimental rule has enough room for interpretation that this won’t be the last time the Cubs will be involved in a controversial or confusing play at home plate.

Tribune

Cubs try to regroup after another 1-run loss

Bullpen blows 4-run lead in 7th in 5-4 setback against Pirates and now club heads out to visit Cardinals and Yankees

By Mark Gonzales

Another one-run loss Thursday could set an ominous tone as the Cubs now face a difficult five-game trip.

Shifting their focus to a weekend series against the National League champion Cardinals became challenging after they wasted six solid innings from Travis Wood in blowing a four-run lead in a 5-4 loss to the Pirates at overcast Wrigley Field.

"I’m sure we’ll think about it a little bit and then put it to bed and get ready for (Friday night)," manager Rick Renteria said after relievers Brian Schlitter and James Russell surrendered four of the five runs in the seventh in the Cubs’ fourth one-run loss of the season.

That collapse prevented the Cubs (3-6) from winning consecutive games for the first time this year, and the close losses illustrate their small margin for error.

After taking a 4-0 lead after four innings, the offense didn’t put another runner on base until pinch-hitter Ryan Sweeney led off the ninth with a walk. He eventually was stranded at third as usually reliable Emilio Bonifacio grounded to first with the bases loaded to end the game.

After the game, Starlin Castro tried to dismiss any parallels between the tough losses suffered at the start of 2013 and this season, saying there is more energy on this team and that they have put themselves in a position to tie or win each of those games.

"(But) it’s tough to lose a game like this," he admitted.

Especially because Renteria thought he had the proper matchups once Wood was pulled. The starter threw 104 pitches through six innings but was lifted after allowing a leadoff double to Neil Walker in the seventh. Schlitter relieved but allowed a two-run homer to Travis Snider.

Left-hander Wesley Wright (who hasn’t pitched since April 4) was available, but Renteria opted for Russell, also a lefty, to make his sixth appearance and pitch to left-handed hitter Pedro Alvarez, who cranked Russell’s first pitch for a game-winning, three-run homer.

"It was just a slider I hung and left down the middle of the plate, and that’s what (Alvarez) is supposed to do with it," Russell said.

"More power to Alvarez for doing his job and taking that pitch deep. It’s tough, especially as well as Woody pitched. You never want to mess up a good run like he had. It just one of those deals. It happens. We live to see another day."

The Cubs wasted another dazzling performance from Bonifacio, who stole two bases and scored from second after catcher Tony Sanchez sailed a throw into center field in the third.

"I always anticipate that because the outfield, most of the time, just gives up and it’s hard to start over,” Bonifacio said.

Discarding the loss, Castro seemed excited for the upcoming series against the Cardinals and Yankees. In the two-game set at Yankee Stadium, the Cubs are slated to face Masahiro Tanaka, whom they pursued unsuccessfully in a massive bidding war.

"It’s good when you play very good teams," Castro said. "We’ll see where the team is at. We’ll see what we can do and how we can be better.

"When you play against a good team, like the Yankees and St. Louis, you have to put 200 percent in to win the game."

Meanwhile, Renteria tried to downplay the significance of the Cubs’ rivalry with the Cardinals that holds such significance to their fans.

"I don’t take one club more importantly than the other," Renteria said. "But if there’s something there, great. We welcome it.”

Tribune

Starlin Castro at top of game at bat and in field

Recovered from hamstring strain, Cubs shortstop focused on making exceptional plays on defense and excelling on offense

By Mark Gonzales

Starlin Castro’s stellar defense recently is matching his production at the plate.

The Cubs shortstop made an exceptional play Thursday to retire Pedro Alvarez in the ninth and his third hit in the bottom of the inning fed a Cubs rally that fell short in the 5-4 loss to the Pirates.

"It’s just a matter of thinking about situations before they actually happen," coach Gary Jones said. "That’s one of the things we’ve talked about. He’s doing a good job. He understands situations. He understands runners. So everything is going very well.

"He deserves all the credit. He has put all the work in and recommitted himself to wanting to be the best player he possibly can be, and it’s showing.”

At the plate, Castro said he hasn’t paid attention to the Pirates’ shifts that he foiled several times in this three-game series. Since starting 0-for-9, Castro is batting .448 (13-for-29) with seven RBIs and has enjoyed batting in the sixth spot “as long as we have men on base.”

Jones believes Castro has picked up where he left off before suffering a right hamstring strain March 2 that sidelined him for most of spring training.

"We didn’t get the work that we wanted in spring training," Jones said. "(But) he has picked right up. He feels good about himself, as he should because he’s a very good player.”

Pause on replay: There was some initial confusion as to why Pirates manager Clint Hurdle didn’t contest home plate umpire Mark Carlson’s call that resulted in the Cubs’ fourth run when it appeared Castro was out easily.

But Carlson told a pool reporter Castro’s foot touched home plate before catcher Tony Sanchez had full control of the ball.

"I didn’t have (Sanchez) violating any rules for the collision play," Carlson told the pool reporter. "If he has the ball securely, he would have been able to block the plate. (Castro’s) foot touched the plate before (Sanchez) had possession and control of the ball."

Hurdle gave a brief explanation as to why he didn’t challenge the call after talking to Carlson about the play.

"Because I chose not to challenge," Hurdle said. "If I give you any other answer we have 10 more questions."

Baez bops HR: Javier Baez, the Cubs’ top prospect, ripped a two-run homer in the sixth inning Thursday to snap a 1-1 tie and lead Triple-A Iowa to a 5-1 victory over Nashville.

Pitcher Jake Arrieta, making his second minor league rehabilitation start, pitched 32/3 scoreless innings for Double-A Tennessee. Arrieta, who is recovering from right shoulder tightness, scattered three hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He threw 40 of 66 pitches for strikes.

Extra innings: Manager Rick Renteria said the Cubs’ rotation would remain intact despite two off days on Monday and April 17. This means Jason Hammel and Travis Wood will face the Yankees in a two-game series at Yankee Stadium starting Tuesday. … The Cubs haven’t won a series since taking two of three games from the Reds on Sept. 9-11 last year. They have lost eight straight since then.

Tribune

Adding 50 pounds beneficial for Cubs prospect

Kane County pitcher Paul Blackburn has beefed up to 202 pounds slowly and says it really has helped strength and stamina

By Mark Gonzales

Friends of Paul Blackburn didn’t notice the 50 pounds that he gained since high school until they watched videotapes of his performances at Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif.

"My body feels a lot better," said the 6-foot-2 Blackburn, who says he now weighs 205 pounds. "I feel like I have more strength now than I did when I got drafted (in 2012) and in my first two years of pro ball.”

The Cubs hope the added weight will help Blackburn’s development as a starting pitcher. Baseball America rates Blackburn as the 12th best prospect in the organization and he showed signs of promise at the end of last season when he pitched seven innings of two-hit ball while striking out eight and walking none in short-season Class A Boise’s Game 1 victory in the Northwest League playoffs.

Blackburn, 20, has benefited from gaining weight properly rather than from patronizing fast food restaurants.

"We have (strength) camps out here in November and January," Blackburn said last month at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona. "They put you on programs dealing with strength and weight. (They tell) how much you need to eat to gain weight and make sure it’s good weight and not bad weight."

The added weight forced Blackburn, a sandwich pick taken 56th overall in the 2012 draft who signed for a $911,700 bonus, to buy some bigger pairs of jeans, but he’s not complaining.

The Cubs have been very patient in letting Blackburn fill out. He started 2013 in extended spring training before joining Boise last June.

"I learned to get into a routine," Blackburn said. "They didn’t rush me and instead set me up for success, no matter where I am. It has been a big help.

The Cubs also were mindful that Blackburn started his professional career directly out of high school.

"I’m seeing bigger guys," Blackburn said. "There are a lot of people here, and it’s a job now. I don’t know how else to put it."

After a rocky first start, Blackburn threw five innings of two-hit ball Wednesday for Class A Kane County against Fort Wayne.

Extra innings: Iowa shortstop Javier Baez, 21, was listed as the youngest player to start the 2014 season on a Triple-A opening day roster, according to Baseball America. Second baseman Arismendy Alcantara was the 10th youngest player in the Pacific Coast League. … Kyle Hendricks pitched seven innings of one-run ball Thursday to lead Iowa to a 5-1 victory over Nashville.

Tribune

Series preview: Cubs at Cardinals

By Staff

All games on WGN-AM 720.

Season series: Cardinals 12-7 in 2013.

Friday: 7:15 p.m. CSN+.

RH Jeff Samardzija (0-1, 1.29 ERA) vs. RH Joe Kelly (1-0, 1.69).

Saturday: 1:15 p.m. CSN.

RH Carlos Villanueva (1-2, 4.26) vs. RH Adam Wainwright (1-1, 1.29).

Sunday: 1:15 p.m. WGN-Ch. 9.

RH Edwin Jackson (0-0, 6.30) vs. RH Michael Wacha (1-0, 0.71).

Who’s hot: Starlin Castro has a seven-game hitting streak. Hector Rondon hasn’t allowed a run in 15 consecutive innings dating back to Sept. 3. Matt Adams is 10-for-26. Adam Wainwright has allowed only eight hits while striking out 16 in 14 innings.

Who’s not: Nate Schierholtz is 1 for 10. Closer Jose Veras has walked six in 2 2/3 innings. Jhonny Peralta is 1-for-15 and Allen Craig 1-for-19.

Sun-Times

Cubs’ bullpen wastes Wood’s strong start in loss

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

The Cubs bullpen wasted a strong pitching performance from Travis Wood and some early run production, blowing a four-run lead in the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the finale of a six-game opening homestand.

The Cubs loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the ninth, but the Cubs’ top hitter in the early going, Emilio Bonifacio, grounded to first to end it.

The Cubs took a 4-0 lead into the seventh before Wood allowed a leadoff double to Neil Walker and departed.

Park Ridge reliever Brian Schlitter took over and eight pitches later surrendered a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Travis Snider. Schlitter got two more outs, but couldn’t finish the inning, giving up a single and walk before turning over the game to left-hander James Russell.

Russell’s first pitch was driven over the center field wall by defending NL home run champ Pedro Alvarez for a three-run homer that gave the Pirates their first lead since Tuesday.

The Cubs have yet to win a series in three tries this season and have lost eight consecutive series dating to Sept. 9-11.

Starlin Castro had three hits for the Cubs, including a run-scoring single in their three-run fourth.

Sun-Times

Darwin Barney still figuring out his role with Cubs

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

Three series into a new season with a new manager and coaching staff, second baseman Darwin Barney doesn’t know much about his tenuous hold on the starting job he’s owned for the last three years.

“Obviously, it’s not the same,” said Barney, who was out of the starting lineup Thursday for the fourth time in nine games.

Since earning the starting job a week into the 2011 season, Barney hasn’t missed as many starts in a similar stretch that didn’t involve an injury.

“But that’s the nature of the game,” he said. “And last year happened. So I have to continue to show that’s not who I am.”

Barney, who hit .276 in 2011 and .254 in 2012 as he developed into a Gold Glover, slumped to .208 last year while trying to adopt changes to his hitting style that previous management wanted to see.

This spring, his approach looked more like the 2011-12 version. He saw more pitches and drew more walks.

On Wednesday, he singled and walked twice (one intentional). He walked again Thursday after coming off the bench as part of a double switch, giving him a team-high six. Barney is hitting only .200, but he has a .429 on-base percentage.

Manager Rick Renteria has been non-committal about his plans at second base, but he has been clear about finding a place in the field every day for leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio, who can play six positions. He has started in center field and at second for the Cubs, with a late-inning cameo at third Thursday.

Barney likely would be a good fit as an every-day second baseman in a contender’s lineup, where he might benefit offensively from bigger bats around him. He’s one of at least seven players who could be on the trading block by July.

Barney has said he wants to stay with the Cubs and win with the Cubs, even if it means proving himself as a big-league starter all over again. Even if it means Bonifacio or Luis Valbuena are in the mix for playing time at second — with top prospect Javy Baez knocking at the door from Class AAA Iowa.

“I’m a part of this team, just like anybody else,” Barney said, “and my job is to help this team win when I’m out there in any situation that they need me.”

Sun-Times

Ump says Starlin Castro beat tag at plate

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

At first glance, it looked like a test case for Major League Baseball’s new anti-collision rule at home plate.

Instead, the fourth-inning sequence Thursday that resulted in the Cubs’ fourth run of their 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates turned out to be a collision of MLB’s highest-profile rule changes — the home-plate rule and the replay-challenge rule.

The questions and speculation started flying almost as soon as plate umpire Mark Carlson called Starlin Castro safe after Starling Marte’s throw from left field appeared to beat Castro and catcher Tony Sanchez appeared to apply the tag in time.

Even Castro thought he might be out, especially after he watched the video later, he said.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle quickly emerged from the dugout to talk with Carlson, but he returned to the dugout almost as quickly without challenging. That led to two hours of speculation that the call must have involved the rule against a catcher blocking the plate.

But Carlson said after the game, “I didn’t have him violating any rules for the collision play. If he has the ball securely, he would have been able to block the plate. [Castro’s] foot touched the plate before the catcher had possession and control of the ball.”

Crew chief Jeff Nelson said the collision rule is covered under the challenge rule, so Hurdle could have asked for a review either way. Why didn’t he?

“Because I chose not to challenge,” Hurdle said. “If I give you any other answer, we got 10 more questions.”

Castro said he believes the umpire ruled that Sanchez bobbled the ball as Castro slid in. But after watching the replay in the clubhouse, Castro said he thought he was out.

Sanchez called the play “infuriating.”

“You put your body on the line for your team, trying to save a run,” he said. “I don’t know what [Carlson’s] reasoning was, how he calls him safe. The ball beat him. I held on to the ball. The kid slid into me. It’s just … I don’t know. Unfathomable.”

Sun-Times

Cubs’ task gets tougher on road trip against Cardinals, Yankees

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

The current events and celebrity faces around Wrigley Field have changed.

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo hung out in the owner’s seats Thursday. Ryan Dempster watched from the bleachers.

One of the Cubs’ owners, Pete Ricketts, is hanging out with Sarah Palin while he runs for governor of Nebraska. And the Cubs’ answer to a faceless, do-nothing offseason is a pants-less, do-nothing mascot.

But don’t be fooled. Nothing has changed with this team since last year except a handful of names on the jerseys.

Nothing’s different when it comes to the lack of scoring, the blown leads and the generally outmanned look of a place-holder club trying to compete against teams that actually have MVPs, home-run champs and playoff aspirations.

If this season-opening 3-6 run against Pennsylvania’s finest wasn’t convincing enough, the Cubs hit the road for three against the division-favorite St. Louis Cardinals and two against the $209 million New York Yankees.

“Every road trip is tough. There’s no easy game in the big leagues,” eternal optimist/manager Rick Renteria said. “Every major-league baseball game is tough to win.”

Certainly from where he sits.

When the Cubs blew a four-run lead in the span of seven batters in the seventh inning to lose 5-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, it sent them to their eighth consecutive lost series, dating to Sept. 9-11, 2013.

They haven’t won a home series since the last one that started in August last year.

One of their hottest hitters, Starlin Castro, says that despite the remarkable similarities, this feels nothing like last year — though it might be easier for him to say, given he’s 11-for-his-last-21 as he puts a personally rough 2013 behind him.

“This is [feels like] closer games, more intensity in every game,” he said. “We’ve got energy in the dugout, [a feeling] we can tie the game or [come back and] win the game. It’s tough sometimes losing a game like [Thursday’s], but that’s the game.”

But Castro’s not going to try to claim this upcoming trip is like any other. If these guys want to prove their defiant optimism has any reality behind it, the next week of games is their chance.

“It’s good when you go play against really good teams,” he said. “We’ll see where the team is at; we’ll see what we can do, where we can be better.

Against less-touted teams, the same level of intensity doesn’t always show, he said.

“Sometimes you go to home plate like it’s easy because they don’t have a good team” he said. “But you play against good teams like the Yankees or St. Louis, you have to put 200 percent on yourself to win the game.”

Where they will get anything extra is unclear at best. Nine games in, Renteria has shown a tendency to lean hard on four bullpen guys, with Justin Grimm, James Russell, Brian Schlitter and Pedro Strop having worked six games each.

Russell, the most heavily used reliever in the league over the last two years, gave up the go-ahead, three-run homer in the seventh on the first pitch he threw to the first batter he faced, Pedro Alvarez.

He credited Alvarez with jumping on a bad pitch.

“It’s tough,” said the workhorse lefty, “especially as well as [starter Travis Wood] pitched, you never want to mess [that] up.”

Renteria: “Everybody in that [clubhouse] kept battling. They fought. We fell short. I’m sure we’ll think about it a little bit, and then put it to bed and get ready for [Friday].”

Daily Herald

Cubs’ bullpen blows Wood’s solid start

By Bruce Miles

This was going to be a nice little feel-good story about all the nice little things the Cubs did in beating the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday at Wrigley Field.

But not even the Superman of the moment, Emilio Bonificio, could save the Cubs from themselves as he grounded out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning to end what turned into a 5-4 loss to the Pirates.

The Cubs took a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning, but just like that, the Pirates put up a 5-spot, with right-handed reliever Brian Schlitter giving up a 2-run homer to pinch hitter Travis Snider and lefty James Russell suffering a blown save and loss by yielding a massive 3-run blast to center by Pedro Alvarez.

The late developments spoiled a nice pitching performance by Travis Wood and some early-inning hustle by the Cubs.

"There’s no difference for me with this one," said Cubs manager Rick Renteria, whose team fell to 3-6 with its third straight series loss. "A loss is a loss."

This loss felt like so many among the 96 the Cubs suffered last year, and it exposed several possible problem areas for the team. Not only did the bullpen fail in the mid to late innings as it did last year in so many games, but the offense went from the fourth inning until the ninth without generating so much as a baserunner.

"It’s baseball," said Wood, who has 2 quality starts and a 2.92 ERA. "Nothing is guaranteed in this game. Everybody’s out trying to get us, and we’re out trying to get them. That’s just the way the cards fell today."

Asked if it felt like last year, Wood replied: “Not for me. Last year is behind us, in my opinion. That’s just the way it’s fallen right now.”

The two teams combined for 7 home runs, 5 by the Pirates, in Wednesday night’s 7-5 Cubs victory. The Cubs played a little small ball with Bonifacio early Thursday. He stole a base and was caught stealing in the first inning.

In the third, he reached on a two-out error by pitcher Gerrit Cole. Bonifacio then stole second and scored in one fell swoop as the throw by catcher Tony Sanchez sailed into center field. Bonifacio has 7 stolen bases for the season. He went hitless, but his average is .452.

"I just hustled," he said. "Those couple of innings are part of my game, and just keep going. I kind of anticipate that (the stolen-base scoring play) because the outfielders, most of time, give up."

Things got interesting, but not in a fun way for the Cubs late.

Wood took a pitch count of 104 into the seventh inning, and he gave up a leadoff double to Neil Walker. Schlitter came in and gave up the homer to Snider, and things pretty much disintegrated from there.

"Travis did a great job," Renteria said. "We sent him back out there. It was going to be a guy gets on and he’s done."

Schlitter got two outs but gave up another hit and a walk, and Renteria went to Russell, his top left-handed reliever, to face Alvarez. The Cubs have another lefty in the pen, veteran Wesley Wright, signed ostensibly to take some of the load off Russell. Renteria said “Wesley is fine,” but he has not used him since last Friday.

Alvarez, a left-handed hitter, crushed the first pitch from Russell over the shrubbery beyond the center-field wall.

"Just a slider that I hung and left down the middle of the plate," Russell said. "That’s what he’s supposed to do with it. More power to Alvarez for doing his job and taking my bad pitch deep.

"It’s tough, especially as well as Woody pitched. You never want to mess up a good run that he had. It’s one of those deals. That’s why we play the game. It happens. We live to see another day."

Daily Herald

Renteria not overthinking tough road trip

By Bruce Miles

The Cubs finished their first homestand of the season with a 2-4 record, dropping them to 3-6.

Now things get really tough.

Immediately after Thursday’s crushing 5-4 loss to the Pirates, the Cubs took off for St. Louis, where they face the Cardinals in three games this weekend. After that, it’s off to the Bronx for a pair against the New York Yankees.

The opposition will be tough, and first year manager Rick Renteria will get his first taste of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. Renteria did not seem too familiar with it.

"Actually, I’m going to find out," he said. "Anytime we go out and play anybody, we’re always looking to try to win. I don’t take one club more important than another, but if there’s something there, great. We welcome it.

"It’s hard to argue with an organization that’s had success over the years regardless what it is they do or don’t do. You take things from every organization in baseball, but certainly they’ve had a tremendous amount of success over the last years and over their existence."

Nor did Renteria overplay the importance of the upcoming trip overall.

"Every road trip is tough," he said. "There’s no easy game in the big leagues. Every major-league baseball game is tough to win. So I don’t make this one any more important than the others."

Safe at home:

There was a bit of controversy involving the umpiring in the bottom of the fourth inning Thursday. Starlin Castro scored from second base on a two-out single by Welington Castillo.

The ball beat Castro home, and it looked like he was out, but home-plate umpire Mark Carlson called him safe. Carlson, who hails from Joliet, said Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez did not illegally block the plate before he had the ball.

"I didn’t have him violating any rules for the collision play," Carlson told a pool reporter. "If he has the ball securely, he would have been able to block the plate. His (Castro’s) foot touched the plate before the catcher had possession and control of the ball."

Castro conceded he might just as easily have been called out, but he also added Sanchez may have bobbled the ball.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle did not mount a replay challenge.

"No obstruction, none," Hurdle said "It never came up. I chose not to challenge."

Asked why not, he responded: “Because I chose not to challenge. If I give you any other answer, we got 10 more questions.”

This and that:

Starlin Castro recorded his third 3-hit game of the year. He’s at .342 for the season with a seven-game hitting streak (13-for-29 in the streak) … Anthony Rizzo has five-game hitting streak (11-for-18) … The Cubs are winless in their last eight series, dating to last year.

Cubs.com

Wood excellent, but Bucs tee off on ‘pen

Lefty gives up one run, strikes out nine in six-plus innings

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Travis Wood matched a career high with nine strikeouts but couldn’t last long enough.

Pedro Alvarez smashed a three-run homer with two outs in the seventh to highlight a five-run rally and power the Pirates to a 5-4 win Thursday over the Cubs to take the series.

Wood had thrown 104 pitches through six, and went out for the seventh with a 4-0 lead. The plan was to let the lefty go until someone got on base, and leadoff man Neil Walker hit a changeup to left for a double. Wood was lifted.

"I was ready to go," Wood said of the seventh. "The changeup has been working well, so I just threw it, not really concentrating on getting it down, since it’s been working well, and [Walker] did what he’s supposed to do."

Pinch-hitter Travis Snider greeted rookie Brian Schlitter with a two-run homer. One out later, Starling Marte singled, and one out later, Andrew McCutchen walked. Schlitter was lifted for James Russell, and Alvarez drove the first pitch from the lefty to center, dropping it on the roof of a batter’s eye suite at Wrigley Field.

"It was a slider that I hung and left down the middle of the plate," Russell said, "and that’s what he’s supposed to do with it. More power to Alvarez for doing his job and taking a bad pitch deep."

"He’s come into his own," Snider said of Alvarez. "He’s at a total level of comfort. For us, it’s fun to sit back and watch him scare pitchers."

Wood had previously struck out nine on Sept. 17, 2012, also against the Pirates. On Thursday, the Cubs lefty gave up four hits and walked three over six-plus innings.

"He did a great job," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said of his lefty. "We sent him back out there [for the seventh], and it was going to be if a guy gets on, he’s done."

Wood escaped a jam in the third when the Pirates loaded the bases with one out. The lefty struck out McCutchen on three pitches, then fanned Alvarez to end the threat. Wood was the first left-handed starter the Pirates have faced this year.

"[I had to] bear down," Wood said of the third. "Two good hitters coming up, MVP and Silver Slugger. You’ve got to give them everything you can, and I was fortunate to throw some good pitches and get them out."

The Cubs lost 43 games last season when they had the lead and finished with 96 losses, and this year, they are 1-4 in one-run games, with all five against the Pirates. Starlin Castro said he feels better about the current team.

"This year, it’s closer in every game, more intensity in every game," Castro said. "We’ve got energy in the dugout that we can tie the game or win the game. It’s tough sometimes to lose a game like that. It’s tough, but that’s the game."

Said Wood: “Last year’s behind us, in my opinion. It’s just the way it’s falling right now. It’s baseball and anything can happen in this game.”

Emilio Bonifacio reached on a fielding error by Gerrit Cole with two outs in the Chicago third, stole second, and scored as catcher Tony Sanchez’s throw sailed past an outstretched Walker and into center field for another error.

Anthony Rizzo and Nate Schierholtz both singled to open the fourth, and one out later, Rizzo scored on Castro’s single. An 0-2 pitch to Mike Olt skipped past Tony Sanchez, and Schierholtz scored on the wild pitch for a 3-0 lead. One out later, Welington Castillo singled to left and Castro slid home safely despite a perfect throw home from Marte.

"I don’t know if [the umpire] called me safe because the catcher blocked home plate before he got the ball or he called [me] safe because I was safe," Castro said of home-plate umpire Mark Carlson. "I don’t know, but I went inside to watch the replay and I looked out."

Castro said the Pirates catcher may have bobbled the ball, and that could be why Carlson called him safe.

"As soon as he called him safe, that was good for us and [we] moved on," Renteria said.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle did not challenge the call, and said the new obstruction rule was not discussed.

The Cubs threatened in the ninth, loading the bases against Jason Grilli, but the closer induced a groundout from Bonifacio to end the game.

Now, they have to play the Cardinals and Yankees on the road.

"It’s good when you play really good teams," Castro said. "We’ll see where our team is at. We’ll see what we can do and how we can be better. When you play a good team like the Yankees and St. Louis, you have to play 200 percent to win the game."

Cubs.com

Rondon riding 15-inning scoreless streak

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — It took some extra work in Venezuela for Cubs reliever Hector Rondon to find his breaking pitches.

Rondon extended his scoreless streak to 15 innings when he pitched the ninth in Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Pirates. The stretch dates to Sept. 3 of last season. It ranked among the top three longest such streaks in the Major Leagues.

"My mentality is way different," Rondon said Thursday. "I think I trust myself and my command of my pitches. That’s the difference right now."

Last September, Rondon, a Rule 5 Draft pick, did not give up a run — and only served up one hit — over nine innings in nine relief outings.

"I put in my mind last year, the last month of the season, when it was over, I told the manager [Dale Sveum] that I was going to play winter ball in Venezuela, and I worked on my breaking ball," Rondon said. "I went there and worked on that and came into Spring Training, and I feel really good about how I throw my breaking balls. I did the same thing that I did last September. I think that helped me a lot."

In four games so far, Rondon has given up three hits, walked two and struck out eight over six innings.

"Everything is really good right now," he said.

Renteria abandons righty-lefty platoon vs. Cole

CHICAGO — Cubs manager Rick Renteria abandoned his righty-lefty platoon and started right-handed hitters Mike Olt and Junior Lake against Pirates righty Gerrit Cole on Thursday.

Part of the reason is the splits against Cole are identical. Left-handed and right-handed hitters have both hit .251 against Cole through his career entering Thursday.

"These are two young players who we’re going to try to get them as much playing time as we can," Renteria said of Olt and Lake. "We’re trying to find spots that can give them an opportunity to gain some confidence.

"Everybody on the squad, everybody, from [Darwin] Barney to [Ryan] Sweeney to [Nate] Schierholtz, every one of those guys has been working real hard and they all want to be in the lineup," Renteria said. "We’re just trying to balance it all out and give us the best chance on a daily basis."

Sweeney and Schierholtz have started against right-handed pitchers this year, but they are batting .118 and .174 respectively, heading into Thursday’s game, which Schierholtz started, batting fourth. Lake entered the game hitting .273, while Olt had two home runs and was batting .158.

The Cubs have scored 21 runs in their last three games after scoring eight runs in the first five games. What gives?

"Their approaches are solid, and they’re getting good pitches to hit," Renteria said. "They’re feeling a little confident now, which is good."

Cubs Charities to help improve local fields

CHICAGO — Cubs Charities, in partnership with Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, announced the launch of the “Diamond Project,” which aims to improve the quality and safety of local baseball fields in the Chicago area.

The project will expand opportunities for children to play baseball, create or preserve green space and foster a love of the game, particularly in the inner city.

The “Diamond Project” is the third signature program Cubs Charities has launched, following the Cubs Scholars program and the “Cubs On The Move” fitness trolley.

Cubs Charities, with technical assistance from LISC Chicago, will identify communities in need of new or improved baseball fields and provide grants to facilities that will be used to promote health and wellness through baseball. In addition to monetary support, the Wrigley Field grounds crew will advise Diamond Project grantees during projects and maintenance.

For nonprofit, neighborhood-based organizations and schools in the Chicago area, an informational session will be held at Wrigley Field on April 30 at 10 a.m. CT in the Budweiser Bleacher Suite. Anyone interested in attending should send an email to diamondproject@cubs.com. For additional information, visit cubs.com/diamondproject.

Extra bases

• Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta struck out four and gave up three hits over 3 2/3 scoreless innings in his second rehab start for Double-A Tennessee on Thursday. He threw 66 pitches, 40 for strikes, against Chattanooga.

Arrieta was slowed this spring because of tightness in his right shoulder. There is no timetable for Arrieta’s return.

• James McDonald (shoulder) and Kyuji Fujikawa (elbow) are both continuing their rehab at the Cubs’ Mesa, Ariz., complex.

Cubs.com

Cardinals continuing run of division foes vs. Cubs

Kelly, Samardzija to square off as division rivals begin weekend set

By Jenifer Langosch

ST. LOUIS — Following Thursday’s off-day, the Cardinals will continue their tour through the National League Central by hosting the rival Cubs to close out the team’s first homestand of the year. The game, which is scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m. CT, kicks off a stretch of 20 games in 20 days for the Cardinals and is the first stop on a two-city road trip for Chicago.

The Cardinals have already gotten first looks at divisional foes Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, with consecutive series against the Cubs and Brewers on tap. Though the Cubs finished at the bottom of the NL Central a year ago, they had as much success against the Cardinals (7-12 record) as any other team in the division.

St. Louis will be facing Chicago’s ace on Friday, as Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija gets his third crack at his first win. The Cubs have yet to score a run in either game Samardzija has started. The right-hander pitched seven shutout innings against the Pirates in the season opener and followed that up with a seven-inning, two-run start against the Phillies.

"I see these guys work every day and I know what they’re doing," Samardzija said after his last start, speaking of the Cubs’ hitters. "If it was a different situation and I thought they were lazy, it’d be different. Guys come to work every day and do everything they can. It’s early in the season and we’ll keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."

Samardzija will be opposed by Cardinals right-hander Joe Kelly, who battled through his first start after a 12-day layoff. Kelly wasn’t as efficient as he would have liked (107 pitches in 5 1/3 innings), but he limited the Pirates to one run. The last pitcher to win a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, Kelly has showcased himself as a plenty reliable fifth starter.

He has worked into the sixth inning in 14 of his 16 starts since the beginning of the 2013 season, allowing two or fewer runs in 12 of them.

"We think he’s made some huge strides, just as far as his philosophy on pitching," manager Mike Matheny said. "We talked early on with him last year and even the year before, not really understanding the style of pitcher that he could be — bordering between a strikeout guy and a guy who could get ground-ball outs and be a little more efficient. I think he’s kind of found that rhythm to where he knows he has the stuff to get the strikeout, and he’s also capable of getting those quick outs. Those quick outs keep him in the game a little longer. It just comes down to trusting the defense and trusting your stuff. He’s improving."

The Cardinals are currently in a stretch of 15 straight games against divisional opponents to open the season.

Cardinals: Craig eyes breakout game

Allen Craig is expected back in the Cardinals’ lineup on Friday after two days to mentally reset from a slow start. Matheny kept Craig out of the lineup on Wednesday after a 3-for-31 start, hopeful that the day off would allow the right fielder time to work on his swing without the pressures of having to perform.

It was Craig’s first reprieve of the season.

"It’s amazing how it’s magnified when it’s the beginning of the season," Matheny said. "If this happens in June/July, people will say it’s just kind of a little rut. Everything is a little more magnified, I think, when you start the season [slowly]. Everybody wants to have a good start, no question. He’ll be fine. He just has to go through it, figure it out and he’ll be right where he’s always been here soon."

It’s a small sample size, but Craig is 3-for-8 in his career against Samardzija.

Cubs: Castro swinging hot bat

Starlin Castro is feeling good at the plate, which is good for the Cubs, especially as they head to St. Louis. The shortstop has a career .270 average at Busch Stadium and has batted .310 against the Cardinals.

"Castro is starting to look like the player who first came up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Balls off the plate, balls up, balls down — he’s barreling balls."

Castro posted his third three-hit game of the season on Thursday in a 5-4 loss to the Pirates, and extended his hitting streak to seven games. He’s 13-for-29 with seven RBIs after opening the season 0-for-9 in the first two games.

The Cubs were 2-4 on their just-completed homestand against the Phillies and Pirates, and now begin a tough five-game stretch against the Cardinals and Yankees.

"It’s good when you play really good teams," Castro said. "We’ll see where our team is at. We’ll see what we can do, and how we can be better. When you play a good team like the Yankees and St. Louis, you have to play 200 percent to win the game."

Worth noting

• Cardinals infielder Mark Ellis (left knee patella tendinitis) is eligible to come off the disabled list on Friday, though he is not expected to be ready by then. Ellis has been hitting, running and fielding, with encouraging results this week. The Cardinals have still not determined whether Ellis will need to go out on a Minor League rehab assignment before returning.

• The Cardinals continue to celebrate their 2013 postseason run during this opening homestand, and the first 25,000 fans into Busch Stadium on Friday will go home with a Michael Wacha National League Championship Series MVP bobblehead.

10 4 / 2014

Cubs.com

Back-to-back homers spark Cubs past Bucs

Hammel wins first career start at Wrigley Field with seven solid innings

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Jason Hammel was looking forward to pitching at Wrigley Field since he signed with the Cubs in February. The right-hander had made 216 career starts and had been to the ballpark as a visitor, but he had never taken the mound there.

He won’t forget his first game, especially after it ended with Anthony Rizzo congratulating him on his first National League win.

Hammel held the Pirates to three hits, all solo home runs, over seven innings, and Mike Olt and Junior Lake belted back-to-back homers to help power the Cubs to a 7-5 victory Wednesday night and even the series.

This wasn’t Hammel’s first NL win, of course — Rizzo apparently forgot that the right-hander beat the Pirates last Thursday at PNC Park and also won 27 games with the Rockies — but it prompted some good-natured humor.

"I have to throw my first baseman under the bus," Hammel said as he entered the media interview room. "He just congratulated me on my first NL win. Just make sure everybody knows Rizzo was not with us in Pittsburgh last week. That’s a good one — I didn’t know I didn’t win at all in Colorado either."

Rizzo acknowledged his mistake, and corrected it.

"We had a great atmosphere in here after the game," Rizzo said. "[Hammel] pitched his tail off, and we got him the ‘W,’ which is nice, and he’s off to a great 2-0 start."

For the record, this was Hammel’s first win at Wrigley Field.

"I got my first taste of Wrigley, and I hope it’s much kinder next time," he said. "When the wind is howling out you’ve got to keep the ball down, and I made three mistakes today, and they all left the yard. I think a couple of those are outs in other ballparks, but you still have to keep the ball down."

Hammel said the 7-1 lead the Cubs opened after six innings helped him stay aggressive in the zone. It was already his second meeting against the Pirates this year; had he altered his approach?

"Today I featured more fastballs in and maybe threw offspeed first, and [tried to] get ahead with offspeed," he said. "Other than that, I was letting them dictate if you need to change your game plan and make adjustments, but they didn’t do too much. If you’re throwing strikes, you can get good hitters out."

Hammel retired the first 12 batters he faced before Pedro Alvarez led off the fifth with his third home run of the season, launching a 1-2 fastball to left. Hammel also served up a leadoff home run to Travis Snider in the seventh and a solo shot to Russell Martin two outs later. Alvarez and Martin weren’t done, hitting back-to-back homers in the ninth off Pedro Strop.

The Cubs’ starter got some defensive help from shortstop Starlin Castro, who made a nice diving stop and throw to get Starling Marte to open the Pirates’ fourth, and then drifted to shallow center to catch Snider’s fly ball for the second out.

Darwin Barney also made a great play on Jordy Mercer’s grounder to open the sixth, and he threw to Rizzo in time, although the first baseman had to do the splits to catch the ball.

"Outstanding defense up the middle; unbelieveable, Darwin and Starlin both," Hammel said. "We’ve got a solid squad. We lost a couple close ones here, but we still have 150-plus to go. It’s a very long season."

"It’s up to us for [the pitchers] to trust us and throw balls down the middle and let them hit it to us and let us make the plays," Rizzo said. "I think we’re coming together real nice as a team right now."

Emilio Bonifacio got it all started when he singled to lead off for the Cubs, his Major League-leading 18th hit and 15th against the Pirates, and he scored one out later on Justin Ruggiano’s double. Bonifacio would add one more hit, a double, in the sixth.

Olt belted his second home run of the season — on his second hit of the year — with two outs and a runner on in the Chicago fifth to open a 3-1 lead. Lake followed with his home run, the first time Cubs batters have gone back to back this season. Olt is still learning about Wrigley, too.

"I’ve heard some things about this field that [the wind] can either blow in hard or blow out," Olt said. "I was definitely happy to get something up in the air today."

Olt acknowledged he was a little pull happy early.

"Usually when I’m in a little bit of a funk and I feel I’m not right, that’s my approach is to go up the middle and stay balanced and stay there," he said.

Olt and Lake have been part of Rick Renteria’s platoon system, but the Cubs manager said he may go with Olt on Thursday in the series finale against right-hander Gerrit Cole.

"I’m confident in them, and what we’re trying to build is the confidence they should have within themselves; that’s the biggest thing," Renteria said. "Today they faced a lefty [in Wandy Rodriguez] and as the game progressed, they started to face righties, so they hit against both sides of the arm slot, and I think they held their own."

"The way I look at it," Olt said, "is I just have to be ready when I do get in there, and I’m trying to make sure I can get as much practice as I can and stay as fresh as I can."

Rizzo added an RBI double with one out in the sixth, which Olt directly followed with an RBI single. Lake hit a grounder to Alvarez, who threw to second for the force, then fired to first baseman Travis Ishikawa for what first-base umpire Mark Carlson called a double play. But Renteria challenged the call, and after a one-minute review, the call was overturned. Lake was credited with a fielder’s choice and RBI to open a 7-1 lead.

Rizzo finished with four hits, matching his career high, and bounced back after a slow start.

"You want to get the seven, 12, 100 hits that Bonifacio got," Rizzo said, exaggerating slightly. "It’s a long season, we went through a long season last year, and you know two weeks aren’t going to make or break your season. It’s nice to rack up some hits early."

Cubs.com

Call at first overturned after Renteria challenge

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Cubs manager Rick Renteria took advantage of expanded instant replay to challenge a call at first base in the sixth inning on Wednesday, and it was overturned to give Chicago its seventh run.

The Cubs had runners at first and third with one out and a 6-1 lead over the Pirates in the sixth. Junior Lake hit a grounder to third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who threw to Neil Walker at second for the force, who fired to first baseman Travis Ishikawa for the double play. First-base umpire Mark Carlson called Lake out on the close play at first, but Renteria challenged the call in what would have been his last opportunity to do so before the umpires gained sole discretion.

After a one-minute review, the call was overturned, and Lake was credited with a fielder’s choice and RBI to give Chicago a 7-1 lead.

In the Pirates’ ninth, Russell Martin hit a ball into the basket rimming the center-field bleachers, which was called a home run. The umpires reviewed the call, and it was confirmed. It was Martin’s second homer of the game, but not enough as the Cubs won, 7-5.

Cubs.com

Bucs to get rare work vs. lefty in rubber match

Tabata, Sanchez, switch-hitting Walker among those in line to face Wood

By Tom Singer

The day awaited by several Pittsburgh players who have spent the early season in purgatory finally arrives on Thursday: A left-hander, specifically the Cubs’ Travis Wood, finally starts against the Pirates.

Thus far, right fielder Jose Tabata and first baseman Gaby Sanchez have been in a platoon at their positions only theoretically. Lefty-hitting Travis Snider and Travis Ishikawa have each started seven of eight games.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged being happy to finally come across a southpaw. Any manager’s must-do list includes keeping players sharp coming out of Spring Training, and Hurdle has not been able to do that with certain key personnel.

"I am glad, especially when you look down the road," Hurdle said, "and don’t see another lefty for eight, nine days. We had the fewest games against left-handers last year, and it doesn’t seem to be changing.

"I want to help [Josh] Harrison, Gaby, Jose [Tabata] and [Clint] Barmes stay sharp. It might mean picking spots to start them against a righty."

Along the same lines, Neil Walker has been a switch-hitter only in theory. Not, as some of his harshest critics would say, because he can’t really hit right-handed, instead because he seldom gets to try.

Entering Wednesday’s game against Jason Hammel, 25 of Walker’s 28 at-bats this young season had already been against righties. Small sample size. But across the 2013 season, Walker had nearly five times more plate appearances from the left side (457) than the right (94).

"Walker’s in a comfortable place from the right side," Hurdle said. "I’ve moved past having to think about sitting him when we face a lefty."

With Gerrit Cole taking the mound for Pittsburgh, Hurdle’s first chance to field a righty-laden lineup against Wood comes with a bit of irony, given how the lefty fared in his first start of the season, Friday against the Phillies. Philadelphia’s right-handed hitters were 1-for-9 against Wood, while lefties went 5-for-17 with a home run (by Chase Utley).

"I missed with a pitch, and he made me pay for it," Wood said of Utley. "I’d like to have a couple pitches back — but other than that, I thought I kept them pretty off-balance."

Pirates: Gomez working through a glitch

Jeanmar Gomez was arguably one of the Pirates’ most valuable pitchers in 2013 because of the many roles he filled well. Thus, it was worrisome for the Bucs to see him enter Wednesday’s game in the sixth and promptly give up three runs that proved pivotal in the 7-5 loss.

"Nobody is happy when you come in as the long man and give up three runs in the first inning," Hurdle said. "He’s working through some things. We’ll look at some video and have a talk, and try to help him through it."

Gomez has been scored on in each of his three appearances this season for a total of six runs in seven innings. That’s a far cry from his ‘13 excellence, which saw him post an ERA of 3.35 in 34 games, including eight starts. Gomez was never scored on in consecutive relief outings last season.

Cubs: Bonifacio bids Bucs farewell

One has to assume the Pirates will be happy to be rid of Emilio Bonifacio — at least until early June — following Thursday’s series finale.

The Cubs’ hope is that Bonifacio can keep imagining he is facing Pittsburgh pitchers when he steps into the batter’s box.

"He had a great start, and we hope it continues," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "His mentality is to try to get on base every single time. It’s a unique skill to have, and he’s using it to the best of his ability and we’re glad we have him out there as often as we can."

According to Elias, Bonifacio is the first big league player in the modern era (since 1900) to record games with one hit, two hits, three hits, four hits and five hits all within a team’s first seven games of a season. The one-hit game came against Philadelphia, all the others against Pittsburgh.

Worth noting

• A win in Thursday’s rubber game would give the Pirates three straight series wins to start the season for only the fourth time in the last 50 years; they did it in 1966, ‘76 and ‘92.

• Bonifacio’s 19 hits through eight games tie Randy Jackson’s 1954 club record.

• Anthony Rizzo is hitting .526 (10-for-19) in the Cubs’ first five home games of the season.

Cubs.com

Veteran Bonifacio providing stability at leadoff

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Emilio Bonifacio has not only provided a much needed spark for the Cubs’ offense, but he has made it very easy for manager Rick Renteria to fill out his lineup card.

Bonifacio has led off all seven Cubs games this season, so far providing stability at the spot that was more fluid last year. David DeJesus was the Cubs’ main leadoff man in 2013 until he was traded. Others to bat No. 1 that season included Starlin Castro, Luis Valbuena, Dave Sappelt, Junior Lake, Darwin Barney and Julio Borbon.

"If you can have a leadoff guy who you can slot in, it’s really big," Renteria said. "We’ve had a couple guys who have done it in the past — Starlin has done it, and Junior has done it. ‘Boni’ might profile more as a typical leadoff guy."

Renteria said Lake, 24, who was promoted to the big leagues last year, is still learning, while Bonifacio, 28, has more experience at the top of the order.

“‘Boni’ has been around a little while, been through the ups and downs of different positions and hitting in the lineup in different positions,” Renteria said. “He’s got some experience that gives him some confidence and stability right now.”

Bonifacio is on a record-setting pace. According to Elias, he is the first big league player in the modern era (since 1900) to record games with one hit, two hits, three hits, four hits and five hits within the team’s first seven contests of a season.

Bonifacio’s 17 hits through Tuesday are the most by any Cubs player over the team’s first seven games of a season since 1914, according to STATS Inc.

"He had a great start, and we hope it continues," Renteria said. "His mentality is to try to get on base every single time. It’s a unique skill to have, and he’s using it to the best of his ability, and we’re glad we have him out there as often as we can. He’s a guy who will need some days off, too."

Maybe Thursday?

"We’ll see how he feels," Renteria said. "We’ll just ride it out."

Homers signal payoff to Starlin’s early work

CHICAGO — After posting his first career two-homer game on Tuesday while batting sixth, Starlin Castro was back in the No. 2 spot in the Cubs’ lineup on Wednesday. The shortstop knows manager Rick Renteria is trying to get the most out of him.

Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Castro was 9-for-20 in his past five games with a 1.250 OPS in that span. Renteria said Castro had been working hard with coach Gary Jones in the field and with coaches Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley on his approach at the plate.

"Starlin is who he is," Renteria said. "He got a couple pitches up in the zone that he was able to drive out. He’s a guy who when he swings a bat, he puts the barrel on the ball and is a pretty dangerous guy."

But Castro isn’t trying to reach the bleacher seats.

"I don’t want to try to hit homers," he said. "I know homers will come."

Renteria appears excited with Castro’s defensive play as well. The shortstop, who did not play much in Spring Training because of a tender hamstring, has been impressive.

"He’s got a little jump in his step, and he looks like he feels comfortable," Renteria said.

Renteria attributes ejection to emotions

CHICAGO — Cubs closer Jose Veras appreciated Rick Renteria sticking up for him on Tuesday night. The Cubs’ manager was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson.

"You don’t want him to get thrown out, but he argued because they called bad pitches to [Welington] Castillo, too," said Veras, who was on the mound in the ninth.

Castillo was called out on a questionable strike three to end the Chicago eighth.

"Every manager does what he feels he needs to do at a particular time," Renteria said Wednesday. "It’s a feel thing. You don’t want to go out there and try to embarrass an umpire. They have a tough job. Sometimes when you’re watching a ballgame, you let loose, too, and you get ejected."

Renteria was the first Major League manager to get ejected this season, which was not exactly something the rookie skipper wanted on his resume. But he had managed in the Minor Leagues for affiliates of the Marlins and the Padres. Was he ever tossed then?

"Oh, yeah," Renteria said.

What sets him off?

"Any number of things," Renteria said. "You have a lot of guys working extremely hard to do their job, and you have a lot vested in the outcome, and the umpires have a lot vested in what they do on a daily basis. We get emotional. We’re looking at the wins and losses. If I think things are kind of going awry, you try to address them, and last night, it just happened."

Renteria on Tuesday also argued a ball called on a 1-2 pitch to Jordy Mercer in the Pirates’ ninth.

"You just want to win the ballgame — I don’t want him to get thrown out," Veras said. "I just want to finish my outing, have a good outing."

Veras did just that, striking out one in one inning. He did not give up a hit or walk a batter.

"It’s going to be better," Veras said. "That’s why we’re working. I’m not going to be perfect for a six-month season. It’s better to be struggling early than late. I’m going to be OK. I’m fine."

Extra bases

• WGN-TV will present a two-hour special on the history of Wrigley Field and the Cubs, titled “Wrigley 100: A Century Celebration,” on April 20 at 7 p.m. CT. An encore showing will air on April 26 at 4 p.m. CT on WGN-TV Chicago and nationally on WGN America at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET.

Narrated by WGN Radio’s Steve Cochran and featuring custom drawings by cartoonist Drew Litton, the stories of magic moments and memories of a century of baseball at Clark and Addison will draw from interviews with more than 60 people, including Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg. Others interviewed include Kerry Wood, Rick Monday, Rick Sutcliffe, and Derrek Lee. Visiting players like Hank Aaron, Vin Scully, Mike Schmidt, Albert Pujols and Paul Konerko also are interviewed.

Other segments include Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers on playing for the Chicago Bears at Wrigley, fun and crazy moments at the park described by Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, and an in-depth look at some of Wrigley’s greatest games.

• Anthony Rizzo will host the second “Cook Off for Cancer” on May 16 at Revel Downtown, 440 W. Randolph, Chicago. Fans can join Cubs players and coaches as they serve upscale ballpark food prepared by some of Chicago’s top chefs. Fans will vote for their favorite chef or dish by tipping the Cubs server.

The chefs scheduled to participate are: Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno; Doug Tomek of Uncle Dougies; Guiseppe Tentori of GT Fish and Oyster; Mario Hernandez of Del Frisco’s; Doug Psaltis of RPM Italian; David Burns of Levy Restaurants; Joseph Heppe of Untitled 111; Molly Johnson of Limelight Catering; Cosmo Goss of Publican; Joseph Farina of Joe’s Fish; and Lee Ann Whippen of Chicago q.

Tickets are $200 person, or $1,200 for a table. To purchase a ticket or make a donation, visit Cubs.com/cook.

ESPNChicago.com

Olt, Lake might play Thursday vs. RHP Cole

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria intimated that his Thursday lineup won’t employ the usual platoons he has been utilizing over the first 10 days of the season. It means righties Mike Olt and Junior Lake could start against Pittsburgh Pirates righty Gerrit Cole.

“Tomorrow is as good a day as any,” Renteria said after the Cubs 7-5 win over the Pirates on Wednesday night.

Until now, Renteria has played a combination of Luis Valbuena, Ryan Kalish and Ryan Sweeney against right-handed pitching, while Olt and Lake — along with Darwin Barney — have seen the lefties. Olt and Lake hit back-to-back home runs on Wednesday.

“I’m hoping to use them a little more back-to-back versus lefties and righties,” Renteria said before Wednesday’s game. “They need to find out who they are, too. It has nothing to do with doubting what they can do.”

ESPNChicago.com

Rizzo’s big night makes up for bad memory

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jason Hammel might want to give Anthony Rizzo a break.

Rizzo tied a career high with four hits in a 7-5 Cubs win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night, and in his exuberance he forgot about Hammel’s first start of the season last week.

“I have to throw my first baseman under the bus,” Hammel joked after the game. “He just congratulated me on my first National League win. Just make sure everyone knows Rizzo was not there in Pittsburgh last week.”

Hammel beat the Pirates last Thursday. He beat them again on Wednesday, and Rizzo had a big hand in it. It’s not just that Rizzo had four hits; it’s that all four went to left or center. He pulled nothing against the exaggerated shift the Pirates employed against him.

“It’s early, you can’t press,” Rizzo said. “It’s a long season and you just have to keep going through the grind.”

Rizzo likes to talk about the finer points of his hitting like he’s having a root canal.

“See the ball, hit the ball,” is the best you can get out of him.

But there’s little doubt this is a different Rizzo than we saw a year ago. His ability to go the opposite way — especially against left-handed pitching — started in spring training. Now it’s carrying over – even if he can’t explain why.

“Two weeks of this isn’t going to make or break your season,” Rizzo said as he raised his batting average 79 points. “It’s just nice to back up some hits early.”

His best at-bat of the night came in the fifth inning of a 1-1 game. With two outs and nobody on, Rizzo got down 0-2 to Pirates southpaw starter Wandy Rodriguez. The inning looked like it would be an easy one for Rodriguez. But then he took two balls and fouled one more off before singling to left center. The next two batters hit home runs and the Cubs never looked back.

“It was good just because [Mike] Olt hit that homer,” Rizzo said. “Two outs, two strikes, he’s one pitch away from getting out of the inning. You have to keep the line moving.”

Rizzo kept the line moving and then some. He is 6-for-17 against left-handed pitching so far this season, but, again, he can’t explain why.

“It’s just hitting the ball,” he said. “See it and hit it.”

As far as forgetting about Hammel’s win last week in Pittsburgh, Rizzo probably didn’t realize Hammel threw for Colorado from 2009-2011, where he won 27 games in the NL. This was hardly his first.

“I was excited,” Rizzo said sarcastically. “We had a great atmosphere in here after the game. We got him the W. He’s off to a great 2-0 start.”

Rizzo’s big night helped Hammel to win No. 2. — even if Rizzo didn’t realize it.

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 7, Pirates 5

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 7-5 on Wednesday night to even their series at 1-1. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: Anthony Rizzo led a 14-hit attack with four of his own — all to left or center — including one to keep the fifth inning alive ahead of back-to-back home runs by Mike Olt and Junior Lake. That broke a 1-1 tie to put the Cubs up 4-1. They added to the lead with three more in the sixth on an RBI double by Rizzo, an Olt single and a fielder’s choice by Lake, which was reviewed and overturned in favor of the Cubs. Jason Hammel retired the first 12 batters he faced and gave up three hits on the night — all solo home runs. Pedro Alvarez, Travis Snider and Russell Martin took him deep. Alvarez and Martin did it again in the 9th inning off of Pedro Strop. The Pirates had six hits, five of which were solo home runs. Emilio Bonifacio added two more hits to give him 19 in the first eight games of the season. The Cubs’ defense up the middle was on target, as well, with Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney making several difficult plays behind Hammel.

What it means: For the third game in a row the Cubs offense came alive. Good at-bat followed good at-bat. The Cubs were patient (four walks) when they had to be, then jumped on starter Wandy Rodriguez when he was forced to challenge them. The Cubs ran him from the game after five innings and 99 pitches. Rizzo, in particular, battled Rodriguez, even when behind in the count. He went to left center three different times in the game for hits, none bigger than with two outs and no one on down 0-2 in the count in the fifth. Three batters later the Cubs were up 4-1. Hammel threw the exact opposite of Edwin Jackson the night before: fast and effective. The latter two solo home runs came with the Cubs up 7-1, so no serious damage there. Hammel was great.

Bonifacio milestones: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bonifacio tied a Cubs mark (Randy Jackson) set in 1954 with his 19th hit over his first eight games. That’s the third most (Barry Larkin, Dante Bichette) of any major league player in the first eight games since 1961.

Rizzo’s night: He tied a career high with his four hits and, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, it’s the second time he’s had four base hits to left or center.

What’s next: The rubber game of the series takes place on Thursday afternoon, when Travis Wood takes on Gerrit Cole.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs see Starlin Castro playing with an edge again

By Patrick Mooney

Hours before Perfect Game Watch began, Starlin Castro took groundballs inside an empty Wrigley Field, part of the routine he believes will make him an All-Star shortstop again.

Jason Hammel didn’t make history on Wednesday night, settling for a 7-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hammel retired 12 in a row before Pedro Alvarez crushed a ball into the left-field bleachers. Castro didn’t sprint across the grass and climb the brick wall to steal a home run.

But it seemed like Castro was everywhere, charging a chopper and crossing the second-base side of the bag, diving to his left and throwing out leadoff guy Starling Marte and backpedaling to make a catch in shallow center field.

"I take early work every day," Castro said. "I come in here every day for defensive work. Every day."

That usually gets overlooked in all the Castro over-analysis, wondering where he fits in the lineup and treating every error as if it’s a referendum on whether or not he should be the shortstop of the future.

"I can see why he’s here for a while," said Hammel (2-0, 2.63 ERA). "Outstanding ability. Unbelievable plays up the middle for me that shut down innings."

Maybe it’s just the nature of Twitter and talk radio and having to feed the beast on the Internet. Maybe Bobby Valentine’s criticism on national television hardened perceptions and too many short-attention-span clips went viral.

But do you know any other two-time All-Stars with 700-plus career hits at age 24 that don’t get the benefit of the doubt? So whatever Theo Epstein’s front office says is gospel…except when the smartest guys in the room say “Castro is our shortstop?”

It’s especially perplexing when Cubs fans and the Chicago media try to figure out how every C-list prospect might fit into the organization’s plans - and become obsessed with promising but still unproven players like Mike Olt and Javier Baez.

"You know Starlin will be Starlin," catcher Welington Castillo said. "He’s got his ability there. He’s going to do whatever it takes to come back and be the Starlin he was a couple years before. Everybody goes through hard times in the big leagues."

Yes, Castro got frustrated when Dale Sveum dropped him to the eighth spot last summer, reaching a breaking point with all the organization’s mixed messages. And the Cubs did hire a new manager with bilingual skills and a more upbeat attitude, writing a job description that also had first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s inconsistencies in mind.

But Castro’s not some diva. He’s not a complainer. He’ll stand at his locker and answer all the questions.

"I want to hit with men in scoring position," Castro said. "I don’t care what spot (Rick Renteria) puts me in. He tries to put me in a spot in a good way, not in a bad way. Not because I didn’t do this or I didn’t do that. He trusts me and is trying to move me to bring in more RBIs."

Renteria hit Castro sixth on Tuesday night, and he responded with the first two-homer game in his career, before getting bumped back up to the No. 2 spot. Whether Renteria’s winning the mind games - or Castro’s simply relaxing and naturally returning to what made him the National League’s hits leader in 2011 - the Cubs need their $60 million shortstop.

"When he swings the bat, he puts the barrel on the ball. He’s a pretty dangerous guy," Renteria said. "Defensively, he’s been working very hard at trying to improve his game and he’s taking it very seriously. We’re very happy that he’s going out with a little jump in his step. It looks like he feels comfortable."

Castro is riding a six-game hitting streak after an 0-for-9 start that got blown out of proportion, batting .400 (10-for-25) and playing with an edge again.

"Last year is over," Castro said. "I try to keep my mind strong and not let those things happen again. Not only on offense, but defense, too."

CSNChicago.com

Cubs: Jason Hammel throws Anthony Rizzo under the bus

By Patrick Mooney

Jason Hammel came out firing inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon.

Once the Cubs pitcher sat down behind the microphone after Wednesday night’s 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, he couldn’t wait to tell reporters about Anthony Rizzo.

“I got a good one for you guys,” Hammel said. “Real good one. I got to throw my first baseman under the bus. He just congratulated me on my first NL win. Just make sure that everybody knows that Rizzo was not there with us in Pittsburgh last week, apparently. That’s a good one. I didn’t know I didn’t win at all in Colorado either.”

Yes, Hammel won 27 games for the Rockies between 2009 and 2011. He already beat the Pirates at PNC Park, giving him two victories for a 3-5 team. He went seven innings, giving up three hits that turned out to be three solo home runs.

“I got my first taste of Wrigley,” Hammel said. “I hope it’s much kinder next time. But when the wind’s howling out, you got to keep the ball down. I made three mistakes today and they all left the yard.”

Hammel, this year’s sign-and-flip guy, looks like he’s healthy and back on track after a down season with the Baltimore Orioles (7-8, 4.97 ERA). Mike Olt and Junior Lake, two potential core players, looked like they belong in the lineup every day, hitting back-to-back homers off lefty Wandy Rodriguez in the fifth inning and giving Hammel some breathing room.

Manager Rick Renteria is looking to give Olt and Lake some back-to-back opportunities – “tomorrow’s as good a day as any,” which would put them in line to face Gerrit Cole, the big right-hander the Pirates drafted No. 1 overall out of UCLA in 2011.

Oh, Rizzo also went 4-for-5 with two doubles and an RBI before giving Hammel the big congratulations.

“I have no comment on that,” Rizzo said. “I was excited. We had a great atmosphere in here after the game. He pitched his tail off. We got him the ‘W.’ So that’s nice – off to a great 2-0 start.”

CSNChicago.com

For a moment, Cubs manager Renteria reached boiling point

By Patrick Mooney

Lou Piniella turned it into performance art, getting in an umpire’s face during his finger-pointing, dirt-kicking, base-tossing arguments.

Rick Renteria will never be that entertaining, but he did put on a good show for the Cubs fans still watching late Tuesday night, becoming the first manager to get tossed this season. 

“Every manager does what he feels he needs to do at a particular time,” Renteria said Wednesday at Wrigley Field. “You don’t want to go out there and try and embarrass an umpire. They’re doing a tough job. Sometimes when you’re watching a ballgame you let loose, too. And sometimes you get ejected.”

With Cubs closer Jose Veras on the mound in the ninth inning, home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson heard something from the top step of the dugout. Renteria got booted and ran out onto the field, jawing with Nelson and missing the end of a 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Renteria is already getting the daily lineup questions that Piniella grew tired of by the time he retired near the end of the 2010 season, part of the chain reaction that has seen four different managers within the last five years.

Renteria is still finding his voice in the interview room, being extremely positive, somewhat vague and non-confrontational with reporters. He seems to have a long fuse. So what sets him off?

“Any number of things,” Renteria said. “We have a lot of guys that are really working extremely hard to do their job and have a tremendously large investment in the outcome. The umpires are trying to do the best they can possibly do on a daily basis.

“We get emotional. We’re much more invested. We’re looking at the wins and losses. If I think things are going awry a little bit, you try to address them and (Tuesday) night it just happened.”

Managers shape the message by meeting with the media before and after every game. Renteria gets lots of questions about “approaches” and mechanics and philosophies. But it’s all about the talent. As in, good managers typically have good players.

Edwin Jackson appreciated Renteria’s gesture, but the $52 million pitcher understood it could have been different if he didn’t give up six runs and get knocked out in the fifth inning.

“He’s a fiery guy,” Jackson said. “He’s going to stand up for his team. He’s going to speak what he believes and he’s going to fight for the guys in the clubhouse. He sees us out there battling. But at the end of the day, if I do a better job as a starter going deeper into games and keeping the score down, he doesn’t even have to get to that point.”

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ Rizzo getting laugh at lefties’ expense

By Mark Gonzales

Jason Hammel got a laugh at Anthony Rizzo’s expense Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs’ first baseman mistakenly congratulated Hammel on earning his first National League win.

Hammel, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in his Cubs’ debut on April 3 and won 27 games with the Colorado Rockies from 2009-11, shared Rizzo’s mistake with the media.

Although Rizzo tried to downplay his gaffe, Rizzo is getting payback on left-handers who limited him to a .189 batting average last season.

Rizzo collected three of his four hits against left-handers Wandy Rodriguez and Justin Wilson to raise his batting average against left-handers this season to .388 (7 for 18).

“Even in batting practice, he’s working the other side of the diamond,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable with two strikes. The offense has peaks and valleys. Right now he’s in a good place. The shift doesn’t hurt him.

"Hitting the ball the other way, he’s able to take advantage of it."

Rizzo, however, wouldn’t share any secrets with a reporter who peppered him with technical questions about his approach against left-handers that would make former hitting gurus Rudy Jaramillo or Walt Hriniak blush.

"I’m just really not doing too much," Rizzo said. "Early on from the first few games I was hitting balls right at guys and very frustrating. You learn from that from years past. You can’t press. It’s a long season and go through the grind and enjoy those type of wins."

Chicago Tribune

Mike Olt and Junior Lake homer in Cubs victory

Young players make case for more playing time with timely hitting to bolster 3-hit pitching of Jason Hammel in 7-5 triumph

By Mark Gonzales

Opportunity is expanding for Mike Olt and Junior Lake — along with their confidence.

After they hit consecutive home runs Wednesday night to vault the Cubs to a 7-5 victory over the Pirates, manager Rick Renteria is ready to increase their roles.

Renteria said he plans to steer away slightly from his initial plan of employing a platoon system at certain positions and pencil in right-handed batters Olt and Lake to face hard-throwing right-hander Gerrit Cole in Thursday’s series finale.

"(Thursday) is as good a day as any," Renteria said after Olt snapped a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning with a two-run homer and Lake hit the next pitch off left-hander Wandy Rodriguez over the left-field bleachers.

Olt capped a career-high three-RBI performance with a run-scoring opposite-field single off right-handed reliever Jeanmar Gomez during a three-run sixth that loomed large when the Pirates closed the gap with four solo home runs off starter Jason Hammel and Pedro Strop in the final three innings.

"I’m confident in them," Renteria said. "What we’re trying to build is the confidence they should have within themselves. That’s the biggest thing. (Wednesday night), they faced a lefty, and as the game progressed, they faced a righty."

Olt, 25, has compensated for the lack of full-time duty with diligent fielding practice as early as five hours before Wednesday’s game as well as extra batting practice.

The extra work in the cage paid off as he went to the opposite field in the sixth.

"I got a little pull happy," said Olt, who snapped a 1-for-14 slump to start the season. "If I’m sitting with the same approach last time, I would roll that ball foul. I think I’m (heading) in the right direction."

Anthony Rizzo foiled the Pirates’ shift by placing all four of his hits — a career high — to the opposite field.

Rizzo battled from an 0-2 count to single off Rodriguez just before Olt’s homer, and he added an RBI double off the wall in left-center in the sixth.

He is batting .388 (7-for-18) against left-handers after hitting only .189 against them in 2013.

Rizzo gave much of the credit for Wednesday’s victory to the defensive play of shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney.

And he didn’t say much when asked to respond to Hammel’s light-hearted charge that Rizzo complimented him on his first National League victory even though Hammel beat the Pirates last week too.

"I didn’t know I didn’t win at all in Colorado, either," quipped Hammel, who won 27 games in three seasons (2009-11) with the Rockies before winning 15 in two seasons for the Orioles.

Hammel retired the first 12 batters but accepted responsibility for allowing solo homers on all three hits he allowed in his seven innings.

"I got my first taste of Wrigley, and I hope it’s much kinder next time," Hammel said of the windy conditions.

Chicago Tribune

In a pinch, Cubs are counting on Mike Olt

When 3rd baseman isn’t starting, he’s trying to adjust to difficult role as pinch hitter when matchup presents itself

By Mark Gonzales

Trying to make the opening-day roster was tough enough for Mike Olt.

Now the Cubs rookie is trying to master one of the toughest duties in baseball — pinch-hitting.

"Definitely it’s tough," Olt said Wednesday of his respect for those who have made a career out of pinch-hitting.

"I did it a little bit with Texas, and (pinch hitters) definitely deserve a lot of credit. You just come into a game cold seeing somebody who has been throwing well and you have to have a different mindset. I have to learn that and figure out ways to be ready for those at-bats.”

Olt, 25, handles some of the pinch-hitting duties when he’s not starting at third base as manager Rick Renteria wants to use Olt in situations where he has a favorable matchup.

Entering Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates, Olt was 0-for-4 with one strikeout as a pinch hitter. He collected a hit in his only pinch-hitting appearance with the Rangers in 2012.

Piece of mind: Renteria emphasized his intent was not to embarrass umpire Jeff Nelson during an exchange in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s 7-6 loss that led to his ejection.

"Every manager does what he feels he needs to do at a particular time," Renteria said. "It’s a feel thing. You don’t want to embarrass an umpire. They’re doing a tough job and sometimes when you’re watching a ballgame, you let loose, too, and you get ejected.

"We’re looking at the wins and losses of a ballclub. But if I think things are going array a little bit, I think you try to address them. (Tuesday), it just happened."

Rondon’s rebound: Reliever Hector Rondon said he has added another dimension to his repertoire of pitches that has helped him extend his scoreless streak to 13 innings over 12 appearances dating back to Sept. 3.

"I’m working more on my breaking ball," said Rondon, whose streak entering Wednesday was the fourth longest in the majors currently, trailing Jake Odorizzi of the Rays (152/3 innings), J.P. Howell of the Dodgers (14) and Rafael Soriano of the Nationals (14).

Rondon said he concentrated on his breaking pitch more in the Venezuelan Winter League for Caracas and wasn’t afraid to throw it this spring on 3-2 counts or when he fell behind.

"Now I’m ready for the season," Rondon said.

Extra innings: Shortstop Javier Baez went 2-for-4 with a double to help lead Triple-A Iowa to a 6-1 victory over Nashville. Baez was 1-for-18 entering play Wednesday. … Iowa’s Josh Vitters hit his second home run, and Brett Jackson hit a solo shot to support Carlos Pimentel, who struck out 10 in six innings. … Shawon Dunston Jr. had a two-run single in Class A Kane County’s 7-4 loss to Fort Wayne in 10 innings. … With two days off next week, the Cubs haven’t decided whether to juggle their rotation for a two-game series starting Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

Chicago Tribune

Castro moves to 2nd in Cubs’ lineup

By Mark Gonzales

After Starlin Castro produced seven hits in his past three games from the sixth spot, it might sound crazy for manager Rick Renteria to move him to the second spot.

But that’s what Renteria, as promised, has done for Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The main reason for Castro moving up is that the Cubs are facing left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, whom they beat April 3.

Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs’ Hammel beats Pirates twice in a week

By Gordon Wittenmyer

This was the kind of night it was for the Cubs at Wrigley Field. They gave up five home runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and still wound up playing music, laughing and provide their own topics of conversation with the media afterward.

“I’ve got a good one for you,” Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel said with a big grin after Wednesday night’s 7-5 victory – just six days after he beat the same team in Pittsburgh.

“I’m going to throw my first baseman under the bus,” Hammel said. “He just congratulated me on my first NL win. I want to make sure that everybody knows that [Anthony] Rizzo was NOT there with us in Pittsburgh last week. … I didn’t’ know I didn’t win at all in Colorado, either.”

Hammel (2-0), the veteran who spent three seasons with the Rockies (27 wins) then two in Baltimore before signing with the Cubs, gave up only three hits in seven innings – all three solo homers, to Pedro Alvarez, Travis Snider and Russell Martin.

Rizzo, who helped a suddenly productive Cubs lineup with four hits Wednesday night, seemed caught off guard by Hammel busting him publicly.

“No comment,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “it was a great atmosphere here after the game. We were very excited. He pitched his tail off, we got him the ‘W’ so that’s nice. And he’s off to a great TWO-win start.”

Rizzo’s inattention to history aside, the Cubs are in position for the first time in three tries to get a series win if they can beat Gerrit Cole and the Pirates in the series finale Thursday.

On a night the wind blew out – and took seven homers with it for both teams – Hammel retired the first 12 batters he faced and 18 of the first 19 before stumbing in the seventh.

“I got my first taste of Wrigley,” said Hammel, who has a 2.63 ERA after two starts. “I hope it’s much kinder next time. When the wind’s howling out, you’ve got to keep the ball down. I made three mistakes today, and they all left the yard. I think a couple of those are outs in other ballparks, but you’ve still got to keep the ball down.”

Alvarez and Martin went back-to-back with another pair of solo homers off Pedro Strop in the ninth.

The way Hammel (2-0, 2.63) has looked in two starts since signing that one-year, “flip” deal in February, he looks capable of either pitching the Cubs out of their early woes – or of getting the Cubs a haul at the trading deadline at least as good as Scott Feldman did last year.

Emilio Bonifacio singled and scored on Justin Ruggiano’s double in the first inning as the Cubs never trailed on the way to their second-biggest offensive night of the young season.

After scoring just eight runs total in their first five games (four of them losses), the Cubs have scored eight, six and seven in their last three games – two of them victories.

Mike Olt and Junior Lake hit back-to-back homers in the fifth as the Cubs scored three in each of the fifth and sixth innings – and manager Rick Renteria said after the game he expects them back in the lineup Thursday.

Olt added an RBI single in the sixth.

Chicago Sun-Times

Leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio playing the top hits

By Gordon Wittenmyer

Emilio Bonifacio can’t really keep this up, can he?

The short answer: Of course not.

But how long can the leadoff hitter slap his way on base, steal bases, lead the league in hits and keep the voices from the center-field bleachers in his corner (“We love you, Emilio!”)?

And can it make a difference before the slow start turns into full spiral?

“One thing I know: It won’t be like that all season,” said Bonifacio, who singled and scored in the first and doubled and scored in the sixth in a 7-5 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday at Wrigley Field.

His 2-for-5 night pushed his league-leading batting average to .500 (19-for-38) and his on-base percentage to .537 (second to the Royals’ Salvador Perez).

“I don’t want to think much about it,” he said. “I just want to keep doing good and try to help the team win ballgames. At the end, that’s what matters.”

So far, it hasn’t translated into much run production, mostly because of the team’s lousy performance with men in scoring position, a problem from 2013 that was not addressed in the offseason.

At the very least, Bonifacio has been the brightest spot in the lineup in an otherwise dreary start offensively; a source of energy, speed and multihit games.

And he’s about the only certainty in manager Rick Renteria’s never-ending landscape of lineup changes. He’s the only player who has batted in the same spot all eight games so far (though he’s played both center field and second base).

“That’s really big,” Renteria said of being able to lock in the leadoff spot in a largely platoon lineup, something Renteria may stick with even after Bonifacio’s inevitable return to earth.

“He obviously works the at-bats extremely well,” Renteria said. “How he plays dictates how we use him. [But] again, his speed and his ability to play a lot of different positions allows us to use that slot for him.”

Bonifacio, who became available early in spring training after being released by the Royals (they needed payroll space and had infield depth), has quickly turned into a two-way value guy.

Making only $2.5 million, he was signed to fill a need and has the potential to stick around beyond this year as a veteran presence who might help the transition of some of the fast-rising prospects.

On the other hand, if he remains productive into midseason, he could become valuable enough to lure a good prospect from a contender with a table-setting need.

“It’s not something I can really control,” he said. “And it’s really early. It’s only eight games, so there’s a long season to go. You don’t want to even think about it, so you just want to stay happy and do your work. You don’t know what could happen. You don’t know where you’re going to be.”

After all, he’s played for as many teams as he has played positions — six.

That includes three teams in less than a year. And even though he was caught off guard when the Royals released him while he was leading all hitters during the Caribbean championship series in Venezuela, he said he’s not out to prove anything to them or anyone else.

“No,” he said, “you want to do good no matter what. It happened. … I just want to go out and be kind of like I’ve been the last couple years. And I’ve been having a really good year so far.”

Chicago Sun-Times

Starlin Castro’s focus on defense starting to pay off

By Gordon Wittenmyer

For all of the sudden production at the plate — including a pair of home runs Tuesday — shortstop Starlin Castro still knows his fielding is a critical part of how he’s viewed.

“I take early work every day,” said Castro, who came to spring training this year vowing to be more focused. “I come in here every day for defensive work. Every day.”

That included Wednesday, when he was the only player on the field hours before batting practice, taking grounders at short and working on tag plays at the bag. He made two exceptional plays in the first four innings: charging a roller in front of second to just get Pedro Alvarez in the second inning, and diving toward the middle and leaping to his feet to throw to first and rob Starling Marte of a hit in the fourth. He also ranged far into center field to catch a Travis Snider fly.

“I can see why he’s here for a while,” starter Jason Hammel said. “Outstanding ability. He made unbelievable plays up the middle for me tonight that shut down innings.”

“He’s been working very hard at trying to improve his game,” manager Rick Renteria said. “And he’s taking it very seriously. He’s got a little jump in his step.”

Kids to play?

Even before Mike Olt and Junior Lake hit back-to-back homers in the fifth Wednesday, Renteria said, “I’m hoping to start using them a little more back-to-back, versus lefties and righties. They need to find out who they are, too.”

The duo had five RBI.

“[Thursday’s] as good a day as any [to start],” Renteria said. “I’m confident in them. What we’re trying to build is the confidence that they should have within themselves.”

Veras confident

After pitching his first clean inning Tuesday, closer Jose Veras seemed at ease Wednesday.

“When you’re struggling for a couple outings, then you get a good one, it feels good for any pitcher,’’ Veras said.

It didn’t hurt to see Renteria rip into plate umpire Jeff Nelson over a tight strike zone.

“You don’t want to let your manager get thrown out,” Veras said, “but you feel good when you’ve got someone right there picking a fight for you.”

Daily Herald

Olt, Lake help blast Cubs to 7-5 win

By Bruce Miles

When Dusty Baker managed the Cubs, he was fond of saying that fans and media were always “clamoring” for this or that player to play.

Nowadays, Rick Renteria manages the Cubs, and he heard some clamor direct from the bats of Mike Olt and Junior Lake, two young players trying to hit their way into the lineup.

Olt broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning Wednesday night with a towering home run into the left-field bleachers. Lake followed immediately by crushing a ball on a straight line onto Waveland Avenue.

Those blasts help the Cubs break open the game and power their way to a 7-5 victory on a good night to hit. The Pirates hit 5 home runs of their own. Fortunately for the Cubs, they were all solo shots.

The two right-handed hitters were in the lineup because the Pirates went with left-handed pitcher Wandy Rodriguez. The Cubs have balance right down the middle between left-and right-handed batters, so the next few weeks could get interesting for Renteria when he makes out his lineup cards.

No doubt he will find it a nice problem to have.

"It’s a great problem to have," he said. "They’re all stepping it up. They’re all going out there and competing on a daily basis, not only against the opposition but also to show everybody what they can do."

Olt is hitting .158 with 2 homers. He seems to be taking the whole situation in stride. Both he and Lake may start Thursday afternoon’s series finale.

"That’s great," Olt said. "I’m going to be ready for every opportunity he gives me and definitely take off from there. It’s out of my control. The way I look at it is I’ve got to be ready for when I do get in there and make sure I can get as much practicing in as I can and try and stay as fresh as I can."

The Cubs picked up 14 hits, with Emilio Bonificio (.500) getting 2 more and Anthony Rizzo tying a career high with 4.

It made a winner of starting pitcher Jason Hammel (2-0), who let it be known that Rizzo congratulated “me on my first NL win.”

That’s how loose things were after the game, since Hammel also pitched for Colorado.

"When the wind’s howling out, you’ve got to keep the ball down. I made three mistakes today, and they all left the yard," Hammel said.

As for Renteria, he went to bed contemplating his lineup card for Thursday knowing that players such as Olt and Lake could get a jolt of confidence from games like Wednesday’s.

"I’m hoping to start using them a little more back to back, vs. lefties and righties," the manager said. "I think we need to find out who they are, too. But it has nothing to do with doubting what they’re capable of doing. … With them, we need to play them and find out who they are.

"I think confidence is a big key to anybody’s development. That’s why we try to make sure we have conversations with them every day. We talk to them and make sure they’re lighthearted, make sure they’re loose and make sure they know we believe in them and make sure they know they’ll be getting into ballgames.

"When they do, you be ready to go out there and perform."

Daily Herald

Renteria explains ejection: All about having vested interest

By Bruce Miles

Cubs manager Rick Renteria had totally calmed down Wednesday night after being ejected from Tuesday’s game against the Pirates in the ninth inning.

Renteria was tossed by home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson for complaining about ball-and-strike calls.

Part of a manager’s job is to protect his players and to argue for borderline pitches. A day later, Renteria explained his actions.

"I think every manager does what he feels he needs to do at a particular time," he said. "It’s a feel thing. You don’t want to go out there and try to embarrass an umpire. They’re doing a tough job. Sometimes I think when you’re watching a ballgame you let loose, too, and sometimes you get ejected."

This is Renteria’s first year as a big-league manager. He has managed in the minor leagues and coached in the majors.

He said the argument was all about each side having a vested interest.

"You have a lot of guys that are working extremely hard to do their job and have a tremendously hard vesting in the outcome," he said. "The umpires have a vesting in trying to do the best they can possibly do on a daily basis. We get emotional.

"When things go awry, you try to address them. Last night, it just so happened."

Assessing Castro’s start:

Rick Renteria didn’t get to see much of shortstop Starlin Castro in spring training because Castro suffered a hamstring injury early in the Cactus League season.

After a slow start at the plate in the regular season, Castro has 5 RBI in his last three games. He hit 2 homers Tuesday night for the first multihomer game of his career.

Renteria credited Castro for working with coaches Gary Jones, Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley.

"He’s been working really hard with Jonesie in the field, and he’s obviously been working really hard with Billy and Brum and the hitting guys to try to clean up his approach a little bit," Renteria said. "Again, Starlin is who he is. He’s a guy who when he swings the bat he hits the ball hard. He’s a dangerous guy.

"Defensively, he made some nice plays (Tuesday). He’s been working very hard at trying to improve his game, and he’s taken it very seriously. We’re very happy that he’s gone out, and he has a little jump in his step. He looks like he feels comfortable."

09 4 / 2014

Daily Herald

Castro’s 2 homers not enough; Jackson struggles

By Bruce Miles

If there’s a phrase or two that describes the Cubs’ lineup these days, it’s “under construction” or “work in progress.”

And it’s going to stay that way.

Along the same vein, if there’s a phrase that describes pitcher Edwin Jackson, it might be “cost overrun.”

Few things get fans going like the construction of the lineup on a daily basis or wondering when Jackson is going to start flashing the form that team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had in mind when they signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract before last season.

Jackson may or not be a lost cause. He lasted just 4⅔ innings Tuesday in the Cubs’ 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first night game of the season at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs’ lineup is ever-changing, but manager Rick Renteria looks to have hit on to a couple of things with leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio and the moving of Starlin Castro down to the sixth spot in the order.

Bonifacio, who entered the game 14-for-28, picked up 3 singles. He also stole third base in the bottom of the seventh inning and scored to tie the game at 6-6 on Anthony Rizzo’s single.

Castro enjoyed the first multihomer game of his career as he connected on a 3-run line shot in the third inning and a solo blast in the sixth.

"I think it’s just like anything, he’s starting to get into a rhythm," said Renteria, who was ejected in the ninth inning for complaining about balls and strikes to plate umpire Jeff Nelson. "He’s got some guys get on base ahead of him. He’s seen a lot of good at-bats from his teammates."

Renteria dropped Castro to sixth in Sunday’s victory over the Phillies, and Castro had an RBI double.

With six left-handed hitters, six right-handed hitters and switch hitter Bonifacio on the roster, expect the mixing and matching to continue.

"At this point, we’re still pretty much allowing these guys the opportunity to go ahead and use the splits that exist, righty-lefty," Renteria said. "But at some point, again, these guys will end up playing against righties and lefties.

"I think it’s just a matter of me seeing … it’s the seventh game into the season. A lot of those things are giving me a lot of information and feedback, leading me to where we might ultimately go."

The Pirates jumped on Jackson with a 4-spot in the first inning, but Castro’s homer tied it in the third. The good feeling didn’t last too long because Jackson surrendered single runs in each of the next two innings.

"They came out aggressive, and I left a lot of balls out and over the plate," Jackson said, "which is a bad combination for our team and for a team like that. Our team did a good job coming back and fighting back.

"At the end of the day, I’ve just got to do a better job of getting the ball and executing pitches."

Daily Herald

Baez no concern for Cubs

By Bruce Miles

Both Cubs manager Rick Renteria and team president Theo Epstein seemed satisfied that top prospect Javier Baez is just fine at Class AAA Iowa.

It was an eventful weekend for the 21-year-old shortstop, who was ejected from Saturday’s game for his reaction to a checked-swing call. Veteran catcher Eli Whiteside and other Iowa teammates talked with Baez about his reaction, with Whiteside reportedly confronting Baez in the dugout.

Epstein said Tuesday he had no concerns about Baez, who opened the season 0-for-9 with 6 strikeouts.

"Not at all," Epstein said. "I think it was a great development experience for him. He started out not feeling really comfortable at the plate. He let that get him frustrated. He showed it on the field.

"His teammates know how good he can be and how good a teammate he can be, and they called him out on it, and he responded just the right way and took it to heart.

"He came back the next day and pinch hit and hit a home run. He’s hit the ball hard in 5 straight plate appearances. He’s taken the responsibility of being a really good teammate to heart, and experiences like that will just help him get where he needs to be."

Epstein added it’s better for a player to get those kind of experiences in the minor leagues rather than in the majors.

Renteria saw plenty of Baez in spring training and said he was aware of went on in Iowa.

"We’re all aware of everything that’s going on," he said. "I think he had a nice conversation with a teammate, and that was good. A tremendously great learning experience."

No closer controversy:

Although the Cubs made a change at closer early last season under former manager Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria said he wants to see how things play out with Jose Veras.

Veras entered Tuesday with an ERA of 16.20, and he had walked six in 1⅔ innings. Last year the Cubs replaced Carlos Marmol very early with Kyuji Fujikawa, who then got hurt and was replaced by Kevin Gregg.

In Sunday’s victory over the Phillies, Veras could not finish the game even though he came in with the Cubs ahead 8-1. He walked four batters.

"I’ll deal with that and cross that bridge when I get to it," Renteria said. "Right now, it’s really premature for me to make a decision or say that I would change something or not change it. I’ve got to see what happens."

Cubs.com

Cubs fall, but two HRs show Starlin’s in rhythm

Red-hot Bonifacio posts three hits, RBI; Jackson gives up six runs

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Rick Renteria liked the way the Cubs fought back, and he showed a little feistiness himself, but the key Tuesday may be that Starlin Castro is feeling good about himself.

Dropped to sixth with the hope that he would generate more offense, Castro recorded his first career two-homer game, but it wasn’t enough, as the Pirates rallied for a 7-6 victory over the Cubs in the first night game of the season at Wrigley Field.

Russell Martin hit a tie-breaking sacrifice fly in the Pittsburgh eighth, and Pedro Alvarez and Travis Ishikawa each drove in two runs in front of 26,177 well-bundled fans.

Castro smacked a three-run homer in the third and a solo shot in the sixth in this rematch from last week’s opening series at PNC Park, which the Pirates took, 2-1. This was the fourth one-run game between the two teams.

Renteria didn’t stay for the end. He was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson. The first manager to use the expanded instant replay on Opening Day, Renteria now is the first Major League manager to be tossed this season.

Back to Castro. He has hit safely in five straight games after going 0-for-9 in the first two games of the season.

"He’s just starting to get into a rhythm," Renteria said. "He’s got some guys getting on base ahead of him. He’s seeing a lot of good at-bats from his teammates. He’s making a real good conscientious effort of bearing down and doing his thing.

"You can’t expect him to hit two homers every single day, but at least his approaches seem to be working," Renteria said. "He’s seeing the field, and it looks like he’s gaining some confidence."

The reason for that may be the change in the batting order. Castro batted third in the first two games of the season, hit second in the next three and was in the six-hole for the second game. It’s not that Castro can’t hit at the top of the order, Renteria said, but if he’s batting in the first and making a lot of outs, he could be feeling that he’s a “quote-unquote failure.”

"Sometimes you just do that to give everybody in the game the ability to sit back and watch everybody work in front of them, that’s all," Renteria said of the switch. "He’s hit first and second throughout his career. It doesn’t mean he’s not going to do it again. These are just little things you do."

Former Cubs manager Dale Sveum dropped Castro in the batting order after the shortstop scuffled last season. This year is different, Castro said.

"I want to hit with men in scoring position," Castro said. "I don’t care what spot [Renteria] puts me in. He tries to put me in a spot in a good way, not in a bad way, not because I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that. He trusts me and is trying to move me to bring in more RBIs."

So, hitting sixth is OK?

"You got men on base — he put me there for a reason, a good reason," Castro said.

Edwin Jackson was making his second straight start against the Pirates, who seemed to have a better scouting report this time. On April 2, Jackson gave up two hits over 5 1/3 innings. This time, Pittsburgh collected six runs on nine hits and four walks over 4 2/3 innings.

"They came out aggressive and I left a lot of balls out over the plate, which is a bad combination," Jackson said. "Our team did a great job coming back and fighting back. At the end of the day, I have to do a better job of getting the ball down and executing pitches, especially when your team comes back and gives you runs."

Starling Marte doubled off Jackson’s first pitch of the game, and one out later, Andrew McCutchen walked, with both runners scoring on Alvarez’s double. Jackson then hit Martin with a pitch, and Neil Walker followed with an RBI single. Ishikawa added a sacrifice fly to open a 4-0 lead.

But the Cubs answered. Emilio Bonifacio smacked an RBI single with two outs in the Chicago second. In the third, Anthony Rizzo and Luis Valbuena each singled to set up Castro’s first home run, a shot into the left-field bleachers, to tie the game at 4.

The Pirates took a 6-4 lead, but Castro made it 6-5 with a leadoff homer in the sixth, driving an 0-2 pitch from Charlie Morton to left. In the seventh, Bonifacio singled for his third hit of the game and 17th this year, moved up on a sacrifice by Ryan Kalish, stole third, and scored on Rizzo’s single off lefty Tony Watson to tie the game.

Bonifacio now has five multi-hit games out of seven, and is 14-for-21 against the Pirates.

"I’m just seeing the ball pretty good against them," Bonifacio said. "I want to hit like that against every team."

"We’ve got to make some adjustments," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Bonifacio. "We’ve talked about it, just weren’t able to do it tonight. We know what we need to do, haven’t been able to do it. … Give him credit because he’s barreling up a lot of balls from both sides of the plate."

Pedro Strop walked both Marte and McCutchen with one out in the eighth, and was pulled for James Russell, who walked Alvarez to load the bases before serving up Martin’s sacrifice fly.

"Had we just laid down after the first inning and giving up four runs, I would’ve been extremely disappointed, but we didn’t," Renteria said. "We kept chipping away. We have to fight, we have to keep battling every day."

Cubs.com

Renteria becomes first skipper tossed in ‘14

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — The Cubs’ Rick Renteria became the first Major League manager to be ejected this season when he was tossed in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson.

Managers do have access to expanded instant replay this year, but cannot challenge an umpire’s calls on balls and strikes.

Renteria was the first Major League manager to use instant replay, doing so in Pittsburgh on Opening Day. Told that he also was first to be ejected, he shrugged.

"OK," Renteria said. "I don’t know if that’s very good, but OK."

The Pirates led 7-6 in the ninth when Renteria complained from the dugout about a call on Jose Veras’ 1-2 pitch to Jordy Mercer. Nelson called it a ball, but Renteria felt it was a strike. The umpire apparently heard enough, and signaled that the rookie manager was gone. Renteria came onto the field to discuss the matter further, but eventually retreated to the clubhouse.

What was the issue?

"That was between me and Jeff," Renteria said.

"He’s a fiery guy," Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson said of Renteria. "He’s going to stand up for his team. He’s going to speak for what he believes and fight for the guys in the clubhouse. He sees us out there battling. It’s part of the game.

"If I do a better job as a starter, going deeper and keeping the score down, he doesn’t have to get to that point," said Jackson, who gave up four runs in the first inning in the Cubs’ 7-6 loss.

Ejection leads to learning experience for Baez

CHICAGO — The development of Javier Baez continued this past weekend, and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the team’s top prospect got an important lesson, thanks to his teammates.

Baez was hitless in his first nine at-bats at Triple-A Iowa and ejected from Saturday’s game after arguing a checked swing third-strike call. He reportedly exchanged words and had an altercation in the dugout with teammate Eli Whiteside.

"He had a nice conversation with a teammate and that was a good thing," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said Tuesday. "It’s a tremendously great learning experience."

Baez ended his hitless streak in style Sunday with a pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning.

"I think it was a great development and experience for him," Epstein said. "He started out not feeling real comfortable at the plate and he let it frustrate him, and he showed it on the field. His teammates, they know how good he can be and how good a teammate he can be and they called him out on it.

"He responded just the right way and took it to heart and came back the next day with a pinch-hit home run," Epstein said. "He’s hit the ball hard in five straight plate appearances. He’s taking the responsibility of being a good teammate and taking it to heart. Experiences like that will just help him get where he needs to be."

And this is part of the process Baez, 21, has to go through in the Minor Leagues.

"You want that stuff to happen down there," Epstein said. "It helps our players mature, so when they get up here, they can handle a broader set of experiences that are thrown at them."

Baez had struck out six times in his first nine at-bats. The Cubs know he won’t get a hit every at-bat when he does get to the big leagues.

"It’s more important how players respond to adversity," Epstein said. "You want everyone to go through adversity in the Minor Leagues, because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure and make adjustments and come back even stronger, because that’s the type of thing you have to deal with when you’re breaking in in the big leagues."

UConn alum Olt enjoying Huskies’ success

CHICAGO — Mike Olt went to the University of Connecticut, and he was the school’s all-time home run leader when he left in 2010. There was no way he was going to miss the Huskies in Monday’s NCAA men’s championship basketball game. There was just one catch.

"I didn’t have cable," the Cubs third baseman said Tuesday. "So, I was driving around, and we found a small, little bar that had nobody in it, and the game was on, and I got some wings and watched it there. It was perfect. It was a fun game to watch."

Connecticut beat Kentucky for the title. Olt went to a few games when he attended the university.

"I haven’t seen too many games live, but when I do, it’s special," he said. "The fans they have are pretty incredible, too."

On Tuesday, the UConn women faced Notre Dame for the women’s national basketball championship.

"They don’t get enough credit, which is kind of sad," Olt said of the Connecticut women’s team. "They’ve had some pretty remarkable teams, and the coaching is unbelievable and there’s a reason why they’re undefeated nearly every year. It’s not easy. They just don’t get enough credit, and that’s too bad."

Renteria sticking with righty-lefty platoons for now

CHICAGO — In the first seven games of the season, Cubs manager Rick Renteria has used a lefty-righty platoon at third base and in the outfield, and said he’ll continue to do so.

"At this point, we’re still allowing these guys the opportunity to use the splits that end up existing, righty-lefty," Renteria said. "At some point, these guys will end up playing against both righties and lefties."

So far, left-handed hitting Luis Valbuena, Ryan Sweeney and Ryan Kalish are starting against right-handers, while right-handed hitting Mike Olt and Junior Lake face the lefty starting pitchers. Emilio Bonifacio, a switch-hitter, usually moves to the outfield against southpaws.

At some point, though, Renteria said he will likely abandon the platoon. It depends on the players.

"It’s the seventh game of the season today," Renteria said Tuesday. "As the season progresses, and I start to see them playing more and they have pinch-hit at-bats in the ballgame … a lot of those things are giving me a lot of information and feedback leading me to where we might ultimately go."

Performance is key, he said.

"You might have someone say, ‘Well, I can’t perform unless I have four, five regular at-bats every single day,’" Renteria said. "The reality is every time you get an opportunity to hit, that’s an opportunity. How good the at-bat is, how the approach is — you don’t have to get a hit to have a good approach. It could be a productive at-bat without getting a hit. You take all those factors into play and hopefully make the right decision."

Extra bases

• It’s too early for Renteria to change his closer. Jose Veras still has the job, despite a shaky outing Sunday in which he couldn’t finish the ninth.

"He had a situation there where he was working and wasn’t able to command the zone as well as he wanted to,

and he’ll get an opportunity hopefully soon to get out there and close it out for us,” Renteria said of Veras, who gave up two runs on four walks over two-thirds of an inning.

Last year, the Cubs used three different closers in April. Carlos Marmol was ineffective, Kyuji Fujikawa was injured, and then the team signed Kevin Gregg.

"I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it," Renteria said when asked if he was considering switching. "Right now, it’s really premature for me to make a decision to say I would change something. I have to see what’s going to happen first."

• Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ No. 5 prospect, is on the disabled list for Double-A Tennessee with a sore right hamstring.

"We need to make sure he’s 100 percent before he gets back on the field," Epstein said Tuesday. "He didn’t pull it again, but it obviously hasn’t healed all the way. We want him on the field as much as anybody — he needs the at-bats. We can’t force it right now."

Cubs.com

Hammel set for first career start at Wrigley

Pirates hand the ball to Wandy for rematch of Opening Series

By Tom Singer

The Cubs are well into celebrating the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field — a storied place which has managed to reach such an age without Jason Hammel ever having made footprints in it.

Missing each other has not been easy. Hammel, 31, is in the ninth season of a career that has seen him pitch 216 games, 97 of them in the National League. But he has never toed the pitching rubber at Wrigley Field.

That will change Wednesday night, when the newest Cub meets up with Pirates lefty Wandy Rodriguez in the middle game of the teams’ series.

While waiting for his turn to pitch, Hammel has been making the park’s acquaintance.

"I’ve just been getting a feel for it," he said. "I remember walking down the tunnel to come into the clubhouse the first time, I was confused. I’ve just been getting my bearings and a comfort level over the last three, four days, and it’s been good."

The Pirates, conversely, have already met Hammel, and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience. Not signed as a free agent until the Cubs had already opened their Mesa, Ariz., Spring Training camp, the Orioles’ 2013 Opening Day starter may not have a history at Wrigley Field, but he has one against the Bucs.

Hammel owns three wins in four starts against the Pirates, including Thursday in Pittsburgh, where he pitched 6 2/3 innings of two-hit ball for the decision, opposing Rodriguez.

Clint Hurdle has an even better knowledge of Hammel: He managed him for two months in 2009, after Colorado acquired him in trade from Tampa Bay and before the Rockies dismissed Hurdle.

"He’s gonna be around the zone," Hurdle said. "He changed speeds [in the Pittsburgh game] and kept hitters off balance. We got balls to hit, but didn’t. When you miss balls that you shouldn’t and a guy’s on, he’ll usually make you pay, and that’s what he did to us."

Pirates: Showing off small-ball smarts

Pirates batting coach Jeff Branson watched proudly as the Bucs manufactured the winning run Tuesday night on three walks and a sacrifice fly.

Neither plate discipline nor situational hitting were trademarks of the 2013 team offense.

"The guys are understanding how to manufacture runs," said Branson, who took over as hitting coach this season after serving in ‘13 as assistant to Jay Bell, who has moved on to become the Reds’ bench coach. "Every at-bat is a team at-bat. They got to the point where it is about the team, not their at-bat.

"They understand what this guy [the pitcher] is trying to do to them and not giving in. They see how the work they put in can help the team do exactly what we did tonight — we were able to manufacture a run. We can’t rely on the pitching staff every night."

Cubs: Kalish finding a home

In his brief Major League career, which was interrupted last season by a serious neck injury, Ryan Kalish has batted everywhere but third in the lineup. Right now, Cubs manager Rick Renteria likes the left-handed hitting outfielder in the two-hole.

"Ryan gives you great at-bats," Renteria said. "I think I could put him anywhere from one through nine, and he would still give you a great at-bat. He works the counts."

Kalish, who starts against right-handed pitchers as part of Renteria’s early platoon system, has the most at-bats in the eighth spot in the order. Renteria does like to change things up. For now, Kalish will hit second.

"It’s a good spot for him," Renteria said. "He can handle the bat."

Worth noting

• Opposing teams’ leadoff batters — the Cubs’ Emilio Bonifacio and the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter — have combined to go 18-for-31 against the Pirates in the first seven games of the season.

• Starling Marte has a nine-game hitting streak in Wrigley Field and is 16-for-37 across that stretch.

ESPNChicago.com

Starlin Castro: ‘I got my feeling back’

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Remember these few days if this is the beginning of the return of the old Starlin Castro. The sometimes-embattled starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs is locked in — just as he was at the beginning of spring training, before an injured hamstring slowed him down.

"I got my feeling back," Castro said after belting two home runs in a 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night.

Castro struggled through the first week of the season. But was that because he missed almost all of spring training or because he was picking up where left off last season, when he hit .245?

"He’s just starting to get into a rhythm," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "You can’t expect him to hit two homers every day, but his approaches are working."

The upward trend started Saturday, when Castro went 3-for-4. He had a hit Sunday. And the off day Monday didn’t slow him down. Along with his first multiple-homer game Tuesday, he had a base hit to right, beating the shift that had him pulling the ball. Castro drove in four runs while batting sixth in the order and raised his batting average to .310.

"I want to hit with men in scoring position," Castro said. "[Renteria] puts me in that spot for a good reason. He trusts me."

For the second consecutive game Castro batted sixth, but it sounds as if that’s only because Renteria stacked the top of the lineup with lefties. Plus, Castro had three hits in the No. 2 spot the last time he hit that high in the order. Renteria told Castro he wanted him in a spot to drive in runs. But there was a mental method to his madness in dropping him for a struggling offense.

"When you separate yourself from that and you’re not part of that first inning that’s not working well … you’re a little separated from that failure," Renteria said of hitting Castro lower in the order. "Sometimes you do that just to give him a chance to sit back and watch everyone work in front of him a little bit. That’s all."

Maybe it had an effect, maybe not. More than likely, Castro is just getting back into a groove after missing much of March in Arizona.

The hard work he put in this offseason is well documented. He came into the year in the best shape of his career and now his bat is catching up to the competition. Castro homered on a fastball and then a hanging curve.

"He put me there for a reason, a good reason," Castro repeated.

Whatever the reason for his surge, if the old Castro has returned, the Cubs will benefit mightily. And Renteria will deserve a lot of credit.

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Pirates 7, Cubs 6

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Though they tied the score twice, the Chicago Cubs never led in dropping a 7-6 decision to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: Russell Martin drove home the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning to break a 6-6 tie. The Cubs were down 4-0 after a half-inning but tied it on a three-run homer by Starlin Castro in the third. They were down 6-4 in the sixth when Castro went deep again; the solo shot halved the Cubs’ deficit. Then Anthony Rizzo drove home Emilio Bonifacio with the tying run in the seventh. The bullpen couldn’t hold it, as Pedro Strop walked two in the eighth and suffered the loss. Edwin Jackson lasted only 4 2/3 innings, giving up nine hits, four walks and six runs.

What it means: Castro is locked in, collecting three hits including the first multiple-homer game of his career. He’s 6 for his last 12. Bonifacio continued his hot start with three more hits, raising his batting average to over .500. But Jackson regressed after a decent start last week. His first inning told the story: two doubles, two singles, one walk, one hit batsman, four runs. He looked like the Jackson of last year, and that’s not a good thing.

Renteria ejected: In the top of the ninth inning, Cubs manager Rick Renteria was tossed for the first time in his career after arguing balls and strikes with plate umpire Jeff Nelson. Several close calls in the previous inning went against the Cubs, prompting Renteria to come out of the dugout on another close pitch by Jose Veras. He argued with Nelson for a minute or so before heading for the clubhouse.

What’s next: Game 2 of the series takes place Wednesday night, when Jason Hammel faces lefty Wandy Rodriguez at 7:05 p.m.

ESPNChicago.com

Veras still the closer … for now

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs pitcher Jose Veras has already lasted longer in his role this season than former Cub Carlos Marmol did a year ago, but the leash could be tightening on the current closer.

Veras struggled in spring training and then in the first week of the regular season, giving up six walks and three runs in only 1 2/3 innings pitched.

Before the Cubs took on the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night, manager Rick Renteria was asked if Veras’ job was in jeopardy.

"I’ll deal with that and cross that bridge when I get to it, but right now I think it’s really premature for me to make a decision or say that I will change something or not change something," Renteria said. "I have to see what’s going to happen first."

The Cubs waited to see what was going to happen with Marmol in 2013 and it wasn’t pretty. In his first three appearances, Marmol gave up five runs before being moved to middle relief. But that was with a different manager. It’s unclear how long Renteria will put up with results like Sunday’s when Veras walked four in the ninth inning of an eventual 8-3 victory.

"He wasn’t able to command the zone as well as he wanted to," Renteria said. "He’ll get an opportunity hopefully soon to get out there and close it out for us."

ESPNChicago.com

Olt finds TV for UConn championship

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Former University of Connecticut player and current Chicago Cubs infielder Mike Olt was plenty excited his alma mater won the men’s basketball championship on Monday night, but he almost didn’t get a chance to see it.

Olt, 25, made the Cubs in the final days of spring training and the Cubs started the season on the road. They finally had their first off day at home Monday, allowing Olt to settle into his new townhouse.

"I don’t have cable so I drove around and wanted to find a small sports bar," he said Tuesday before the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates. "Found one with no one inside it. So I watched it by myself. I got to cheer it on hard."

Olt doesn’t remember the name of the bar but said it was near Wrigley Field. He attended Connecticut in 2008 and 2009 having grown up in nearby Branford, Conn.. He hit his first career home run last week against the Pirates. He’s 1-for-13 this season.

"I’m glad I got to watch it," Olt said.

ESPNChicago.com

Lake frustrated by lack of playing time

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Count Chicago Cubs’ outfielder Junior Lake as another interested party in his lack of playing time. Lake and fellow righty Mike Olt haven’t started against a right-handed pitcher over the first seven games of the season and Lake sounds frustrated.

"I want to play every day," Lake said before the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night. "I want to be in the lineup every day. I don’t have control over that. …He [manager Rick Renteria] knows I want to play more. Maybe not every day, but I want to play more."

Lake burst onto the scene midseason last year impressing observers with his combination of speed and power. He hit .377 against left-handers and .251 against righties but that was in only 236 total at-bats. Lake says he thinks he can do better.

"I don’t see the difference, righty or lefty," he said. "It doesn’t matter. If it’s a righty (I don’t care)."

But right now the Cubs do. Or at least Renteria does. He wants to see more, though he vows that right-handed hitters will see right-handed pitching at some point. He just didn’t say when.

"As the season progresses and I start to see them a little bit more," Renteria said. "A lot of those things (pinch hits, etc.) are giving me a lot of information and feedback, leading me to where we ultimately might go."

That’s vague but it will have to do for now. Lake knows if he’s in a straight platoon he won’t play much since there are many more righty starters than lefties.

"If you play every day you see a lot of pitches every day," Lake said. "If you see one pitch here, one pitch tomorrow you don’t make the adjustments."

Lake is 5-for-17 over the first week of the season with two walks after having a strong finish to the spring that included a three-homer game. But he says he feels as if he’s pressing because he’s facing only lefties. He also knows there’s nothing he can do about it.

"I don’t control the lineup," he said.

During spring training, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Lake would see “a lot of at-bats” and that still might be the case, but he backed off of that last week before the Cubs’ home opener.

"A big part of why they’ve sat is the right-handers we’ve faced are two power, sinker-ball guys that do much better against righties than lefties," Hoyer said. "I think that’s a big part of it. We’ll pick our spots with those guys. We’ve given Ricky a team with a lot of versatility but that presents it’s own challenges for him. He has to keep everyone happy, keep everyone playing. Performance will ultimately determine who plays a lot."

ESPNChicago.com

Theo on Baez ejection: Learning experience

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein and manager Rick Renteria view top prospect Javier Baez getting kicked out of a Triple-A game over the weekend — and then having words with teammates — as a learning experience. Most important is they liked how he responded afterward.

“You want everyone to go through adversity in the minor leagues because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure and come back even stronger,” Epstein said before the Cubs played the Pirates on Tuesday night.

Baez had been struggling at the plate through the first week of the season, and after striking out on a checked swing in a game Saturday he threw up his arms, leading to the ejection.

“He started out not feeling really comfortable at the plate,” Epstein said. “He let that get him frustrated, and he showed it on the field.”

And when he got to the dugout, his teammates let him know it wasn’t acceptable behavior. An argument ensued with catcher Eli Whiteside.

"I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad," Baez told the Des Moines Register. "We argued a little. Nothing personal.”

Epstein added: “It was a great development experience for him. His teammates called him out on it and he responded the right way and then took it to heart. He came back and pinch hit the next day and hit a home run.”

Renteria said he keeps tabs on everything going on and viewed the Baez incident in a similar way as Epstein.

“He had a nice conversation with a teammate,” Renteria said. “That was a good thing … It’s a tremendously great learning experience.”

Baez is 1-for-14 with six strikeouts at Triple-A Iowa.

ESPNChicago.com

How the Cubs ended up with Bonifacio

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs are lucky the Kansas City Royals have a hard budget. That’s the reason they employ Emilio Bonifacio, the leading hitter in the National League entering play on Tuesday.

Here’s how it went down:

Kansas City needed pitching after Ervin Santana priced himself out of the market, but they didn’t have much money left in their budget. They decided to re-sign pitcher Bruce Chen by using Bonifacio’s $3.5 million salary. So on Jan. 30 Chen agreed to a contract and the next day Bonifacio was designated for assignment. Ten days later, Bonifacio had cleared waivers and became a free agent after a season in which he hit just .243 and struck out 103 times. His on-base percentage was just .295 combined between Toronto and Kansas City in 2013.

"They thought they had a trade worked out so the timing of the release was horrible for us," Bonifacio’s agent, Paul Kinzer, recalled on Tuesday. "The last thing you want is to be a free agent the week before spring training."

Bonifacio didn’t know what was going on. A trade would have guaranteed him his full salary. By being released he was back to square one without a job. The Royals were only on the hook for $575,000.

"It’s really hard two weeks before camp and you have no idea where you’re going," Bonifacio said.

So the calls started coming in. Kinzer said up to 12 teams were interested, most with major league offers.

"The target was to get him equal [salary] to what it would have been in Kansas City," Kinzer said.

That eliminated a few teams as some were maxed out on their budget like the Royals, and if they wanted to pay him his full salary they would have just claimed him when he went through waivers. The Cubs were only offering a minor league deal.

"At that point he was a little nervous," Kinzer said.

But the Cubs said Bonifacio would have an opportunity to make the 25-man roster and earn playing time. With rosters nearly set around baseball it became very enticing, as the Cubs aren’t exactly a juggernaut with entrenched starters at every position. And the versatile Bonifacio can play most of them.

"I felt like he was miscast in the American League," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. "He’s a really good National League guy."

So the sides worked out a deal. If Bonifacio made the team he would make $2.5 million with incentives that could net him $3 million from the Cubs. Adding on his $575,000 from the Royals, Bonifacio had a chance to match his original salary. At 28 years old, he’s not necessarily just a guy to flip, although that’s still a possibility.

"He’s not a guy that’s going to break the bank, and he gives you so much flexibility. I think he would be tremendously valuable to them," Kinzer said of a possible longer deal with the rebuilding Cubs.

Fast-forward to spring training when Bonifacio legged out four triples then went 14-for-28 with four stolen bases in the first week of the season. It’s been only seven days of a long season, but Bonifacio’s value has increased even in just a few days. He has hit in the leadoff spot every game while playing center field, shortstop and second base.

"He knows what his game is," Hoyer said. "You don’t see a lot of fly balls out of him. You don’t see him get big with his swing very often. He knows why he’s on this team and what he’s trying to do."

What he’s trying to do is stick around. Right now he’s joined Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro as mainstays in the Cubs’ lineup. They’re the only three players to start every game so far, including Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"I’m glad to be here," Bonifacio said. "I’m trying to swing at strikes, and I’m having a good result."

ESPNChicago.com

Braving early Cubs baseball — on the cheap

By Jon Greenberg

Welcome to the first edition of “Gettin’ In,” a regularly sporadic guide to getting into our city’s baseball stadiums at a dirt cheap price.

Of course, the cheapest way to see a Cubs or White Sox game is to go for free. Make friends with season-ticket holders. Call that uncle from the CBOE.

If you don’t know a season-ticket holder, look for Cubs fans with haunted eyes and muttering lips as they mentally calculate how much money they’re wasting to feed Tom Ricketts’ ego trip, I mean careful stewardship of a historic franchise.

Season-ticket holders still make money back on their investment by selling weekend games to rubes, but early season weekday series against the defending wild card champion Pittsburgh Pirates are a tougher sell.

I checked out SeatGeek.com, a secondary ticket aggregator/middleman, and I found a bounty of deals. For instance, as of Tuesday morning, there were 32 tickets for the series opener under $6. As dedicated StubHub users know, the Cubs implemented a $6 scalping floor last year to avoid those embarrassing “Cubs tickets are $1” stories. Optics and such. They also started a rule that you have to sell your tickets six hours before the game. It used to be three. Hey, the Cubs have tickets to sell, too.

But other scalpers don’t have to follow those rules and they have plenty of inventory, along with StubHub.

For Tuesday, the sub-$6 tickets are in terrace reserved and the upper deck. But you could probably sneak down low by distracting one of the surly ushers. Have a friend hum a Glenn Miller tune and when they start to snap those bony fingers, make a break for the empty seats down close.

Or, spend a few more bucks, you cheapskate. You gotta know where to look, and SeatGeek is very helpful with a map of sellers marked by “deal scores.”

The wealthy seat-owners of Section 19 seems to have some eager sellers. That’s right behind home plate toward the Cubs dugout. On Tuesday, as the six-hour window was ready to close, there were two seats in row 9 going for $28. On Wednesday, you can sit in row 6 of section 19, that’s right behind the plate, for $33. Those are $120 seats, folks.

Thursday, a day game, offers a slew of $20-something field box seats among other deals.

Prices will spike as the weather gets warmer, but this should be a banner buyers’ seasons. Get ready for deals of the century for this party of the century.

CSNChicago.com

Theo’s plan won’t bank on Cubs selling minority ownership shares

By Patrick Mooney

Selling minority ownership shares won’t be a quick way to infuse Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department with more capital and help the Cubs act like a big-market team again.

Chairman Tom Ricketts is weighing that possibility as his family figures out how to pay for the $500 million Wrigleyville neighborhood project. Ricketts has argued that a renovated ballpark could mean an extra $30 to $40 million of incremental revenue per year, while acknowledging the construction won’t immediately speed up the franchise’s cash flow.

“My understanding is that’s more to finance the renovation,” Epstein said Tuesday at Wrigley Field. “No one knows what the final plan would be. There are a lot of options on the table. (But) that’s really to finance the renovation.”

It’s simplistic to think the Cubs have black-and-white financial issues. It’s also naïve to think that everything is part of some divine plan at Clark and Addison.

The Cubs are believed to be making debt-service payments in the range of $30 million annually since entering into a leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and acquiring a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago in 2009. However the minority-ownership plan plays out, insiders expect the Zell restrictions to remain in place through 2019.

Since that deal, the Cubs have slashed their Opening Day payroll from around $145 million in 2010 to less than $90 million this season. Subtract the money the Cubs are paying Alfonso Soriano to hit home runs for the New York Yankees and the actual on-field product is about $75 million.

This at a time when baseball’s exploding into a $9 billion industry and the collective bargaining agreement’s restricting how much teams can spend in the draft and the international market.

According to Forbes, the franchise value has soared from $845 million to $1.2 billion, the anticipated jumping-off point if the Cubs sell a non-controlling interest.

As the Masahiro Tanaka rumors were flying at Cubs Convention in January, Epstein paused after a reporter asked if he’s gotten the financial resources he expected when he left the Boston Red Sox in 2011.

“There can’t be any hard-and-set expectations,” Epstein said. “It’s a dynamic landscape that constantly changes. We were all hopeful of getting some public money for the ballpark and it didn’t happen, so we went out on our own. Those are just audibles, things that happen along the way that you have to adjust with.”

So Cubs fans must be tired of hearing this: Be patient.

The Cubs would be able to start their own cable network in 2020 – the Los Angeles Dodgers and their SportsNet LA carriage disputes should be a warning sign – or sell around 150 games to one outlet instead of dividing the television package between WGN and CSN.

The Cubs are using their WGN opt-out clause, making this the final guaranteed season on the superstation that once gave them a national platform.

“We’ll see,” Ricketts said. “We’ll know a lot more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. I’m not really sure.”

The Cubs still have the third-highest ticket prices in baseball, according to Team Marketing Report. They draw a disproportionate amount of their revenues from ticket sales at a time when stadiums have essentially become television studios.

On a 48-degree night, the Cubs announced a crowd of 26,177 during Tuesday’s 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It can’t be easy for the business side to sell a last-place team with almost no star power.

“Attendance is somewhat related to wins, right?” Ricketts said. “So a better team would help some. But for us, the focus is to do things right for the long-term.”

Epstein has dismissed the questions about his future in Chicago, ignoring the outside speculation wondering if he’d finish out his five-year contract and calling Ricketts an “ideal boss” in certain ways.

“We talk enough to make sure that we’re aligned philosophically and that we share the same vision for where we’re going,” Epstein said. “(Tom) gives us a lot of freedom to go and execute and make judgments. I keep him posted on the big-picture stuff and make sure he’s aware of things that are going on so he can stay in the loop.

“He’s just really supportive. He’s good for organizational morale because he shows up to minor-league games and he knows scouts’ names. That stuff matters.”

CSNChicago.com

Cubs want to see how Javier Baez responds to the adversity

By Patrick Mooney

Almost 350 miles west of Wrigley Field, Javier Baez is still the biggest headline for this team, the player Cubs fans want to talk about now.

There is another side to the hard edge Baez is supposed to bring into this clubhouse. The Triple-A Iowa shortstop got thrown out of Saturday’s game for arguing a check-swing call and then got into it with catcher Eli Whiteside in the dugout. Baseball America’s No. 5 overall prospect answered back by hitting a pinch-hit home run in Sunday’s 4-3 victory over Memphis.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein downplayed any concerns about Baez, whose sense of swagger is symbolized by the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck.

“It was a great development experience for him,” Epstein said Tuesday. “He started out not feeling really comfortable at the plate. He was in a slump and he let that get him frustrated and he showed it on the field. His teammates know how good he can be and how good a teammate he can be. They kind of called him out on it and he responded just the right way.

“He’s taken it to heart. Experiences like that will just help him get where he needs to be.”

After putting on another show in spring training – and impressing team officials with his businesslike approach – Baez has begun his Triple-A season by going 1-for-14 with six strikeouts. Whiteside is a respected veteran who earned two World Series rings with the San Francisco Giants.

“I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad,” Baez told The Des Moines Register. “We argued a little. Nothing personal.”

Baez is coming off a spectacular season in which he generated 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games at advanced Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. He also committed 44 errors and turned 21 in December. He could debut at Clark and Addison sometime this summer.

“Physically, fundamentally, mentally, (he needs more time),” Epstein said. “You want that stuff to happen down there. It helps our players mature so when they get up here, they can handle a broader set of experiences that will be thrown on them.”

Manager Rick Renteria – who worked directly with the 2011 first-round pick and got so many Baez questions in spring training – wrote it off as “a tremendously great learning experience” but didn’t want to say much more than that.

“We’re all aware of everything that’s going on,” Renteria said. “He had a nice conversation with a teammate and that was a good thing.”

Jorge Soler, the $30 million Cuban outfielder, made headlines for the wrong reasons last April when he grabbed a bat and had to be restrained during a bench-clearing incident in Daytona. This is not trying to equate the two mistakes, but the intense media coverage does show the microscope the prospects will be under while the Cubs bet everything on the farm system.

“It’s more important how players respond to adversity,” Epstein said. “You want everyone to go through adversity in the minor leagues, because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure, make adjustments and come back even stronger. That’s exactly the type of thing you have to deal with when you’re breaking into the big leagues.”

CSNChicago.com

Renteria backs Veras as Cubs closer and gets first ejection

By Patrick Mooney

Jose Veras is already raising the stress levels for Cubs fans and forcing his manager to answers questions about the closer’s job.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” Renteria said. “But right now, I think it would be really premature for me to make a decision or say that I would change something. I got to see what’s going to happen first.”

Renteria didn’t get to see the entire Veras experience from the dugout during Tuesday night’s 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. Home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson ejected Renteria in the ninth inning, hearing something from the top step and then getting the Cubs manager in his face.

“That was just between me and Jeff,” Renteria said.

If this was about arguing balls and strikes, it probably had something to do with the closer causing Carlos Marmol flashbacks. One interpretation had Renteria sticking up for Veras, who pitched a scoreless ninth inning but looked shaky in spring training, blew a save in his Cubs debut and walked six during his first two appearances.

The Cubs watched their $52 million pitcher, Edwin Jackson, give up six runs in 4.2 innings, wasting Starlin Castro’s first career two-homer game. For all the urgency in getting off to a fast start and winning those one-run games – leading to some of the Veras questions – this is now a 2-5 team still dealing with a brutal early schedule.

Renteria is off to a fast start, becoming the majors’ first manager to use expanded instant replay’s challenge system, as well as the first one to get ejected this season.

“Oh, really?” Renteria said. “Oh, OK, I don’t know if that’s very good.”

Tribune

Rick Renteria ejected in Cubs’ 7-6 loss to Pirates

Castro’s 2-homer, 4-RBI night wasted thanks to Jackson’s shaky start

By Mark Gonzales

The Cubs’ frustration Tuesday night started with Edwin Jackson’s inconsistency and ended with manager Rick Renteria’s rarely seen anger.

That overshadowed the renaissance of Starlin Castro, whose first two-home-run game went for naught in a 7-6 loss to the Pirates before a chilled crowd of 26,177 at Wrigley Field.

Castro’s power display that included four RBIs provided some encouragement for the Cubs, who have been counting on a rebound year from their shortstop.

"I’m trying to get my feeling again at home plate, and that’s what I’m doing right now," said Castro, who extended his hitting streak to five games and is batting .450 (9-for-20) during that span after starting the season 0-for-9.

"I’m just trying to hit the ball on the barrel every time. I don’t want to try to hit a home run. I know the homers are coming. I didn’t even try (to hit a homer), and they come."

The biggest postgame surprise was Renteria said he’s thinking about moving Castro into the second spot — a position he has occupied for most of his career — despite his big night from the sixth spot.

"I want to hit with men in scoring position," Castro said. "I don’t care what spot. I know (Renteria) is trying to put me in a spot in a good way — not in a bad way or not because I didn’t do this or that. He trusts me to bring in runs.

"He put me there for a reason and a good reason."

Castro’s four RBIs were his most since he drove in four against the Pirates on Sept. 14, 2012.

Castro did his best to rally the Cubs from a 4-0 deficit in the first inning. His three-run homer off Charlie Morton tied the game in the third, and he smacked a hanging breaking pitch from Morton on an 0-2 pitch in the sixth to cut the deficit to 6-5.

Castro also foiled the Pirates’ shift by poking an opposite-field single to right that led to a run in the second.

But his efforts weren’t enough because of Jackson’s struggles. After a rocky first, Jackson settled down momentarily before allowing single runs in the fourth and fifth and being pulled with two out in the fifth.

"If I do a better job of pitching deeper, (Renteria) doesn’t have to get to that point (of being ejected)," Jackson said.

Renteria was tossed in the top of the ninth by umpire Jeff Nelson after arguing balls and strikes beginning in the eighth, when Pedro Strop and James Russell issued three walks.

"That was between me and Jeff," said Renteria, who was informed he was the first manager this season to ask for a replay challenge and to be ejected.

"I don’t know if that’s very good, but OK."

Tribune

Battle of the Cubs mascots goes on mostly silent

Neither official Clark the Cub nor unofficial Billy Cub will make case vocally so it’s hard to say which 1 really can win fans over

By Paul Sullivan

The Cubs and Pirates faced off Tuesday night at Wrigley Field before a sparse crowd.

Meanwhile, a more intriguing battle was taking place out of the public eye, pitting a cuddly, kid-friendly official mascot named Clark against an allegedly ornery self-anointed mascot named Billy.

It’s a made-in-Wrigleyville story, like the battle between the Rickettses and the rooftop owners.

In one corner stands Clark the Cub, the official team mascot who works inside a “clubhouse” in Wrigley. The Cubs announced Clark’s arrival in January like they had signed a multi-million dollar free agent pitcher, and the mascot was panned widely on social media.

In the other corner is Billy Cub, a local entrepreneur who bought a bear costume and walks around the park with a small cooler, receiving tips from fans who want to be photographed with him.

Billy Cub made a splash Saturday when a video of him punching a fan who removed his head at John Barleycorn restaurant went viral, getting more than 340,000 views on You Tube as of Tuesday.

The video forced the Cubs to deny they had any affiliation with Billy, who long has been a thorn in their paws.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a mascot by any other name would smell as musky.” But to the Cubs, who have spent thousands to create and market their first-ever mascot, the alternative mascot is an albatross.

In the gift shop adjoining his “clubhouse,” the Cubs are selling $45 Clark wall clocks, $25 Clark T-shirts, $69 Clark rotating lamps and $25 Clark onesies. Yet the fan-punching mascot has stolen Clark’s thunder during the opening homestand.

"He’s not and has never been affiliated with the Cubs," Cubs spokesman Julian Green said Tuesday night.

So Clark never has punched a fan?

"Our mascot does not go into bars," Green said.

To the uninitiated, Billy Cub and Clark the Cub easily could be mistaken for one another. Both stand taller than 6 feet and both wear baseball jerseys, though the Cubs forced Billy Cub to stop wearing a Cubs jersey last summer.

Billy wears a Cubs helmet, while Clark wears a backward Cubs cap.

Neither of them speaks, staying in character at all times, like amusement park mascots have done since the dawn of Disneyland.

The fan-punching mascot is actually Patrick Weier, one of a group of three men who walk around the neighborhood in bear costumes on game days. Weier told the Tribune Sunday the fan he punched “assaulted me first,” forcing him to retaliate after his head was removed.

Patrick is the brother of John Paul Weier, who began wearing the bear costume seven years ago in hopes of becoming the official Cubs mascot. John Paul Weier told WMAQ-Ch. 5 last July that the Cubs had offered to buy him out for $15,000, meaning all he had to do was stop walking around the park in a bear costume.

Weier declined, and the Cubs sent him a cease and desist letter from Major League Baseball. When a Cubs executive confronted him, Weier told Ch. 5 he did not respond to the official because he was “in character,” and thus could not speak.

"Billy Cub, he’s going to fight," Weier told Ch. 5. "He’s going to take the gloves off and he’ll just have the paws on and he’s ready to go."

At the time, no one thought he meant literally.

"Whether you like or dislike our mascot, people are fully aware we have an official mascot and it’s geared toward kids and families, and the reception has been positive," Green said. "We hope when people come to the ballpark that fans and families take an opportunity to take a photo with our mascot and have fun."

When Clark arrived at his clubhouse in the second inning Tuesday, he granted the Tribune an exclusive interview, even while staying in character.

"Have you ever punched a fan, Clark?"

Clark shook his head “no.”

Yes, it’s going to be an interesting summer.

Tribune

Cubs hope Javier Baez can be quick learner

President Theo Epstein believes it’s good sign prospect had pinch homer day after being tossed from game and arguing with teammate

By Mark Gonzales

The Cubs hope prized prospect Javier Baez will respond to adversity with his bat more than his emotions.

President Theo Epstein and manager Rick Renteria were encouraged that Baez, after getting ejected from a game and then getting into an altercation with Triple-A Iowa teammate Eli Whiteside in less than a 24-hour span, came through with a pinch-hit home run Sunday.

"It was a great development experience for him," Epstein said Tuesday. "He started out not feeling comfortable at the plate and then slumped, and he let that get him frustrated, and he showed it on the field. And then his teammates, they know how good he can be and how good a teammate he can be, and they kind of called him out on it.

"And he responded just the right way. He took it to heart and (had the pinch homer) the next day. He has hit the ball hard in five straight plate appearances and he has taken responsibility of being a good teammate. Experiences like that will help him get where he needs to be.”

Baez started 0-for-9 with six strikeouts, evidence of the team’s contention he needed more seasoning at Iowa before advancing to the majors after hitting 37 home runs at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee last season.

"Physically, fundamentally, mentally, developing on all fronts in the minor leagues — you want that stuff to happen down there," Epstein said. "And it helps our players mature so when they get up here they can handle the broader set of experiences that will be thrown on them.”

Epstein emphasized the importance of prospects coping with their struggles in the minors instead of zooming to the majors without any speed bumps.

"It’s more important to how players respond to adversity," Epstein said. "Everyone goes through adversity. You want everyone to go through adversity in the minor leagues because it’s important for them to learn how to deal with failure, make adjustments and come back even stronger because that’s the type of thing you have to deal with when you’re breaking into the big leagues."

Renteria, a former minor league manager, smiled when asked if he was aware of the Baez incidents.

"We’re all aware of everything that’s going on," Renteria said. "He had a nice conversation with a teammate, and that was a good thing.

"A tremendously great learning experience."

Closed case: Renteria expressed more patience with closer Jose Veras than predecessor Dale Sveum did last year with Carlos Marmol, who was replaced after the first week.

"I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it," Renteria said. "But right now it’s really premature for me to make a decision or say that I would change something or not say something.

"I have to see what’s going to happen first."

Why change? After limiting the Pirates to two hits in 62/3 innings Thursday, Jason Hammel sees no need to make an initial adjustment in a rematch Wednesday night.

"We’ll see if they’ve changed their approach, and then I’ll adjust off of them," said Hammel, who struck out five and walked one. "I’m not going to change unless I see something I need to change.”

Hammel seems more excited to pitch at Wrigley Field as a Cub for the first time than use his sinker to his advantage.

"Where I pitch doesn’t matter to me," Hammel said. "I’m more excited just to finally get on the mound at Wrigley Field for the home crowd. I just want to stay aggressive with the sinker and keep the ball on the ground."

Replay supporter: After six games, Epstein expressed his strong support of Major League Baseball’s new replay system.

"MLB is doing a great job," he said. "It also underscores how good the umpires are, more than anything else.”

Extra innings: Carlos Villanueva will stay in the rotation and likely make his next start Saturday at St. Louis. … The Cubs will be cautious with Tennessee outfielder Jorge Soler, who was placed on the seven-day disabled list Friday after aggravating his hamstring on a double off Mat Latos in his first at-bat at Pensacola. “He didn’t pull it again, but obviously it hadn’t healed all the way,” Epstein said. “We want him to get on the field as much as anybody. He needs the at-bats. He can’t force it right now.”

Sun-Times

Jackson spoils Castro’s 2-HR night in Cubs’ loss

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

Not even the most powerful game of Starlin Castro’s career could overcome the poor pitching of Edwin Jackson as the Cubs lost 7-6 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the opener of a three-game series Tuesday night.

Not even an angry Rick Renteria – who was ejected in the ninth inning for ripping into home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson over his strike zone with struggling reliever Jose Veras on the mound.

The Cubs dropped to 2-5 this season despite their second-highest run total so far.

Batting sixth for the second consecutive game, Castro delivered his first multi-homer game with a pair of line drives over the left field wall off Pirates starter Charlie Morton and drove in four runs in all.

Castro is 7-for-his-last-12 and suddenly is hitting .310 with an .885 OPS seven games into the season. He leads the club with six RBIs.

The Cubs tied it in the seventh on Anthony Rizzo’s single up the middle to drive home Emilio Bonifacio – who had another three hits Tuesday.

But after Pedro Strop walked to of the first three batters he faced in the eighth, left-hander James Russell took over – and walked lefty hitter Pedro Alvarez on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases, then gave up the go-ahead sacrifice fly to Russell Martin.

Cubs starter Jackson didn’t figure into the decision. He didn’t do anything to suggest he’s moved past last year’s career-worst performance, either.

The Pirates batted around on Jackson in the first inning to take a quick 4-0 lead, Alvarez driving in a pair with a one-out double.

And even after the Cubs came back to tie on Castro’s first homer, in the third, Jackson quickly gave up a go-ahead run in the fourth – on a pair of two-out walks followed by Andrew McCutchen’s run-scoring single to center.

After allowing another run on a double and one-out triple, he was done – pitching just 4 2/3 innings and allowing six runs on nine hits, four walks (one intentional) and a hit batter.

Sun-Times

Javy Baez incident should show Cubs why prospects need support

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

Think Javy Baez should be on the major-league roster now?

The Cubs’ top prospect — ranked fifth in the game by Baseball America — offered another reminder over the weekend that player development is an often uncertain and at best imperfect process.

He might also have offered a brief glimpse into the kind of pressure the Cubs’ top prospects are facing during a long and ugly rebuilding process placed on their backs.

Baez, 21, didn’t exactly charge the opponents’ dugout with a bat, like another of the so-called ‘‘Core Four,’’ Jorge Soler, did a year ago. But when he got ejected for arguing a checked-swing strikeout with Class AAA Iowa on Saturday, then got into a dugout altercation with veteran catcher Eli Whiteside, he raised eyebrows, if not a red flag.

‘‘It’s all part of development,’’ team president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘Players are in the minor leagues to develop physically and fundamentally, and also mentally and emotionally.’’

The incident isn’t a major concern to Cubs officials or to players in the clubhouse who know Baez, especially after he seemed to respond earnestly to several Iowa teammates taking him aside and to a one-start benching by manager Marty Pevey. (He later came off the bench to homer and snap an 0-for-9 skid).

‘‘It’s an instance that could wind up being a great thing in the long run for Javy’s development,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘It was not a huge deal, but something he can grow from. It sounds like from the reports we got, teammates were right to call him out, and he handled that the right way. Javy’s a great kid who’s the youngest player in Triple-A, and he has some room to continue to grow. And he will.’’

But it wasn’t something anyone wanted to see from the Cubs’ top prospect, who has long seemed on track for a big-league debut this year. Players such as Starlin Castro said they never did such things in the minors.

While it may well be an important lesson for Baez, the incident also served notice that nothing is automatic about the rebuilding process, or even the elite prospects who are supposed to become the center of it.

And it reiterated the need for a significant support system at the major-league level when some of the kids start arriving.

‘‘I’m not worried about him,’’ said veteran pitcher Carlos Villanueva, who lockered near Baez during spring training. ‘‘From what I’ve seen the last two years in spring training, he plays hard. He knows he’s good, and he doesn’t want to get out.

‘‘And guys like that — you saw when [the Washington Nationals’ Bryce] Harper came up,’’ Villanueva added of the touted young outfielder who irritated opponents and some teammates with his brashness when he broke in. ‘‘He’s dialed it down a little bit. If you’re going to break bats, you go in the tunnel where nobody can see you.’’

That’s where the support system comes in.

‘‘It’s extremely important — extremely important,’’ said Villanueva, who remembers his old Milwaukee Brewers team providing veterans such as Craig Counsell and Geoff Jenkins for a young core headed by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. ‘‘It just depends who you have on your team. I know if he gets up here and I’m still here, if he does something that I don’t think is right from my experience, then I’ll let him know. And I’m sure he’ll respond accordingly.

‘‘We have to police ourselves. But I don’t think you try to mellow him down because that might take away who he is.’’

Sun-Times

Starlin Castro gets his groove back

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

Starlin Castro says he has found his groove, says he feels stronger and says his mind is clear. And one more thing: ‘‘Last year is over.’’

Castro is on a tear that features seven hits in his last 12 at-bats, including the first multihomer game of his career in the Cubs’ 7-6 loss Tuesday to the Pirates.

‘‘He’s just starting to get into a rhythm,’’ said manager Rick Renteria, who has seen Castro drive in five runs since putting him in the No. 6 spot in the batting order Sunday.

That included four Tuesday — on a three-run homer in the third inning and a solo shot in the sixth.

‘‘I’ve tried to get my feeling again at home plate, and that’s what I’ve [got] right now,’’ Castro said. ‘‘I’ve got my feeling back. I just try to hit the ball on the barrel every time. I don’t want to try to hit homers. I know they can come.’’

Renteria, who saw the sixth spot in the lineup as a means to help Castro hit more with men on base and see a different perspective, said he might continue to move him around. Castro probably will be back up to second in the order Wednesday against left-hander Wandy Rodriguez.

‘‘He’s seeing a lot of good at-bats from teammates and making a really conscientious effort of bearing down,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘He’s seeing the field, and it looks like he’s gaining some confidence.’’

Eject button

Renteria became the first manager in the majors to be ejected this season when he went after plate umpire Jeff Nelson over balls and strikes with struggling closer Jose Veras on the mound in the ninth.

‘‘I don’t know if that’s good, but OK,’’ he said.

‘‘He’s a fiery guy,’’ said Cubs starter Edwin Jackson, who allowed four runs in the first and couldn’t get through five innings. ‘‘He’s going to stand up for his team.’’

The Pirates drew three walks from two Cubs relievers in the eighth, leading to the winning run.

Handle with care

President Theo Epstein said the Cubs are taking a more cautious approach with prospect Jorge Soler after he aggravated a tight hamstring in the Class AA opener last week.

‘‘We want him to get on the field as much as anybody,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He needs the at-bats. But you can’t force it.’’

Soler missed much of last season with a stress fracture in his left leg.

Sun-Times

No baseball spending soon for Cubs

BY GORDON WITTENMYER

Whether the Ricketts family sells $1 million or $200 million worth of non-voting shares under a plan to take on minority investors in the Cubs, the baseball department doesn’t expect to see any of that influx of cash directly.

‘‘My understanding is that’s more to finance the renovations,’’ president Theo Epstein said Tuesday. ‘‘But no one knows what the final plan would be. A lot of options are on the table.’’

Ricketts suggested the same thing when he was asked Friday about using the investments to boost baseball spending.

If the Cubs can get the long-delayed project underway by October, team officials think what was once a five-year project can be completed in four. Chairman Tom Ricketts estimated $30 million to $40 million in additional annual revenue will be created through the renovations, but it’s unclear when that would be realized fully.

At roughly $89 million this season, the Cubs have their lowest payroll in nine years.

08 4 / 2014

Sun-Times

Catcher Welington Castillo takes his responsibilities seriously

BY TONI GINNETTI

The Cubs’ hierarchy has made the franchise about the future, focusing on the potential stardom of hitters such as Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant and pitchers such as C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks and Corey Black.

There isn’t a catcher among them, but the Cubs are counting on the one they have now to carry on.

‘‘When I was young, Geovany Soto was here and Henry Blanco was here,’’ said

Welington Castillo, who will turn 27 on April 24. ‘‘They were around and knew what to do. That’s me now.’’

Last season was Castillo’s first full one in the majors. He played in 113 games, starting 107, before missing the last nine with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He hit .274 with eight home runs and 32 RBI, threw out 24 percent of base-stealers and was first among major-league catchers in defensive wins above replacement at 2.8.

But Castillo already has made the mental transition to ‘‘veteran.’’

‘‘I spent a lot of time with my family [this winter] and worked hard to prepare

myself for the season,’’ he said. ‘‘And I prepared mentally because this game is hard. You have to be strong in your mind, so I prepared myself for the whole season, to play every day.’’

For new manager Rick Renteria, Castillo’s value is measured in intangibles as much as in numbers.

‘‘It’s nice to have him,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘He grew up in the organization and then grew up at the major-league level with the pitchers. The trust factor is important

[between pitcher and catcher] in how we move forward as a club.’’

The early numbers show the Cubs’ pitching staff is working well with Castillo, who has started four of the team’s first six games. The pitchers’ combined ERA is 2.57 in 421/3 innings throwing to him.

Castillo’s hitting numbers aren’t as good yet — he is hitting .118 (2-for-17) — but that is where his evolving maturity comes in.

‘‘It’s like you have to split yourself in two,’’ he said. ‘‘The No. 1 job for a catcher is to handle the pitching staff, try to call a good game and try to do everything you can to win the game. At the same time, when you have the bat in your hand, you want to score some extra points to provide

offense to win the game.

‘‘Before, I would feel bad about my defense and it would affect my offense. But I’m older now, so I know how to handle the situation where if my hitting doesn’t go well, I still have work to do behind the plate. In my mind, I have to do well with my catching. If I struggle with my offense, I can still help the team win with my defense.

‘‘I feel good about the pitchers when they do well. I know we have a really good pitching staff, and my job is to try to help them win.’’

That mind-set extends to the rest of the players, who look to Castillo as a stabilizing influence on the field.

‘‘When I’m catching, no matter how tough the game is, I have to keep in my mind that everyone is looking at me. The whole team is watching me, so I have to keep working hard so they work hard.

‘‘I think that’s part of being a leader for the team. When we had the long game in Pittsburgh, I was tired — 16 innings, long innings, tough situations in the game — but I talked to myself: ‘Be ready, be ready. Keep working hard. Keep your head up.’ . . . That’s how I view my job now.’’

Sun-Times

Cubs’ Kalish enjoying the support from his parents

BY TONI GINNETTI

Ryan Kalish’s parents were on hand Sunday for his 2-for-3 game against Philadelphia featuring an RBI triple, two-RBI double and run scored. His last triple was Sept. 15, 2010 and his last multi-hit game Sept. 3, 2012, both as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

“My parents have been through my journey with me,” the Cubs outfielder said of missing last season needing shoulder surgery. “It’s always fun when your parents are there to see you.”

Kalish, 26, who signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs in January, said he learned about the game — and life — as he recuperated.

“Offense is always contagious. I studied the game a lot last year and you see it.

“We’re blessed to be in the major leagues. I’m trying to live every day like it could be the last, so to speak. It’s the way we all should live. I’m just trying to make the most of this.”

Back so soon?

The Cubs host the Pittsburgh Pirates this week after opening the season last week against the Bucs on the road.

“It happens,” manager Rick Renteria said of the quick return series. “I don’t think it hurts either club. If anything, [they are] fresh in your memory.”

Minor progress

Shortstop Javier Baez homered Sunday for Class AAA Iowa, ending an 0-for-9 start to the season.

Baez was ejected from Saturday’s game against Memphis for arguing a check-swing strike.

Rehab update

Jake Arrieta pitched three innings Saturday in a rehab start for Class AA Tennessee at Pensecola, walking one and striking out three. One unearned run scored on a wild pitch, with Arrieta throwing 42 pitches.

The righthander is coming back from shoulder tightness that kept him from pitching in spring training.

Daily Herald

With replays, baseball managers aren’t fighting mad

By Bruce Miles

One of the most interesting aspects of the new season has been the replay review of close calls. The Cubs have seen reviews in each series as they opened the season at Pittsburgh and at home against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Replay is changing the face of baseball, both literally and figuratively. But I’m not talking about the delays or that this work-in-progress approach is helping umpires get calls right, which is the whole idea.

I’m talking about the way in which managers argue — or to put it more accurately, discuss — disputed calls with umpires.

First, we may have seen the end of the nose-to-nose, dirt-kicking rhubarbs. Now managers calmly walk out to the base in question and ask the umpire about the play. They also may stall for a few moments so staff members in the clubhouse can study the video to determine if a challenge is worth it.

The next time you see a challenge happen, watch how the manager positions himself. He will turn his body so he can look into his dugout to get a signal to challenge or not to challenge.

"Everybody’s going to develop their own style, whatever nuances are in terms of replay information that’s being collected while you’re out there talking to the umpire," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "They (the umpires) actually are pretty cordial. They’re basically wanting to make sure they get the call right.

"There are some instances where they’ll tell you, ‘I had a really good look’ at a particular play and they don’t think that they got it wrong. And you’ve got to make a decision."

There will be some bugs to work out with replay in baseball, but if the technology is there and the aim is to get it right, I say full speed ahead.

Kalish’s journey:

If there’s a feel-good story on the Cubs, it’s Ryan Kalish. The 26-year-old outfielder was one of the heroes of Sunday’s 8-3 victory over the Phillies with a double, a triple, 2 walks and 3 RBI.

"Every day I come in I’m just ready for whatever is thrown my way, especially with everything I’ve been through," he said. "I just want to give it my all when I get the chance."

Kalish missed all of last year with Boston because of lingering shoulder problems that required surgery. A big part of his travails included cervical fusion surgery on his neck last August.

He went to spring training with the Cubs as a nonroster man, and in the final week he got the good news he had made the team.

It has been quite a nice stretch of time for Kalish.

"It’s been awesome," he said. "I’ve enjoyed every single day. I’m trying to live my life like every day could be your last type of mentality. Especially with my story, it’s the way I have to live and the way I think we all should live.

"We’re all really blessed to be here in the major leagues. A lot of people aren’t as fortunate to have that opportunity, and I’m just trying to do with I can with it."

Baez’s confrontation:

There was more to Cubs prospect Javier Baez getting ejected from Saturday’s game for Class AAA Iowa. Baez was tossed over a checked-swing call.

The Des Moines Register reported that Baez got into a dugout confrontation with veteran catcher Eli Whiteside after the ejection. Whiteside was one of the Cubs’ final cuts of spring training. The paper reported that other players also talked with Baez about his demeanor.

"I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad," Baez told the Register, referring to Whiteside. "We argued a little. Nothing personal."

Baez added that he and Whiteside spoke Sunday and cleared things up.

Iowa manager Marty Pevey, a no-nonsense guy, tried to use the ejection as a teaching point, as Baez related to the Register. “He was just like, ‘That stuff can’t be happening because we need you on the field,’ ” Baez said of the ejection.

Baez hit a pinch homer in Sunday’s game.

Veras’ rough start:

One player off to a rough start for the Cubs is closer Jose Veras. In 2 appearances so far, Veras has worked 1⅔ innings, giving up 1 hit, 3 earned runs and 6 walks. That figures to an early WHIP of 4.20.

Veras heard boos Sunday at Wrigley Field when he walked four in two-thirds of an inning and couldn’t finish the game even though he entered the ninth inning with the Cubs ahead 8-1.

Renteria was trying to get Veras some work, and closers often have trouble in nonsave situations.

"We didn’t want his pitch count to get so elevated there in that ninth, and we couldn’t use him in a couple days," said Renteria, who went with Pedro Strop to close it out.

"It’s very hard for me to say I’m concerned at this point. It’s his second outing. Would I have liked to have had it run a little cleaner for him? Absolutely. I think he does. It’s just a game where it didn’t work out the way he wanted it to."

Daily Herald

Always remember: Some prospects remain prospects

By Mike Imrem

The future is either here or on the way, or so the White Sox and Cubs are telling us.

Home run champions. Batting champions. Most Valuable Players. World Series MVPs. Hall of Famers.

Let’s see, there are Javier Baez, Jose Abreu, Kris Bryant, Matt Davidson, Albert Almora, Avi Garcia …

Ricky Seilheimer.

Omigod, I just lapsed from a dream into a nightmare.

Actually, it isn’t so much a nightmare as a flashback to a harsh reality.

Lately when hearing about all the great young prospects the Cubs and Sox have, the memory of Ricky Seilheimer keeps bobbing and weaving through my head.

Seilheimer was a catcher whom the Sox were expecting to be the next big thing. In 1980, he was promoted the major leagues as much for a little peek as for the expectation that he would be up to stay.

Before a night game in old Comiskey Park, the Sox were taking batting practice with most eyes on Seilheimer.

Oh, so this is the young man we heard so much about. Some day he is going to help lead the Sox to championships, right?

Orlando Cepeda, a Sox coach that season, was among those watching Seilheimer take his cuts in the cage.

Cepeda knew a little something about hitting, having done it well enough to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Before long Cepeda glanced over to another Sox coach and gave one of those, you know, knowing nods of approval.

Yes, folks, Ricky Seilheimer was the real deal: 19 years old, 19th overall draft choice in 1979, pretty left-handed swing and Texas tough.

Never mind that Seilheimer batted .212 in 52 at-bats with 1 homer and 3 RBI during that call-up. He certainly would be back next year … or the year after … or the year after.

Except that next year never came.

Ricky Seilheimer spent six more seasons in organized baseball, all in the minor leagues where he never hit better than .259.

Seilheimer didn’t make it back to Comiskey Park, to the Sox or to anywhere in the majors.

Current Cubs and Sox prospects are what Seilheimer was 34 years ago, gaudy chunks of hope that will or won’t be realized.

You never know, do you?

Still, it’s easy to dream that the so-called latest phenom is the one to lead the Sox or Cubs to so-called sustained success.

Corey Patterson was one of the latest Cubs to fool the world. Gordon Beckham continues trying to fulfill his promise for the Sox.

Decades after Ricky Seilheimer, you’d watch those two in spring training, listen to people rave about them and fall in love with the possibilities that never quite materialized.

This spring training the most hyped newcomers were Baez with the Cubs and Abreu with the Sox.

Who knows what they’ll become in the long term?

Baez is compared to Gary Sheffield but has so much movement in his swing it’s remarkable that the bat ever gets to the ball.

Abreu is compared to every big guy with big power but some scouts wonder whether he’ll consistently catch up to the fastball.

No player comes to the major leagues with a guarantee of superstardom. He might begin hot in the majors like Abreu did last week and cool off or cold in the minors like Baez did and heat up.

Or the hot one might stay hot and the cold one might stay cold.

Skepticism is the best policy until there are enough snapshots to judge the player’s overall value.

All of which makes me wonder what Ricky Seilheimer is doing these days with that unlimited future of his.

Cubs.com

Marquee at Wrigley Field a beloved relic

Sign has welcomed Cubs fans to historic ballpark for last 80 years

By Cash Kruth

CHICAGO — It stands out on the corner of Clark and Addison, its bright red color and bold white letters welcoming you to the home of the Cubs.

That home, Wrigley Field, is many things — its iconic scoreboard, lush green ivy and 100 years of memories — but the moment you know you’ve truly arrived at the Friendly Confines is the first glimpse of the marquee above the main entrance.

The marquee hasn’t been a part of Wrigley Field’s entire 100-year history — this season is only its 80th — but it’s as much a part of the ballpark’s fabric as the sound of organ music and smell of Old Style.

How a simple sign has become so beloved is through the passage of time, much in the same way Wrigley Field has endeared itself to baseball fans.

"It feels authentic to people," said Stuart Shea, author of "Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines." "It feels authentic because it’s so different. It’s the same reason why people feel the way they do about Wrigley Field. It stands for the way we romanticize the past, and it’s a living monument to the past."

Commissioned by the Federated Sign Company of Chicago and installed in 1934, the marquee’s initial purpose was advertising, Cubs historian Ed Hartig said. The Cubs relied heavily on day-of-game ticket sales — holding 25,000 of the then-40,000-ticket capacity for such sale — and used the marquee to promote that day’s game.

The marquee, at first colored fern green, originally read, “Wrigley Field, Home of the Cubs,” and featured the same cascading soft curved lines still seen today.

Although placing an elegant marquee at the main entrance makes sense, the sign did not fit the corner of Clark and Addison in 1934. A coal yard sat across Clark Street, sending smoke and dust into the air. Train tracks were also across from the ballpark, making the area surrounding Wrigley Field’s main entrance anything but distinguished.

"It was not a glamorous place," Shea said. "The intersection was loud. There was pedestrian traffic, automobile traffic, trains. So it was kind of interesting that they chose to put it there. Obviously, they needed to have something, because it was the main entrance to the ballpark, but putting something so beautiful there is surprising in retrospect."

The marquee was painted dark blue a year or two after its installation, and by 1939, “the” was swapped for “Chicago” and the marquee’s message has since read the same, except in autumns through 1970, when Chicago’s NFL team called Wrigley home and “Cubs” was swapped for “Bears.”

The marquee received its familiar coat of red paint in the mid-1960s, and it has seen other changes throughout the years. The electronic message board was added in the early 1980s, the Budweiser logo appeared beneath it for a few seasons in the ’80s, and other banners have surrounded it over the past few years. It has also read “National League champions” following the Cubs’ pennant-winning seasons, and for about a week in 2010, it was painted purple when Northwestern hosted a football game at Wrigley Field.

But at its core, the marquee has remained nearly constant. And as the corner of Clark and Addison grew from industrial to modern and the area surrounding the ballpark evolved, the marquee became a more alluring piece of Wrigley Field.

It was, and still is, a billboard. Its first purpose was to promote games. Today, it continues to do that, as well as advertising everything from the team on social media to allowing fans to wish someone a happy birthday. But just as Wrigley Field is more than a ballpark, the marquee is more than a sign.

"It’s one of the most memorable parts of an arena in American sports," Shea said. "It’s right up there with the monuments at Yankee Stadium."

Today, amid the thousands of fans bustling around the ballpark before a game, the must-have picture at Wrigley Field is in front of the marquee. Not a day goes by where a fan isn’t posing in front of it — whether it’s before an afternoon matinee in August or a blustery winter day in January.

"It’s crazy. It’s really been the last 30 years or so that it took off," Hartig said of the marquee photo phenomenon. "It’s just something that’s uniquely identifiable to Wrigley Field. You’ve seen this sign on the opening of TV shows. It’s been used in movies. It’s just been a very simple, very visible presence that says, ‘This is Wrigley Field,’ and not any other ballpark."

And just as Wrigley Field as a whole is romanticized for its authenticity to the national pastime, the marquee represents the ballpark’s nostalgia on the outside.

"It’s been here longer than some of us have been alive, and in a country that embraces the past, it’s a piece of history," Shea said. "We care a lot about our history — our sports history, our cultural history — and the marquee serves that purpose in a lot of ways."

And while Wrigley Field has seen numerous and sometimes drastic changes throughout its 100-year history — with more on the way in the coming years — the marquee has experienced only slight modifications.

"A lot of the ballpark has constantly changed, but the marquee — it’s changed, but it’s still the same marquee that was there when your grandfather went to a game," Hartig said. "It’s something that’s always been there. It’s part of the whole fabric of being a Cub fan."

Cubs.com

Sandberg shares memories of Wrigley Field, Cubs

With ballpark entering 100th season, Hall of Famer reflects on early days of career

By Carrie Muskat

When Sandberg and Larry Bowa were teammates on the Cubs, Bowa had Sandberg handle all the popups hit between them. The reason was that the wind and sun at Wrigley Field made it tough on infielders, and Bowa — who is now Sandberg’s bench coach in Philadelphia — decided to use his seniority and let the young second baseman chase after the balls. So when Sandberg and Shawon Dunston were together in the Cubs’ infield, Sandberg passed off the popups to the young shortstop for the same reason.

Sandberg was originally selected by the Phillies in the 20th round of the 1978 First-Year Player Draft, and he was then traded to the Cubs after the ‘81 season. He called Wrigley Field his home for 15 years, was a 10-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove Award winner, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

"In 1981 as a Phillie, I got my first hit there — my first Major League hit was at Wrigley Field," Sandberg said. "I started the second game of a doubleheader in 1981 and played shortstop, and [I] had a couple of plays out there and I got my first hit off of Mike Krukow.

"When I found out I was starting, I knew that my bats hadn’t arrived yet from my order, so I didn’t have any bats. I was using a Marty Bystrom bat in batting practice and choking up on it a little bit. It was a big ole bat to bunt with — a pitcher’s bat — so I was choking up and taking [batting practice] with that. I asked Larry Bowa if he had any extra bats I could use in the game, so he loaned me a bat and I got my first hit with a Larry Bowa bat. Even today, I still have the bat and the ball. It was a flare to right field slightly off the end of the bat, and the Rawlings writing on the ball came off on the bat. So I have the ball and the bat, and there’s no writing on the ball. It’s all on the bat.

"The bat was like a bottle bat with no knob. It was totally not my bat. But it was a bat.

"[That first game was special], being on the field with Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, Manny Trillo — basically an All-Star team, an All-Star at every position. Steve Carlton on the bench. Tug McGraw. [I remember] being in awe. I was in awe. Oh, yeah. I was 21 [years old] in Triple-A — I think I was still 21 — so just being in awe of all of that, having a start. And it was funny at the time, it was late September and the Cubs were out of it.

"I think the Phils had already clinched the first half of the season [in the strike year], and now they’re playing to be prepared for the postseason. So those games — I bet there were 10,000 to 12,000 people there. The ballpark, of course, was small. I said, ‘Wow, this is a Major League ballpark?’ And that was also my first thought when I was traded over there: ‘Oh, you gotta be kidding me, not there — there’s 10,000 people there.’ That all changed pretty much in ‘84, which was three years into my career.

"I guess I was no threat to take [Bowa’s] job. I guess that’s the way he looked at it [and why he loaned him a bat]. ‘What else can I do for the guy?’ Then we both go to Chicago, he takes me under his wing and teaches me everything about the game. Having lunch with him every day pregame, talking about the pitcher that day, talking about at-bats the day before — for the four years that I was with him, I really learned a lot about the game. Just being with him and spending the time after the game having a beer and going to pregame lunch talking about the game [was special]. How to play catch right. Working hand in hand pregame at shortstop, double-play combinations, all that. That went a long way."

ESPNChicago.com

Series preview: Cubs vs Pirates

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs open a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night, a rematch of last week’s regular season opening series in Pittsburgh:

The series:

• Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.: Edwin Jackson (0-0, 1.69 ERA) vs. Charlie Morton (0-0, 0.00)

• Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: Jason Hammel (1-0, 1.35) vs. Wandy Rodriguez (0-1, 4.50)

• Thursday, 1:20 p.m.: Travis Wood (0-1, 4.26) vs. Gerrit Cole (1-0, 2.57)

The rematch: The two teams played 35 innings last week over the course of four days with the Pirates coming out on top in two of three games. Jackson righted the ship after a couple of tough innings, keeping the Cubs in the game in his start Wednesday, but the Cubs eventually lost in 16 innings. This will be the first road series for the Pirates.

The lineup: After just six games the only player to hit in the same spot in the lineup for every start is leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio. Cubs manager Rick Renteria has given at least one start to every position player on the roster using a quasi-platoon at four positions including left field, center field, second base and third base.

Bonifacio streaking: He enters his second week as a Cub second in the league in batting average with a .500 mark (minimum 20 at-bats). He’s been on-base at least once in every game so far.

ESPNChicago.com

Week in review: Closer, lineup questions

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The first day off for the Chicago Cubs on Monday gives us a chance to review the first week of the season.

No conclusions can be drawn from their 2-4 start, for the team or individual players. The most we can examine is whether there are any short- and long-term trends forming. In analyzing the Cubs, the long-term implications are always more important than the short term, at least for now.

With that in mind, let’s review the first week:

Starting staff: Like early last season, they’re doing their job. The lone so-so performance came from All-Star Travis Wood, but there is little to worry about with him. The Phillies’ Chase Utley destroyed the Cubs over the weekend, and Wood made one costly mistake to him on a wind-aided home run Friday. Newcomer Jason Hammel was great in saving the bullpen Thursday in Pittsburgh in the Cubs’ first victory of the year.

Jeff Samardzija has been very good through two starts, although he has no wins to show for it. With zero runs scored while he’s been on the mound — losing 1-0 and 2-0 — the idea of a trade to a contender might sound better and better to him. It’s simple. If Samardzija can keep his pitch count to a reasonable number and have success throughout the first half while staying healthy, that combination should bring a huge return for him in a trade by July 31. That is unless the Cubs change their minds and sign him. The starting staff produced a 1.93 ERA through the first week, good for fourth in baseball. Cold weather or not, that’s impressive.

The lineup: If you want to give manager Rick Renteria the benefit of the doubt for the first week of the season, go ahead. If you think Ryan Kalish deserves some starts, an argument can be made for it, and not just because of his two-hit, three-RBI performance Sunday. He was a rising prospect with Boston before injuries sidelined him, and he’s young enough (26) that he could play his way into a larger role in Chicago. But there is no short- or long-term reason that outfielder Ryan Sweeney should be getting starts over Junior Lake. And Mike Olt needs to be playing more often as well.

Are the Cubs really going to rotate a platoon through basically four positions at third, second, left and center? That does no one any good. Renteria might be trying to win a game that day, but if the Cubs are interested in winning every game, they would have a better team on the field in the first place. Nothing against Sweeney, but he isn’t going to be a starter on this team when it becomes a contender; neither will Luis Valbuena. The other players could be. The argument ends there.

As for Emilio Bonifacio, he’s been amazing. What team wouldn’t want a player with speed who can play as many positions as he can? In fact, how many players play center field, shortstop and second base in a season? It’s not a long list. Bonifacio played all three in the first three games and hit .500 for the week. It’s unclear what his long-term role on the Cubs could be, but any contender would like to have this version of Bonifacio somewhere on the field or bench. He made the first week fun to watch.

The closer: For the second spring in a row, the Cubs chose to ignore all the signs that their closer wasn’t ready for that role to start the season. Even if we’re supposed to look the other way at the results in spring, Carlos Marmol and now Jose Veras simply weren’t moving in the right direction with their stuff as the Cactus League progressed. It’s no surprise that Veras has blown one save and gave up runs in his second appearance of the season on Sunday against the Phillies in a nonsave situation.

Renteria has said he’s not worried about Veras, but he might be the only one. Long term, it isn’t a big deal because Veras won’t be here, but at this point handing the job to Pedro Strop might be the way to go. Then again, Veras’ trade value will plummet like Marmol’s. But at least there will be fewer late-inning headaches along the way.

Overall analysis: It’s no surprise the offense struggled through the first week. It’s not very good, and Starlin Castro is just starting to look better after missing most of spring training. Their poor hitting (.170) with runners in scoring position is getting all the headlines, but getting on base is more important right now. Their .294 on-base percentage through one week — which includes a seven-walk day against A.J. Burnett and the Phillies on Sunday — pretty much mirrors their .307 figure this spring and .300 for all of last season. It’s not nearly good enough.

When that improves, everything else on offense will as well. And the offense will improve over time if the best hitters and hitting prospects are in the lineup. Even if players struggle on a certain day, playing Olt and Lake — and to a smaller extent Kalish — should be the Cubs’ No. 1 priority at the plate.

CSNChicago.com

Can Cubs salvage the Edwin Jackson contract?

By Patrick Mooney

The Cubs crossed their fingers and hoped Edwin Jackson would become part of The Core. But so many things at Clark and Addison don’t go according to The Plan.

The City Hall negotiations, the rooftop turf battles and a highly leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. are pushing the Ricketts family toward selling minority ownership shares to help finance the Wrigley Field renovation.

Fox? WGN? Comcast/NBCUniversal? There are no slam-dunk decisions in the 2020 media-rights play. The Wrigleyville West development faded from the Cubs Park blueprints in Arizona. Dale Sveum became the next Terry Francona, only it was the 2000 version, fired after a last-place finish with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Theo Epstein’s front office sold Jackson’s four-year, $52 million contract as a deal that made sense, because he’s durable and young enough to be there when the Cubs are ready to contend. Maybe a one-time All-Star with a World Series ring and a no-hitter on his resume could even take his game to a new level.

The Cubs wrote it off as the price of pitching and the cost of covering a big hole in the organization – and then watched Jackson lead the majors with 18 losses.

It’s not what they envisioned in December 2012, when Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts met with Anibal Sanchez in Miami and got used for leverage against the Detroit Tigers, the same day Sveum and general manager Jed Hoyer made a sales pitch to Jackson’s camp in Southern California.

The Jackson reboot continues Tuesday night at Wrigley Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2). Epstein heard it from the crowd during an event for season-ticket holders last November, essentially admitted the mistake and had to explain what he meant during the media session afterward.

“We’ll be the first ones to tell you: We’re not perfect,” Epstein said. “Given the situation, I think we could have been more patient. We certainly could have been more in line with the plan. That said, when there’s no pitching, you have to find pitching. Free agency can be a toss of the coin.

“We were really close to landing the two youngest, potentially very productive starting pitchers in free agency. One happened to have a year where he was third in the league in (ERA) and one happened to go out and have the worst year of his career. But we believe there’s a lot better ahead for Edwin Jackson.”

Just as the franchise has pushed back the competitive timeline – remember when 2015 was supposed to be a breakthrough year? – the Cubs also seem to have lowered their expectations for Jackson.

“He stayed healthy again the entire season,” Epstein said. “He’s still only 30 years old. His underlying performance was a lot better than that stat line you read out there on the scoreboard. And he never quit. Certainly, he’s somebody that can impact us and fill a rotation spot for us going forward.

“I was just being self-critical. Anytime that you make an investment that doesn’t immediately pay off – especially when you’re in a situation where you don’t have tremendous freedom to make a variety of significant investments – you should be hard on yourself.

“It’s important for us to remember the plan that’s in place and to stay focused on building that core. But if there’s an opportunity to acquire an asset at a fair price, we also have to be aggressive and pick our spots.”

Jackson’s 4.98 ERA last season did involve some bad luck. He didn’t seem overwhelmed by the big contract and the remaining balance is a relatively reasonable – potentially movable – three years and $33 million.

The Cubs have figured out a way to coach ‘em up and fix broken pitchers – the rotation has been a bright spot in a 2-4 start. It doesn’t always work out (see Chris Volstad and Scott Baker). But you’ve seen the development of Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood and the trade-deadline marketing for Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza. 

Could Jackson be the next comeback player here?

“We all can,” Jackson said. “We have a staff of pitchers where anyone at any particular time can go out and wow people. It’s just a matter of who it’s going to be that day. But we feel confident that we can run five guys out there and have a chance to win every day. That’s what it’s all about.”

That didn’t really answer the question, but it did underline how Jackson handled a bad season. He didn’t pick fights with the media or duck reporters or blame his teammates. He’s still a good clubhouse guy who’s been around winning teams from Tampa Bay to St. Louis to Washington. He made sure to be the same guy every day.

“I don’t see Edwin changing one way or the other,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He tries to keep an even-keeled approach. He’s been around the game a long time. This is a guy that’s not new to the major leagues. He’s had some success at the big-league level and we’re just looking for him to hopefully rebound and try to chip away and keep him going in a positive direction.”

In his season debut against the Pirates last week, Jackson pitched into the sixth inning of a game the Cubs would lose 4-3 in the 16th at PNC Park. He gave up two runs, one earned, on two hits. He walked four, hit another batter and got five strikeouts.

“There are plenty of guys that had long-term contracts and their first year didn’t live up to expectations and they ended up having really good runs with that team,” Hoyer said. “I always think of Carlos Beltran with the Mets. He struggled his first year and it ended up being a great contract. It’s way too early to tell. When you sign a four-year contract, you want to get four years of information.

“(Jackson) had his ups and downs the other night, but I certainly thought that he settled in well and threw well and hopefully that will get him off to a good start.”

If not, well, The Plan doesn’t leave much room for error right now, the ability to swing big and miss in free agency. And the Cubs have already pushed back their ETA for contention. Core player or not, the business/baseball plans need to get something out of Jackson.

CSNChicago.com

Should the Cubs be worried about Jose Veras?

By Staff

Through just two appearances this season, the new Cubs closer has looked a little like the old Cubs closer.

New Cub Jose Veras has struggled in a pair of appearances, one each against the Pirates and Phillies, to kick off his Cubs career, suffering from a lack of control and tendency to put runners on base that brings back memories of Carlos Marmol.

In 1 2/3 innings, Veras has allowed three runs on a hit and six walks. His first outing of the year: a blown save in Pittsburgh. His second: a four-walk 2/3 of an inning in a win over the Phillies.

It’s the similarities to Marmol that have some Cubs fans worried, as expressed Monday on SportsTalk Live.

"I wasn’t a fan of that signing when it happened," B96’s J. Roman said. "He’s had a bad spring and two chances now with the Cubs. That 16-inning game should have never happened in Pittsburgh, and then we have a big lead yesterday and he comes in and it’s like Carlos Marmol’s older brother."

But cooler heads prevailed, explaining that aside from it being early in the season, there’s no reason to panic over Veras, who’s not necessarily part of the long-term plans on the North Side.

"There’s no crisis," Sun-Times reporter Gordon Wittenmeyer said. "This isn’t like last year where they’re already tired of Marmol. For one thing, this guy’s signed to a one-year contract. They want to flip him, so he’s going to get a lot of opportunities to be a closer. If he’s a middle reliever, you’re not flipping this guy, you’re not getting anything for him."

Tribune

Perseverance pays for Cubs’ Kalish

Outfielder overcomes 4 surgeries in 3 years

By David Haugh

Four hours before Cubs games, outfielder Ryan Kalish typically slips into the hot tub to begin loosening up a tightly wound body that has endured four surgeries in three years.

Then Kalish heads into the weight room to rub foam rollers over his surgically repaired shoulders and neck, up and down his arms and legs; digging in for 60 seconds on each individual muscle. For the final hour of his 90-minute daily workout, Kalish performs a stretching regimen called SmartFlex he learned from his trainer in Los Angeles that incorporates a device he compared to nunchuks.

It’s only dangerous if Kalish doesn’t do it every day.

"By the time I go through this full routine, I am ready to do the rest of the day," said Kalish, 26, a non-roster invitee who made the Cubs. "I’m so tight, it’s something I have to do."

When Kalish starts to envision doing something else that requires less commitment, he thinks of Ryan Westmoreland. Westmoreland, a promising former Red Sox minor league outfielder Kalish befriended in the Boston organization, retired last year at the age of 22 after two brain surgeries due to a condition called cavernous malformation. He is out of baseball but never far from Kalish’s thoughts.

"For me, it would be doing myself and Ryan a disservice if I didn’t have a good attitude about my opportunity for a comeback," Kalish said. "When you keep guys like that in the back of your head, it makes it like you’re doing it not only for yourself."

Two other people Kalish keeps in mind for inspiration, parents Steve and Eileen, spent the final day of a Chicago visit watching their son drive in three runs Sunday against the Phillies. It was just one game in a long season but felt like more to a family that, only eight months ago, sat in a California hospital wondering if Ryan ever would be the same after cervical fusion surgery.

"This has been worse for my mom and dad than for me so it was cool to have them there Sunday," Kalish said. "If you had told me when I was laying in a neck brace last August that I’d go to spring training and make a major league team, I would have told you that you were crazy."

The New Jersey native’s craziness all began April 21, 2011, when Kalish injured his left shoulder diving for a popup for Triple-A Pawtucket. Up to that point, the speedy player Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod drafted for the Red Sox in the ninth round of the 2006 amateur draft looked worthy of the hype that accompanied Kalish out of Red Bank (N.J.) High School.

As a prep senior, Kalish hit .422 and went the entire 40-game season without swinging and missing a single pitch — a Jersey legend he confirmed Monday. Professional success followed; the Red Sox named Kalish their minor league offensive player of the year in 2009 and the team’s top rookie in 2010 after a July 31 promotion.

But that winter Epstein signed $142 million outfielder Carl Crawford, which demoted Kalish to start the 2011 season and delayed his development longer than anybody imagined. Kalish’s first injury set off a string of surgeries to both shoulders and his neck and, last December, the Red Sox cut ties with the player once compared to Darin Erstad.

Within an hour of Kalish becoming a free agent, Epstein called.

"My agent asked, ‘Theo wants to talk, are you interested?’ ” Kalish said. " ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

The presence of Kalish in his No. 51 jersey provides the Cubs a symbol to remind every hot-shot prospect supposedly on the way to stardom that, in baseball, nothing guarantees they will arrive. Kalish also offers an everyday example of perseverance and passion that every clubhouse full of youth needs, a guy who wants “to be a leader on this team.”

"That’s part of why he made the roster," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "He’s got a real nice edge about him."

It softened momentarily when Epstein called Kalish to his office just before the Cubs left spring training in Arizona. Epstein’s voice was soft, his mood somber.

"I was thinking from his tone and the way he was talking, oh, man I’m going to Triple A," Kalish said. "Then he flipped the switch."

So Epstein can act too.

"Theo built up the tension and gave the slow talk about how he makes decisions," Hoyer said. "He built it up because he knew how emotional it would be for Ryan."

Based on the way Kalish choked up getting the good news, Epstein perfectly timed his release of information.

"One of the coolest moments ever," Kalish said. "I like that Theo tried messing with me."

History told Epstein that Kalish has recovered from much worse.

Tribune

Bowa says there’s a lot to like about Cubs’ Castro

Phillies bench coach also knows 24-year-old shortstop has shortcomings

By Fred Mitchell

Starlin Castro did not respond particularly well to the often critical approach of former Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

"I don’t want to say anything about that. It is what it is. The kind of people right now who are here, they are always positive to me," Castro said of new manager Rick Renteria and his coaching staff. "There is a positive feeling in the clubhouse and on the field. People only talk to you in a good way and you try to get better every day."

The 24-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic already has 698 hits, putting him on a pace conceivably to reach 3,000 if his career lasts through his late 30s. But his fielding remains erratic, calling into question his concentration level at such a crucial defensive position. He booted a potential double-play grounder Sunday against the Phillies, but starter Carlos Villanueva managed to pitch out of the bases-loaded jam.

Former Cubs shortstop Larry Bowa, now bench coach for Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, has been a curious observer of Castro. He wonders what might be the best way for the Cubs to get through to their talented infielder.

"I think sometimes, maybe because of his laid-back personality, maybe Dale thought: ‘You know what, I am going to boot him in the butt,’ " Bowa said. "I don’t know the kid, so I don’t know what buttons to push on him. I do know that just watching his skill set, when he is doing things right, he is fun to watch.

"He is a great athlete. Just watching him, it looks like mentally he’s not into every pitch. He has got a good arm, he has got good range. Sometimes his feet don’t move the way they should. He’s a young kid; he has a chance to be special. But he has to get more consistent. It takes a lot of hard work to concentrate on every pitch."

Renteria is using a more engaging approach with Castro, as well as with burgeoning first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

"I don’t know that my approach is any different," Renteria said. "(Coaches) are always having conversations with players. When things go awry you address them. You use any medium possible. We use video, we use conversations, we use anything that we can to help put information out there, and help them to apply it in a practical sense."

Renteria had Castro batting sixth Sunday against the Phillies and he cracked a double in his first at-bat.

"Wherever he tries to put me, I know it is good. I know it is something that can help the team," said Castro, who is hitting .240 after missing a few weeks of spring training with a hamstring injury.

Bowa said Castro can become a more complete shortstop through maturation.

"I always tell guys: If you go 0-for-4 and you play in the middle of the diamond, you should be dead tired at the end of the game," Bowa said. "I don’t care if you get a hit or not.

"The mental part of it, backing up bases, watching what pitch is thrown, reading the swing off the bat, cutoff plays … I don’t think (Castro) is at that stage right now where it comes easy for him. He has to think about things."

Castro set the bar high by hitting .300 and .307 his first two seasons with slugging percentages over .400 while making the All-Star team. He became the youngest player to lead the league in hits (207) in 2011. But his average dropped to .283 in 2012 and .245 last season. He committed an average of 26 errors in his first four seasons.

"People think it’s that easy. It takes time. And that’s a tough position," Bowa said. "Obviously when he had that great year, everyone said: ‘Well, we’ll build this whole team around him.’ That’s not fair to him. I’m not saying you can’t, but it’s not fair to put those expectations on him at such a young age.

"A lot of players with great skills take a lot of things for granted. You know, I’m still young. I don’t need 50 ground balls a day. I can do 10. If I go 0-for-8 (at the plate), I can rattle off 8-for-16.

"Sometimes it works against you to be that talented."

Tribune

Wild start to Triple-A season for Baez

Cubs’ top prospect gets ejected from a game, argues with teammate, homers

By Fred Mitchell

Javier Baez, considered the Cubs’ top minor league prospect, has had an eventful start for Triple-A Iowa.

The 21-year-old shortstop began his season going 0-for-9 with six strikeouts. He was ejected from Saturday’s game when he threw his hands up demonstrably in protest of a check-call strike. He then got into an altercation in the dugout with teammate Eli Whiteside.

"I was mad, he was mad, everybody was mad," Baez told the Des Moines Register. "We argued a little. Nothing personal."

Baez felt better after hitting a pinch home run in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Memphis Redbirds.

Numbers game: Carlos Villanueva’s ERA dropped from 13.50 to 4.26 after Sunday’s solid five-inning starting assignment against the Phillies. His record improved to 1-2.

"I’ve learned with time that looking at the stats and reading a lot … it doesn’t help," Villanueva said. "A lot of people have a lot of opinions. I check my numbers twice a year, at the All-Star break and at the end of the season."

Bucs stop here: The Cubs, who host a three-game series with the Pirates beginning Tuesday night, opened the season at Pittsburgh last week, losing two out of three one-run games. Two of the games went into extra innings.

"I don’t think it hurts either club to play each other in such a short span of time," manager Rick Renteria said. "A lot of the information we have is fresh in our memories that we will have to apply."

On the move: Starlin Castro was moved down to sixth in the batting order Sunday against the Phillies.

"You will probably see him in any number of spots throughout (the lineup)," Renteria said. "I knew he had good numbers against (A.J.) Burnett. It’s like anything, we’re just trying to help them get comfortable wherever. It was no big deal to him."

Relief in sight? Renteria insists he is not overly concerned about the way Sunday’s game ended. Reliever Jose Veras walked four batters and threw a wild pitch in two-thirds of an inning. Then Pedro Strop unleashed a wild pitch before he retired the Phillies’ Ryan Howard for the 8-3 win.

"(Veras) has only thrown a couple of times for us and in the spring (nine appearances). It’s very hard for me to say I am concerned at this point," Renteria said. "Would I have liked to have had it run a little cleaner for him? Absolutely. I think he does too. It was just a game that didn’t work out the way he wanted to."

Extra innings: The Cubs were 12-18 in home night games last season. … Cubs reliever Hector Rondon has a 13-inning scoreless streak since Sept. 3, 2013 (12 appearances).

Tribune

Series preview: Pirates at Cubs

By Staff

All games on WGN-AM 720.

Season series: Pirates lead 2-1

Tuesday: 7:05 p.m., CSN

RH Edwin Jackson (0-0, 1.69) vs. RH Charlie Morton (0-0, 0.00)

Wednesday: 7:05 p.m., WGN-Ch. 9

RH Jason Hammel (1-0, 1.35) vs. LH Wandy Rodriguez (0-1, 4.50)

Thursday: 1:20 p.m., WGN-Ch. 9

LH Travis Wood (0-1, 4.26) vs. RH Gerrit Cole (1-0, 2.57)

Who’s hot: Emilio Bonifacio has 14 hits and is batting .500. … Starlin Castro is 6-for-18 (.333) against Morton. … Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson has struck out 6 in 3 1/3 shutout innings.

Who’s not: Pedro Alvarez is 2-for-17 (.118) lifetime against Jackson. .. .Cubs reliever Jose Veras has an ERA of 16.20 after walking four (plus a wild pitch) and allowing two runs in two-thirds of an inning Sunday against the Phillies.

07 4 / 2014

Tribune

Villanueva’s solid outing helps prevent sweep by Phillies

Cubs right-hander works 5 innings, gets a lot of support from offense

By Fred Mitchell

If adversity builds character, the Cubs have experienced a healthy dose already this young season. The process of overcoming those issues is what manager Rick Renteria hopes will work well for the long haul.

The Cubs avoided a series sweep by the Phillies on Sunday with an 8-3 victory at Wrigley Field.

Versatile right-hander Carlos Villanueva did his part with five solid innings and the Cubs offense led by Ryan Kalish (2-for-3, 3 RBIs) produced some unaccustomed run support, matching their combined run total in the previous five games.

Villanueva improved to 1-2 and a 4.26 earned-run average. Two previous relief appearances had resulted in walk-off losses in Pittsburgh.

"How about that guy," Renteria said. "I used him twice in Pittsburgh and he comes back and gets us out of a jam.

"We want guys who want the baseball. I know that after the second game in Pittsburgh, I went up to (Villanueva) and I told him: ‘You know what? We really appreciate it. Don’t worry about the outcome there. We really needed your help and you gave it to us.’ "

The Cubs staked Villanueva to a 4-0 first-inning lead after two hits and three walks were issued by Phillies starter A.J. Burnett. Emilio Bonifacio led off with a walk before Kalish tripled off the wall in right-center. Anthony Rizzo drew a walk before Nate Schierholtz hit a sacrifice fly that scored Kalish and allowed Rizzo to advance to second.

Luis Valbuena walked and Starlin Castro doubled to tally Rizzo. Ryan Sweeney then lined a sacrifice fly.

The Phillies threatened in the fourth when Marlon Byrd and Domonic Brown reached on one-out hits. A potential double-play grounder near the bag at second was botched by Castro for an error to load the bases, but Villanueva retired Cody Asche on a fielder’s choice force play at the plate before getting Burnett to fly out.

"Quite frankly, I was impressed about how he did that, just like Jeff (Samardzija) did the other day," Renteria said. "Pitching out of jams and not worrying about letting something that happened … then all of a sudden you take the air out of the balloon. So what! He kept pitching and he kept us in the game."

The Phillies got on the board in the fifth after Ben Revere singled and stole second before Jimmy Rollins singled him to third and stole second, as well. Chase Utley hit a hard grounder that deflected off Villanueva and was fielded by Castro. His throw to first just nipped Utley.

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg challenged the call at first, but the ruling stood. Revere scored from third on the out and the Phillies trailed 4-1.

"It was a good day," said Villanueva, who struck out three and had no walks. "To be honest, I am just glad we got one in here at home to give the fans a little something to cheer about. Me? I just work here. Whatever they need."

The Cubs added four unearned runs in the sixth to make it 8-1.

The Phillies added a pair of runs in the ninth after relievers Jose Veras and Pedro Strop extended the game with four walks and two wild pitches.

Tribune

Cubs’ Kalish comes through with parents in crowd

Left fielder delivers triple, double, 3 RBIs

By Fred Mitchell

Ryan Kalish drove in three runs with a triple and a double Sunday. But the real highlight for the Cubs 26-year-old left fielder was having his parents in the stands at Wrigley Field.

"My parents (Steven and Eileen) have been through my journey just as much as I have, if not more," said Kalish, who has endured shoulder surgeries and a cervical fusion that forced him to miss the 2011 and 2013 seasons. "It was their last day (in Chicago). I think my mom left at about 3:30 (p.m.), so she got to see a lot of the game. It’s always special when your parents are in town."

Kalish recorded the Cubs’ first triple of the season. It was his first multihit game since Sept. 3, 2012, with the Red Sox at Seattle.

Speaking up: Manager Rick Renteria, who earned his first win at Wrigley Field, insists the Cubs are not lacking for vocal leaders.

"You see a lot of these guys talking," Renteria said. "You see (Anthony) Rizzo talking, you see (Darwin) Barney talking, you see, obviously, (Emilio) Bonifacio talking. All of these guys are actually conversing with each other through the course of the ballgame. I think that is something that evolves over time. Guys start to gravitate to certain players. But they are earning each other’s respect on a daily basis.

"We are trying to establish a mentality that puts you as a Cub first, and take the name off your back and just be selfless and go out there and pick each other up."

Hitting machine: Bonifacio collected his 14th hit of the season to top the majors.

"Fortunately for us we were able to get him, and we’re able to take advantage of his skill set," Renteria said. "Hopefully he can continue to maintain that. It would be kind of impossible for us to believe that he is going to maintain the clip that he has been maintaining through the Pittsburgh series. But when he gets to the plate he tries to work the count, he tries to get on. When he gets on base, he wants to wreak havoc on the pitchers and the opposition."

Extra innings: Phillies right-hander A.J. Burnett lost his first game at Wrigley Field after five wins. … Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg provided Wrigley Field’s first replay challenge in the fifth inning.

Sun-Times

Carlos Villanueva gets it done in win over Phillies

BY TONI GINNETTI

The big hug manager Rick Renteria gave pitcher Carlos Villanueva after five innings against Philadelphia Sunday was as much about his first two relief outings as for his just-completed start.

Both relief appearances ended in walk-off losses in extra innings.

This time, Villanueva helped his team and his manager get their first win at Wrigley Field.

‘‘How about that guy? I use him twice in Pittsburgh. He comes back and gets us out of a jam,’’ Renteria said after the 8-3 victory that prevented the Phillies from completing a three-game sweep.

The jam came in the fourth after two singles and a Starlin Castro error loaded the bases with one out. Villanueva (1-2) got a comeback grounder for a force at home and then got opposing pitcher A.J. Burnett to fly out.

‘‘Quite frankly, I was impressed with how he did that,’’ Renteria said. Kept pitching out of jams and not worrying about something happening that would let the air out of the balloon. He kept pitching and kept us in the game.’’

It wasn’t always like that for Villanueva, who made his first start since August before a stretch of 18 consecutive relief appearances.

‘‘I wasn’t happy [about the losses in Pittsburgh], but I feel I’ve grown in my years here,’’ he said. ‘‘If it had happened to me five, six years ago, I don’t know how I would have handled it.

‘‘But you take the positive out of it and say ‘I only gave up two runs [in the losses].’ That’s how I saw it. I got a chance to contribute with today’s start. You have to forget about [the losses.]’’

He also shrugged off the fourth-inning error by Castro, who had helped give the Cubs a 4-0 lead in the first with an RBI double.

‘‘You have a choice there,’’ Villanueva said. ‘‘You can get upset and let it rattle you, or you pick him up. He’s not trying to make an error.

‘‘I talk a lot to Starlin and he’s worked hard to improve his defense. The best thing I can do there is pick him up, make sure he understands I’m not upset at him, and hopefully he gets another [chance] to make him feel better.

‘‘I had a pitching coach once tell me sometimes you have to get four or five outs in an inning. It’s up to us as pitchers to keep everything calm.’’

It helped that the bats came through effectively. There were only six hits, but they were timely.

The Cubs were helped by three Burnett walks in the first, and a Ben Revere misplay in center field on Ryan Sweeney’s fly.

Two sacrifice flies in the first from Nate Schierholtz and Sweeney tallied runs as well.

‘‘We strung together some good at-bats the last few days with nothing to show for it,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘Today we had some balls find holes.’’

The Phillies scored only one off Villanueva in the fifth but added two in the ninth when closer Jose Veras loaded the bases with walks and a wild pitch. Pedro Strop finished the inning but not before another wild pitch scored a run.

‘‘We wanted to give Jose some work,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘As much as people think it doesn’t occur, I see [bad things] happen [to closers in non-save situations.]’’

Sun-Times

New rule proving to be a challenge for Rick Renteria

BY TONI GINNETTI

Manager Rick Renteria was the first to use baseball’s new instant-replay challenge system, losing the appeal of an out call at first against Jeff Samardzija last Monday.

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg made his first challenge Sunday, losing the appeal of a close out call at first against Chase Utley in the fifth inning.

One week into the season, the new system is meshing into the flow of managing a game, though it hasn’t necessarily ended controversy.

‘‘Everybody has developed their own style in terms of appealing,’’ Renteria said. ‘‘I don’t know that I have an advantage [as a first-year manager] over a veteran manager. We all were given the same information. It’s how it impacts your game in that particular situation.’’

The new process is a team effort of its own. The manager gets input from his coaches and those monitoring video before deciding if a challenge is worthwhile.

Conversations with umpires have tended to get longer before challenges. Renteria spent a long time Friday with plate umpire Hal Gibson debating whether Darwin Barney had been hit by a Roberto Hernandez pitch. Renteria decided against a challenge.

Renteria said umpires have been ‘‘pretty cordial’’ so far in the process.

‘‘They’ll tell you, ‘I got a pretty good look at it, so I don’t think you should [challenge],’ ’’ he said.

Hitting opportunities

Renteria told Starlin Castro before Sunday’s game that he would be batting sixth — not a punishment but an opportunity to use his good career numbers against A.J. Burnett in potential run-scoring situations.

Castro came through in the first with an RBI double in the four-run inning.

‘‘Anything he thinks I can do is OK,’’ Castro said. ‘‘We had trouble scoring with men in scoring position in Pittsburgh, so today was a good day for us.’’

Renteria said moving Castro around in the order is a way to help the former two-time All-Star.

‘‘You’ll see Castro in any number throughout [the order],’’ he said. “It’s like anything, we’re trying to get him comfortable. It was no big deal to him.’’

Hitting opportunities II

Outfielder Ryan Kalish had an RBI triple in the first and a two-RBI double in the sixth. It was his first multihit game since Sept. 15, 2010, when he was with Boston.

Kalish missed last season because of shoulder surgery.

‘‘I call it making the most of helping my team win,’’ Kalish said. ‘‘Especially after everything I’ve been through, I want to give it my all.’’

‘‘He had a great spring [hitting .304 as a non-roster invitee],’’ Renteria said. ‘‘His at-bats have been good the whole time. It’s no surprise the outcome he had today.’’

Growing pains

Top prospect Javier Baez started the season 0-for-9 with Class AAA Iowa and was ejected Saturday for arguing a called third strike. He homered Sunday.

‘‘They’re all young and trying to get through the growing pains,’’ Renteria said.

Albert Almora ended his own 0-for-9 start with a five-hit game for Class A Daytona.

Daily Herald

Two losses don’t affect Villanueva

By Bruce Miles

Carlos Villanueva has been the Cubs’ go-along, get-along guy since they signed him to a two-year contract before the 2013 season.

He has started and relieved, sometimes all within the space of days. Villanueva was named the Cubs’ fifth starting pitcher at the end of spring training, but before he could make his first start, in Sunday’s 8-3 victory over the Phillies, he came out of the bullpen twice in Pittsburgh.

He lost both decisions, but manager Rick Renteria told him not to worry about it. Villanueva got his reward Sunday with a victory, as he went 5 innings and gave up 6 hits and 1 run.

He said the talk from the boss wasn’t necessary.

"It shouldn’t take him telling me that," Villanueva said. "It’s not easy, and I wasn’t happy when that (the losses) happened, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot in my years. If you were to tell me that would have happened to me five or six years ago, I don’t know how I would have handled it — a lot differently than I did. But you take a positive out of it."

Villanueva did want to stay in Sunday’s game after 5, but Renteria made sure to hug him and talk to him in the dugout.

"He worked his magic on me," Villanueva said. "I didn’t want to come out of the game, obviously, at that point. My goal when I start is to go as deep as I can in the game. As a competitor, just let me go back out there, and you can have somebody ready behind me. That’s why he’s the manager. It worked."

Renteria had nothing but good things to say about his pitcher, who worked out of bases-loaded trouble in the fourth after an error by shortstop Starlin Castro.

"Villanueva, how about that guy?" he said. "We used him twice in Pittsburgh, and he comes back and gets us out of a jam. He had actually gotten a groundball, and it wasn’t quite cleanly fielded. He kept pitching. Quite frankly, I was as impressed about how he did that as anything."

Growing pains for Baez:

Shortstop prospect Javier Baez was ejected from Class AAA Iowa’s game Saturday after arguing a checked-swing call. The 21-year-old Baez got off to a rough start, going 0-for-9 with 6 strikeouts.

Cubs manager Rick Renteria saw Baez and all the Cubs’ top prospects in spring training.

"They’re all young," he said. "They’re all trying to get through their growing pains. It’s part of the process. I think he’ll overcome it. He’ll get better and learn from it and keep moving forward."

Baez had a pinch homer in Iowa’s 4-3 victory Sunday over Memphis.

This and that:

Emilio Bonifacio was 1-for-4 with 2 runs. His 14 hits for the season led the major leagues entering Sunday’s late action … Left fielder Ryan Kalish hit the Cubs’ first triple of the season. It was Kalish’s second career triple and his first since Sept. 15, 2010 while he was with Boston. … Wrigley Field had its first replay challenge when Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg challenged a Chase Utley groundout in the fifth. The out was confirmed.

Daily Herald

We’ve learned a thing or two about our baseball teams

By Matt Spiegel

One week in, we fight temptation to offer grand pronouncements and refuse to draw long-term conclusions about our locals.

Except when we’re sure we’re right.

I do think we’ve already learned a few things.

The real deal:

Jose Abreu is worthy of being a heart-of-the-order, big-league hitter. The natural power is evident in line-drive lasers to all fields. That very smooth, fluid swing has been fast enough to even deal with inside fastballs. There is a league-wide adjustment coming at some point, as pitchers get to know him. If Abreu is smart enough to adjust to that, then watch out.

Still stuck in the middle:

Starlin Castro was 2-for-17 heading into Saturday’s game before going 3-for-4 against the Phillies. Hitting .238, Castro isn’t showing much change yet from last year. Cubs color man Jim Deshaies told our radio show that Castro still seems “caught in between” at the plate. He’s not consistently, authoritatively well-timed for either fastballs or off-speed stuff.

It’s early and he had a lot fewer spring chances than everyone else, but he has to get more comfortable.

Super super utility man:

Emilo Bonifacio can play all three outfield positions, three of the four infield positions and steal bases. He is a roster-enriching “super utility” player. Bonifacio will probably never have another 11-for-16 run as he did to start the season, but it shouldn’t be hard to find a spot for him in this lineup every single day. He may soon be thought of with the likes of Ben Zobrist and Martin Prado as incredibly valuable, versatile pieces.

Zoom in … no, even more than that:

If I were in the business of producing and/or directing White Sox games on television, I would seriously consider changing my approach on certain days.

I do not fault fans for not going when it’s 39 degrees and windy, and this is not some recycled rant about the age-old attendance issues. But some standard camera shots are just not worth using.

Take the low third-base angle of the pitcher as he comes to the set position, with a runner being held on first behind him. In the background, you can see literally thousands of empty green seats. It’s distracting, a bit sad and leads to even more knee-jerk commentary about the Sox and what their perceived importance in this town is. Show me a high angle of the infield from the broadcast perspective to widen the focus as intended.

Another common one: a wide shot of the barren outfield stands as a graphic shows the “picks to click.” You might want to do that over the 2005 trophy in the lobby, or the statue outside Gate 4.

Look at it as an opportunity to be creative, and also protect the image of your team.

Hey buddy, eyes up here:

I’m sorry, Cubs big leaguers … but my gaze often goes downward. I see Kris Bryant and his 3 homers at Class AA. I see his teammate C.J. Edwards throw 4 shutout innings. Jorge Soler is on the Class A disabled list. And Javier Baez is in Triple A for a reason, folks. He’s 0-for-7 with 4 strikeouts through two games, being dominated by breaking balls. I bet he’ll learn quickly.

Grady Sizemore is the new Evan Gattis:

In Week 1 of last season, I had already found and fallen for Evan Gattis and his amazing story. It’s a game of second chances, and sometimes third or fourth ones. In Boston, former Indians star Grady Sizemore has returned after two missed seasons, and seven surgeries for three different ailments. He homered in his second at-bat, has started twice in center field and stolen a base. A career left for dead is breathing.

Baseball never stops giving for those of us in the knowledge-acquisition business. On to Week 2.

Daily Herald

Cubs make their hits count

By Bruce Miles

All respect to Cubs bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, but there are no geniuses in baseball.

Anybody who thinks they have this game figured out should have watched Sunday’s Cubs-Phillies battle at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs entered the game having scored 8 runs total in their first five games, and their hitters were 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position.

Manager Rick Renteria came up with a different lineup again, dropping Starlin Castro to the sixth spot while Cubs fans on social media howled.

Guess what? It all worked out, and then some, as the Cubs doubled their run output for the season in one day during an 8-3 victory.

They went 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and drew 7 walks. The Cubs managed only 6 hits in scoring 8 runs, but on Saturday, they had 10 hits and were shut out.

Castro had an RBI double in the Cubs’ 4-run first inning, and backup outfielder Ryan Kalish started and went 2-for-3 with a first-inning triple, a sixth-inning double, 2 walks and 3 RBI.

"It’s awesome," said Castro, who has heard some boos at Wrigley Field. "We waited for that a long time."

Kalish also used the word “awesome.” He went to spring training as a nonroster man after missing all of 2013 with the Red Sox after undergoing shoulder surgery in January of that year. The best part of Sunday was that his parents were watching from the stands.

"We just need to build off each day," he said. "We’re in games. We’re in every day. It’s not like we’re getting blown out or anything. Things are close. If we can keep this momentum going and just continue to build, I think, ‘Why not us?’

"I know we haven’t gotten off to the best start (2-4), but in this clubhouse, everyone’s really close for (being together) for such a short time, so it’s really fun. Obviously, once you get the bats going, it’s a lot of fun."

The Cubs got their runs in odd ways in the first against A.J. Burnett. They were patient at the plate, working 3 walks. After 2 of those walks, Nate Schierholtz and Castro jumped all over first pitches and made them count with a sacrifice fly and a double, respectively.

After the bats cooled in the middle innings, the Cubs added 4 important tack-on runs in the sixth, with Kalish’s 2-run double being a key hit.

The Cubs will relax with an off-day Monday. Now, maybe the hitters will relax at the plate after putting up the 8-spot.

"It’s nice to go into the break, with the day off and that mindset is very positive," Renteria said. "It is helpful."

But it’s not easy to figure. Renteria said Castro in the 6-hole will not be an everyday occurrence. So figure, if you can figure anything, that Tuesday night’s lineup against the Pirates is liable to be totally different.

"You’ll probably see him in any number of the spots throughout," the manager said of Castro. "I knew he had good number against Burnett (9-for-22 entering the game). He ended up taking advantage of it in the first inning.

"It’s like anything. We’re just trying to help them get comfortable wherever it is. No big deal to him."

Cubs.com

Offense erupts to back Villanueva’s solid start

Kalish leads charge with three RBIs on two extra-base hits

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Carlos Villanueva knew it would be a good day Sunday because the cable guy showed up at his apartment that morning and got his connection to work.

Villanueva’s good fortune continued as the Cubs’ scored as many runs in two innings as they had in their five previous games, beating the Phillies, 8-3, to avoid being swept in the opening series.

"Offense is always contagious," said Ryan Kalish, who drove in three runs. "I know we haven’t gotten off to the best start, but everyone is real close."

Kalish hit an RBI triple in a four-run first and added a two-run double in the sixth to back Villanueva, who picked up the win in his first start of the season and continued a nice trend for the Chicago starters, who now have a 1.93 ERA (eight runs over 37 1/3 innings) in the first six games.

This was Villanueva’s third appearance after pitching in relief twice last week against the Pirates in extra-inning games. He took the loss in both, and manager Rick Renteria felt he had to give the right-hander a little pep talk.

"He really helped us out in a pinch in Pittsburgh," Renteria said. "I know that after the second game in Pittsburgh, I said, ‘Don’t worry about the outcome there, we really needed your help and you gave it to us.’"

"It shouldn’t take him telling me that," Villanueva said. "It’s definitely not easy and I wasn’t happy [losing the games]. … If that would’ve happened to me five, six years ago, I don’t know how I would’ve handled it, and definitely different than I did.

"You have to forget about it. You want to do whatever you can to help the boys out and keep everybody happy. Today we took a good step toward that, and we have to keep going."

Villanueva had lots of “traffic” to deal with in the fourth and fifth. The Phillies loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, getting an assist when Starlin Castro made an error on a potential double-play ball. But Cody Asche hit a comebacker to Villanueva, who threw home for the force.

The Phillies had runners at second and third in the fifth, and scored a run on Chase Utley’s groundout. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg thought Utley was safe at first and challenged the call, but after review, the first at Wrigley Field, umpire CB Bucknor’s call was confirmed. Ryan Howard then hit a liner to Emilio Bonifacio, who had shifted to shallow right, and he grabbed it with a perfectly timed leap and got the force at second.

"That went from a moment of head down to a very excited, ‘I can’t believe we had somebody play there,’" Villanueva said of Bonifacio’s play in the fifth. "The inning before, we make an error, and the next inning, we have somebody there. It’s a crazy game. Today it worked for us. Sometimes you’re upset at the shift, sometimes nobody complains."

Villanueva took steps to assure Castro not to worry about his error.

"You have a choice there," Villanueva said. "You can decide to get upset and let it rattle you, or you pick him up. I know he’s not trying to make an error. I’ve talked a lot to Starlin, and he’s worked hard to improve his defense. The best thing I can do there is pick him up and make sure he understands I’m not upset. Hopefully, he gets another one to make him feel better."

Castro’s message to Villanueva?

“‘Give me another ground ball that I can make a double play on,’” Castro said. “I tried to make that play. If I don’t make it, I have eight more guys to pick me up. That’s why when other guys make errors, I’m there to pick them up, too.”

Renteria gave Villanueva a bear hug in the dugout after the fifth.

"He’s a big hugger," Villanueva said of the rookie manager. "He worked his magic on me."

The right-hander tried to talk Renteria into letting him go out for another inning, but that was it.

The Cubs began the day as the only Major League team to not score more than one run in an inning. They corrected that in the first. Castro was in the No. 6 spot in hopes of having him in position to drive in runs, and it worked. Bonifacio walked to lead off the first and scored on Kalish’s triple to right-center. Phillies starter A.J. Burnett walked Anthony Rizzo, and Nate Schierholtz followed with a sacrifice fly. Luis Valbuena walked to set up Castro’s RBI double and open a 3-0 lead. Ryan Sweeney added a sacrifice fly.

"[Renteria] told me, ‘I put you there because you have great numbers against Burnett,’" Castro said. "I’m good. Whatever spot he tries to put me in where he thinks I can do a good job, I’m on it."

Center fielder Ben Revere couldn’t get his glove on Sweeney’s ball in the sixth, and the error led to four unearned runs. Bonifacio hit an RBI single, Kalish followed with his two-run double, and Rizzo added an RBI single for an 8-1 lead.

The Phillies made it interesting in the ninth against Jose Veras, adding two runs. Renteria said they wanted the closer to get some work before Monday’s off-day and wasn’t concerned about the outing. Pedro Strop got Howard to fly out to Kalish in left to end the game and let Renteria celebrate his first win at Wrigley Field.

"It’s awesome," Castro said of the Cubs’ offense waking up. "We’ve been waiting for that for a long time. Today was a really good day."

Just ask Villanueva.

"I knew it would be a good day when the cable guy shows up on Sunday morning," he said.

Cubs.com

Castro bats sixth, welcomes opportunity for RBIs

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Starlin Castro has batted second and third this season, but on Sunday, Cubs manager Rick Renteria dropped the shortstop to the sixth spot in hopes he could drive in some runs. It worked.

Castro delivered an RBI double in the Cubs’ four-run first of an 8-3 victory over the Phillies.

The Cubs entered Sunday 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position through their first five games.

"It’s good, because we haven’t scored any runs," Castro said of the switch. "That’s why I’m going to try to do something to get some more runs. It’s good. I feel good. That’s a RBI position. Maybe we’ll have men on base in scoring position."

Renteria also wanted to take advantage of Castro’s numbers against Phillies starter A.J. Burnett. The Cubs shortstop is now 10-for-25 in his career against the right-hander.

The Cubs manager didn’t talk to Castro before posting the lineup.

"He’s not a guy I worry about," Renteria said.

Castro understood the switch.

"We haven’t scored runs," Castro said. "I take [batting sixth] in a good way. We’ve left a lot of people in scoring position. I know Ricky is trying to do something."

Baez homers for Triple-A Iowa to end slide

CHICAGO — Top prospect Javier Baez ended his hitless streak at Triple-A Iowa in style on Sunday with a pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning.

Baez was hitless in his first nine at-bats at Iowa and was ejected from Saturday’s game after arguing a checked-swing call on strike three.

"Javy probably should have gotten thrown out," Iowa manager Marty Pevey told the Des Moines Register after Saturday’s game. "As soon as he throws his hands up in the air, you’re gone."

Baez struck out six times in his first nine at-bats.

"He’s frustrated," Pevey told the Register. "There’s frustration there. Anybody that competes is going to react that way. He’s got to understand that all his teammates have his back and we understand."

Cubs manager Rick Renteria saw Baez quite a bit this spring and agreed Sunday that the shortstop is probably frustrated.

"They’re all young and trying to get through their growing pains," Renteria said Sunday. "I think it’s part of the process. I think he’ll overcome it and get better and learn from it and keep moving forward."

Arrieta works three hitless innings at Double-A

CHICAGO — Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, rehabbing from tightness in his right shoulder, gave up one run and took the loss in his first Minor League rehab start for Double-A Tennessee on Saturday.

The Smokies lost, 5-0, in a game shortened because of rain. Arrieta walked a batter, and the run scored on a wild pitch. He struck out three and threw 42 pitches, 28 strikes, in three innings.

Cubs manager Rick Renteria said he received good reports on Arrieta, who did not pitch in any Cactus League games this spring.

There is no timetable for Arrieta’s return, and he was expected to make at least two more Minor League starts.

Extra bases

• Outfielder Darnell McDonald, 35, who was in the Cubs’ Spring Training camp, has announced his retirement after 15 years in baseball. He posted this on Instagram: “After playing [15 years] professionally I’m humbled to announce that I’m hanging up my spikes. When one dream ends a new one begins. BIG thanks to everyone that has helped me fulfill my dream of playing in the show.”

McDonald batted .222 in 15 games this spring. He played for the Orioles, Twins, Reds, Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs, and finishes with a career .250 average.

Cubs.com

Phillies lose first challenge on play at first base

By Todd Zolecki

CHICAGO — The Phillies challenged their first call via instant replay in the fifth inning Sunday at Wrigley Field and lost.

They challenged that Chase Utley beat a throw to first base from Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, but the umpires took a look at the video and confirmed the out call.

It would have helped the Phillies had it been overturned, considering they had runners on first and third with no outs at the time. Ben Revere scored from third on the play, cutting the Cubs’ lead to 4-1 in an eventual 8-3 victory.

"It was a bang-bang play," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It’s the fifth inning. We need baserunners. It was worth a shot."

Sandberg went out to discuss the play with first-base umpire CB Bucknor before asking for a review of the play. It took a while to get the word from the dugout to review it.

"There are some rails and stuff [in the dugout]," Sandberg said. "It’s hard to see my signal from the dugout there, but the process was fine."

Cubs.com

Bucs, Morton will try to stop hot-hitting Bonifacio

Pirates embark on first road trip, facing Cubs starter Jackson

By Joe Popely

In six games, the Pirates have only intentionally walked two opposing hitters. Matt Holliday is one, but can you guess the other? Perhaps Yadier Molina? Anthony Rizzo? Starlin Castro?

No, all wrong. It was Cubs leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio, who absolutely demolished Pittsburgh pitching in the season-opening series at PNC Park. Bonifacio’s torrid pace began in the Steel City last week, going 11-for-16 with a pair of doubles and three runs scored against the Pirates. He’ll get another chance to torment Pirates pitching when Pittsburgh and righty Charlie Morton arrive at Wrigley Field on Tuesday for a three-game set.

"It would be impossible for us to believe he would maintain the clip he had through the Pittsburgh series but when he gets to the plate, he tries to work the count, he tries to get on, and when he gets on base, he wants to wreak havoc on the pitchers and the opposition," said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. "It’s good for him to be part of our club."

The Pirates got so frustrated pitching to Bonifacio that they finally decided to give him first base. With a runner on second at two outs in the 11th inning of Wednesday’s 16-inning 4-3 win by the Pirates, reliever Jeanmar Gomez intentionally walked Bonifacio. It was just the third time Bonifacio was intentionally walked in his now eight-year career, prompting laughter from the switch-hitter.

"I told [catcher Russell] Martin, ‘Really?’ and he said, ‘We can’t get you out,’" Bonifacio said after Wednesday’s game. "Even the umpire was laughing."

Bonifacio, a switch hitter, will likely be the first hitter to face Morton, who allowed just five hits and struck out six in six shutout innings against Chicago on Wednesday. Renteria stacked the lineup with six lefties against Morton and will likely do so again. Left-handers have hit .327 off Morton in his career, though he held the Cubs lefties to a respectable 4-for-14 (.286).

"They’re going to stack left-handers against Charlie," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Everybody that’s got ‘em will have ‘em in the lineup. He knows that. I think he’s past the point of being concerned about what left-handers are hitting against him."

Cubs: Kalish won’t mess with Wrigley’s bricks

Cubs outfielder Ryan Kalish became known in the Boston Red Sox organization for his willingness to do anything and everything to make a catch. That all-out mentality ultimately cost him after he made a diving catch in 2011 for Triple-A Pawtucket, forcing him to undergo four major surgeries on his neck and shoulder over a 23-month span.

After sitting out all of 2013, Kalish made the Cubs’ 25-man roster out of Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. In the fourth inning of Chicago’s 8-3 win over the Phillies on Sunday, Kalish crashed into the Under Armour sign in left-center to rob Ryan Howard of extra bases.

That web gem aside, Kalish said the injuries taught him how to dial back his aggressiveness on defense to preserve his body, and that he won’t try to out-muscle Wrigley Field’s brick outfield wall.

"I sat out way too long — you’ve got to pick your spots," he said. "I mean, I think your pitchers would rather you not crush the wall and break your shoulder in the outfield and just give up a double and continue playing because we need to all play for each other, and they’re going to want us out on the field rather than in the training room."

Pirates: Watson finding whiff pitch

After striking out three of the four men he faced in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Cardinals to notch the win, Pittsburgh left-handed reliever Tony Watson has now struck out six in three shutout innings.

He’s been nothing but consistent,” Hurdle said. “He’s grown — his velocity has built up. The breaking ball is shaping up better. The changeup has become a big pitch for him. He’s become one of the guys every club wants to talk to us about — we’ve got a special guy. We’ve known that, and he has also opened the eyes of a number of other teams.”

Worth noting

• Bonifacio hit a sixth-inning single in Sunday’s win over the Phillies to increase his hits total to 14, leading the Major Leagues.

• Cubs starter Carlos Villanueva, who picked up the win Sunday with five innings of one-run ball, became the first Cubs pitcher since 2000 to pitch in relief and make a start within the team’s first six games of the season.

• In the six-game homestand, leadoff batters (Bonifacio and the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter) were 15-for-26 against the Pirates.

• After adding another inning to the string on Sunday, Mark Melancon has gone 65 innings without allowing a homer, longest active streak in the Majors.

• Cubs starter Edwin Jackson didn’t get a decision in his first start of the season, which ended in a 16-inning loss to the Bucs. He held them to two hits over 5 1/3 frames but walked four. He admitted he didn’t have his best stuff, and maybe pitching at home will help.

ESPNChicago.com

Villanueva puts aside early struggles

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — It’s not often that a starting pitcher enters his first start of the season, only five games into the year, with two losses and 13.50 ERA. But that was the case with Carlos Villanueva.

Villanueva won the Chicago Cubs fifth starter spot out of spring but has been a swing man throughout his career. With the Cubs suffering through two long, extra-inning games early in the season, Villanueva was called upon to help the team out and throw in relief. In both cases he gave up a lone run and was hung with the loss.

"It’s too early for that," Villanueva said of looking at his statistics. "I’ve learned, with time, that looking at the stats, reading a lot — you guys write nice things too, sometimes — it doesn’t help. A lot of people have a lot of opinions. The numbers are there. I’m a guy, I check my numbers twice a year, All-Star break and the end of the season. I try not to let that influence how I feel, because I’m a feel guy when it comes to pitching, emotional. I don’t want to bring myself down by looking at the high number and when it’s going well, you don’t want to get too cocky. For me, what mattered today was we got a win."

Manager Rick Renteria told him not to worry about the two losses early on, but Villanueva said it wasn’t something that bothered him. Earlier in his career, he said it likely would have rattled him, but he’s matured since then.

"You take the positive out of it," Villanueva said. "Hey, I only gave up two runs, that’s how I saw it. Now I got a chance to contribute in today’s start, you have to forget about it."

Villanueva did just that by pitching five solid innings, giving up only one run and six hits while striking out three. The outing lowered Villanueva’s ERA to a much more respectable 4.26 and gave the Cubs starting pitchers a 1.93 ERA through six games.

Villanueva continued to display his poise on the mound when he remained unfazed by a Starlin Castro error in the fourth. With one down and two men on, Carlos Ruiz hit what appeared to be a tailor-made double play, but Castro was unable to record an out. Villanueva calmly retired the next two batters without allowing a run to score.

"Quite frankly, I was impressed about how he did that more than anything," Renteria said. "Just like Jeff [Samardzija] the other day did in pitching out of jams and not letting something happen and all of a sudden you let the air out of the balloon. So what? He kept pitching, he kept us in the game and the guys continued to contribute."

The loquacious Villanueva said he wasn’t about to allow one mistake to derail his start.

"You have a choice there," Villanueva said. "Get upset and let it rattle your or you pick him up. [Castro’s] playing his butt off out there, they all are, obviously I know he’s not trying to make an error. I’ve talked a lot to Starlin and he’s worked really hard to improve his defense. The best thing I can do there is pick him up, make sure he knows I’m not upset with him and hopefully he gets another one so he makes himself feel better. I’m glad it worked out that inning."

ESPNChicago.com

Kalish glad to play role in victory

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — Ryan Kalish says he lives like every day may be his last. With his parents watching in the Wrigley stands, Kalish made sure Sunday was a good one for him and the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs’ offense has sputtered early in the season, especially with men on base, but Kalish quickly put the team at ease by driving a run-scoring triple off the wall in right-center field in the first inning. Kalish drove in two more with a double in the sixth and had two walks for good measure as the Cubs went on to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-3.

Kalish, who was making only his second start of the season, was asked if that’s what he called making the most of an opportunity.

"I call it making the most of helping my team win," Kalish said. "Every day I just come in and I’m just ready for whatever’s thrown my way. Especially with everything I’ve been through, I don’t really care, I just want to give it my all when I’m given the chance."

Before this season, Kalish hadn’t played in a major league game since September 2012. After having recurring back and neck issues stemming from a collision with an outfield wall in April 2011, Kalish underwent cervical fusion surgery and missed the 2013 season.

Once a well-thought of prospect in the Boston Red Sox system, Kalish was an afterthought by many heading into spring training with the Cubs. But after proving he was healthy and productive, he earned his way onto the Opening Day roster.

"It’s been awesome, I’ve enjoyed every single day," Kalish said of making the team out of spring. "I’m trying to live my life like every day could be your last mentality. Especially my story, it’s just the way I have to live and the way I think we all should live. We’re all really blessed to be here in the major leagues, a lot of people aren’t as fortunate to have that opportunity. I’m just trying to do what I can with it."

Kalish also flashed the leather, going to the wall to make a catch on a long drive from Ryan Howard, and making a nice snag on another Howard liner to end the game.

"I love the outfield, I’m comfortable in any position at any time, any park, you just have to know what kind of wall you’re dealing with. I’m not going full-speed into this one here, guys, I’m just going to keep it real," Kalish said with a smile of the soon-to-be ivy-covered brick wall at Wrigley Field. "I sat out way too long; you gotta pick your spots."

While his defense was solid, it was his and the Cubs’ ability to finally put runs on the board that was the key to victory. The Cubs entered the game 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position, but went 4-for-7 on Sunday. In Saturday’s 2-0 loss, the Cubs managed 10 hits, but only one extra-base hit and one walk. They outdid both those numbers in only the first inning Sunday, ending the day with seven walks and three extra-base hits.

"We put some good swings on some pitches that were handleable for our hitters," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "Fortunately, for us, they ended up finding some gaps. They’ve strung together some good at-bats over the course of the last five or six days, we just haven’t had a lot to show for it. Today we happened to have some balls find some holes and we took advantage of it."

With the Cubs starting staff delivering a 1.93 ERA and some bright spots in the bullpen (primarily the unscored-upon trio of Hector Rondon, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop), the Cubs would love it if the offense could follow suit.

"Offense is always contagious," Kalish said. "I’ve done a lot of watching and I’ve seen it. Last year I really studied the game and you see, when teams get the bats going and everyone’s in it together. This team, I know we haven’t gotten off to the best start, but in this clubhouse everyone’s really close for such a short time. And once you get the bats going, it’s really fun."

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 8, Phillies 3

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs avoided being swept by the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday with an 8-3 win at Wrigley Field.

How it happened: After getting shut out for the second time in their first five games on Saturday, the Cubs wasted no time getting on the board Sunday. The Cubs drew three walks in the first, Ryan Kalish drove in a run on a triple off the wall in right-center and Starlin Castro drove in another with a double over the head of Dominic Brown. Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Sweeney each added run-scoring sacrifice flies to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead after one. Kalish reached base four times on the day with two walks, and in addition to his first-inning triple, added a two-RBI double in a four-run sixth. Carlos Villanueva allowed just one run in five innings and the bullpen backed him up the rest of the way.

What it means: The Cubs’ early-season trend of getting solid starting pitching continued with Villanueva’s performance dropping the Cubs starters’ ERA to 1.93. The bullpen has had some shaky moments early, particularly closer Jose Veras, who walked four in 2/3 of an inning Sunday. But the trio of setup men, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm and Hector Rondon, haven’t allowed a run yet in 11 innings this year, with Rondon working two scoreless innings on Sunday and Strop working 1/3 after Veras failed to finish the ninth..

Outside the box: While hitting with runners in scoring position is certainly a plus (they went 4-for-7 on the day), the Cubs showed that patience and power can go a long way as well, drawing seven walks and clubbing three extra-base hits a day after having only one of each.

Up next: After a day off in Chicago on Monday, the Cubs start a three-game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday. Edwin Jackson and Charlie Morton face off for the second time early in the season as the Cubs try to put together their first win streak of the year.

ESPNChicago.com

Arrieta goes three innings in rehab start

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta made a successful rehab start on Saturday night for the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate.

Arrieta tossed three innings of no-hit ball, striking out three and walking just one, but took the loss after allowing an unearned run on a wild pitch. Arrieta, who is working his way back from right shoulder tightness, threw just 42 pitches.

Arrieta is expected to make at least two more rehab starts before returning to the Cubs rotation, which possibly could happen as early as late April. Arrieta, who the Cubs acquired last July in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, started nine games for Chicago last season, posting a 3.66 ERA in his 51 2/3 innings of work.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs: Ready for anything, Grimm wants another chance to start

By TONY ANDRACKI

It’s not the most conventional way of doing things, but Justin Grimm is willing to take the Jeff Samardzija path to get what he wants.

Grimm is currently in the Cubs’ bullpen, but the 25-year-old righty doesn’t want to be there forever. He’s got his sights set on a rotation spot down the road.

"From my standpoint, I value myself as a starter in the future," Grimm said. "Right now, where my development is at, where I’m at in my process, the bullpen fits me now.

"I definitely think, eventually, I’ll go back to starting…We’re just going to have to see how it plays out and go from there."

Like Samardzija, Grimm was selected in the fifth round out of college and began his minor-league career strictly as a starter before getting pigeonholed as a reliever in the big leagues.

Samardzija, the big-name prospect with the $10 million-dollar arm and an All-American resume as a wide receiver at Notre Dame, bet big on himself and petitioned the Cubs front office to give him a chance to start before the 2012 season. They obliged and he has emerged as one of the premier pitchers in the league with frontline potential and minimal wear on his right arm.

Grimm — a University of Georgia product who came to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers in the Matt Garza deal last summer — doesn’t carry the same pedigree, but hopes he can make the same transition as Samardzija one day.

Right now, Grimm is excelling in the Cubs bullpen. He’s been a workhorse with four appearances in the first five games and hasn’t allowed a run. Between this year and his 10 appearances late last season, the 6-foot-3 righty is sporting a 1.42 ERA as a reliever with the Cubs.

It hasn’t been an easy transition. He’s used to getting the ball at the beginning of games and working as long as he can. Now, he has to be ready at a moment’s notice and is working in short sprints rather than extended outings.

"I’m just ready every time I get the ball. Whether it’s the fifth inning or the ninth inning, it doesn’t matter," Grimm said. "I’m just taking it an outing at a time.

"I think it’s just more of the mindset. Being aggressive, taking it a pitch at a time, one out at a time and just seeing how many outs you can get. You do that as a starter, but coming out of the ‘pen, it’s just about being more aggressive. And right now, where I’m at in my development, I think it fits my mold."

Grimm has had success as a starter in the past, with a 3.28 ERA career ERA in three minor-league seasons. In the Rangers’ rotation early last season, he had a 2.28 ERA in his first four starts, but then the wheels started to come off a bit and he finished with a 6.37 ERA in 17 big-league starts.

The Virginia native has a bit of a southern twang and texted former Georgia teammate — and current White Sox infielder — Gordon Beckham to get the lay of the land in Chicago.

When he was first traded to the Cubs, Grimm wasn’t sure what was expected of him and admitted he was surprised when he was immediately sent to Triple-A Iowa.

"But they had their plan and their thing going on here already and I understood that," he said. "Being up here last September in the ‘pen was good for me and got my confidence up to where it needed to be going into spring training."

He’ll need that confidence if he’s going to convince the Cubs he can cut it as a starter in the majors.

"I just think there’s going to come a point in time when I speak up and say ‘Hey, I want to give this a try,’ and they’ll give me my shot," Grimm said. "I think that’s what it will come to.

"Obviously, I’m having some success now in the bullpen and they’re seeing that. It was early in my career when I came up and started and maybe I wasn’t necessarily quite ready to be a starter in the big leagues.

"Maybe the bullpen would’ve been a better option for me to start out, like Samardzija did and [former Rangers and current Angels pitcher] C.J. Wilson did."

Grimm has four pitches and likes to throw his changeup as a nice complement to his mid-90s fastball.

But right now, the Cubs have no room in their rotation, especially with Jake Arrieta on the mend and close to returning from a shoulder issue. However, the front office has traded away 40 percent of the starting staff the last two seasons and apart from Kyle Hendricks, the organization’s top pitching prospects are just now getting a taste of Double-A ball.

It might not be long before Grimm gets his shot, but he’s not thinking about that yet. He’s just going with the flow and he knows there’s more work to be done.

"I’m just taking it day-by-day right now and hopefully build off the success in the bullpen," he said. "And then when the time comes and I feel like I’m ready, maybe I’ll talk to them about starting."

CSNChicago.com

Cubs feeding off Ryan Kalish’s all-out approach

By TONY ANDRACKI

Jay-Z’s hit song “Hard Knock Life” was blasting through the speakers in the Cubs locker room following Sunday’s 8-3 win over the Phillies.

It was fitting that shortly after the song ended, Ryan Kalish spoke to the media.

Kalish, a 26-year-old outfielder, may have felt like the whole world was against him as he endured injury after injury over the last three years. Shoulder surgeries and a cervical fusion procedure — performed by the same doctor who operated on Peyton Manning’s neck — limited Kalish to just 93 games the last three seasons.

So when asked if his big game Sunday was making the most of an opportunity, Kalish had one minor alteration to the question.

"I call it making the most of helping my team win," he said. "Every day, I just come in and I’m ready for whatever’s thrown my way. With everything I’ve been through, I don’t really care. I just want to give it my all when I get the chance."

With the Cubs offense struggling mightily through the season’s first five games, manager Rick Renteria inserted Kalish in the two-hole Sunday and the speedy outfielder gave the team a big lift, drilling the first pitch he saw off the wall in right-center for an RBI triple.

It ignited the offense as the Cubs doubled their season scoring total in one game.

"Offense is always contagious," Kalish said. "I’ve done a lot of watching and I’ve seen it. Last year, I really studied the game and you see when teams get the bats going and everyone is in this together having fun.

"We just need to build off each day. We’re in games. It’s not like we’re getting blown out or anything. Things are close. If we can keep this momentum going and continue to build, why not us?"

Kalish added a two-run double later in the game and also walked twice and made a nice catch up against the vines in left field. His parents were among the 26,712 fans at Wrigley Field, providing a “special” experience for Kalish after all they’ve been through with him.

It’s been quite the ride for the former Boston Red Sox draft pick who was once considered among the top prospects in the game. After all he’s endured, his relief was palpable Sunday as he stood at his locker cracking jokes and sharing philosophies on life.

"It’s been awesome," Kalish said. "I’ve enjoyed every single day. I’m trying to live my life like ‘every day could be your last’ type of mentality. With my story, it’s the way I have to live and the way I think we all should live.

"We’re all really blessed to be here in the major leagues. A lot of people aren’t as fortunate to have that opportunity and I’m just trying to do what I can with it."

CSNChicago.com

Cubs bust out of slump, explode for eight runs in win

By TONY ANDRACKI

The Cubs have insisted over and over again they’re feeling good at the plate, even if the results haven’t been there.

Relief — and justification — was swift Sunday, as the Cubs put on an offensive show in a 8-3 win over the Phillies in front of 26,712 at Wrigley Field.

Rick Renteria played around with the lineup and it paid off. The Cubs scored four runs in each the first and sixth innings. Ryan Kalish, hitting second, led the charge with a double, triple, two walks, two runs and three RBI.

"It was nice. A lot of production today," Renteria said. "A lot of well-struck balls, a lot of good at-bats up and down the lineup. It was a good day.

"They’ve strung together some good at-bats over the course of the last five-six days, but we just haven’t had much to show for it. Today, we happened to have some balls find the holes and we took advantage of it."

Anthony Rizzo singled twice, walked and picked up a two-out RBI in the sixth inning. Starlin Castro also delivered an RBI double in the first. A day after he picked up three hits in the two-hole, Renteria dropped Castro to sixth in the order and the manager said the 24-year-old shortstop might hit all over the Cubs lineup.

For his part, Castro said he was up for anything.

"I’m good. Whatever spot he puts me that he thinks I can do a good job with, I’m on it," Castro said, calling the Cubs’ offensive breakout "awesome." "We’ve been waiting for that for a long time…Today is a really good day."

The Cubs only had six hits, but took full advantage of seven walks, a hit-by-pitch and a big, three-base error from Phillies centerfielder Ben Revere. Every Cubs starter either drove in or scored a run, providing all the offense starter Carlos Villanueva and the bullpen needed.

Villanueva, who pitched in relief in the Cubs’ first two games, battled through five innings, allowing six hits and one run. He worked around a crucial error by Castro and maintained what Renteria called Villanueva’s “so what?” approach, refusing to let anything rattle him.

"How ‘bout that guy? We use him twice in Pittsburgh and he comes back and gets us out of a jam," Renteria said. "I was impressed at how he did that as much as anything…pitching out of jams and not worrying about when something happens. He kept pitching and kept us in the game and the guys continued to contribute."

Brian Schlitter and Hector Rondon combined for three scoreless innings in relief before things fell apart a little bit in the ninth. Cubs close Jose Veras walked four batters and let in two runs, but Pedro Strop came in to shut the door and preserve the victory.

After having to hear about the lack of offense every day for the first week of the 2014 season, the Cubs can relax heading into a day off before Pittsburgh comes to town. The weight is off their shoulders…for now.

"They’ll have an opportunity to get some rest with a day off tomorrow," Renteria said. "It’s nice to go into the break with a day off and that mindset is very positive."

CSNChicago.com

Emilio Bonifacio giving the Cubs the spark they need

By TONY ANDRACKI

Six games into the season, new Cubs manager Rick Renteria has yet to use the same lineup twice.

But there has been one constant: Emilio Bonifacio is the leadoff hitter.

It doesn’t matter what position he plays — Bonifacio has started at both center field and second base and also seen time at shortstop — Bonifacio has given the Cubs an important spark atop the order.

"He’s a ball of energy," Renteria said. "He’s talking in the dugout all the time. He’s walking up and down. We come in and he’s talking about getting on base and trying to score runs. He’s a ball of energy we appreciate having."

Bonifacio set an MLB record with nine hits in his first two games and entered play Sunday leading the National League with 13 hits and four stolen bases.

The 28-year-old utilty player has had quite the journey to Chicago. After signing with the Diamondbacks out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, he was traded to the Nationals in July 2008, then dealt to the Marlins a couple months later. In November 2012, Bonifacio joined Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in the Blue Jays-Marlins megadeal.

The Royals purchased Bonifacio’s contract from Toronto last August before releasing him in February. Five days later, the Cubs signed him and he’s found a home in the leadoff spot.

"It’s kind of an interesting situation that he fell through," Renteria said. "Fortunately for us, we were able to get him and take advantage of the skillset that he brings to the table.

"Obviously, he’s off to a good start and hopefully he can continue to maintain that."

The Cubs aren’t expecting Bonifacio to hit .542 (his average entering play Sunday) all year, but they believe his tools play better in the NL, with more of a small-ball approach.

He struggled in the AL last year, but had a career .332 on-base percentage and 103 steals during four seasons in Miami.

"We felt like he was sort of miscast in the American League," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "He’s a really good National League player, a guy that can do a lot of different things — play positions, lead off, pinch-run. You need those guys for a good bench in the National League.

"To us, seeing him places like Toronto and Kansas City, that’s a little bit of a waste of what he can do well on the baseball field. He gives Rick Renteria and the coaching staff a lot of different weapons within the same player."

Hoyer labeled Bonifacio as a bench player, but it’s been impossible for Renteria to take him out of the lineup right now. Bonifacio joins Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo — two franchise cornerstones — as the only Cubs to start every game in the early going.

"I would love it if he would [outgrow a bench role]," Hoyer said. "He’s certainly not a young player where you think that he has that kind of upside, but he’s got a coaching staff that likes him a lot and he’s got a role where he can play a great deal.

"Sometimes, those kind of players in that kind of season can out-perform expectations. I also like the fact that he knows what his game is. You don’t see a lot of fly balls out of him. You don’t see him get big with his swing very often.

"He knows why he’s on this team and what he’s trying to do and I think that’s an important element to any team."

The Cubs have found reasonable success picking up players off the scrap heap (think: Shawn Camp, Luis Valbuena). Bonifacio probably won’t become a part of The Core, but he’s still young enough to fill in as the valuable role player Hoyer envisioned.

His average will come back down to Earth and soon enough, prospects like Javier Baez will be hitting Wrigley Field, pushing for playing time and forcing guys like Bonifacio to the bench.

But for now, on a team that will struggle to score runs, the Cubs will take any spark they can get.

06 4 / 2014

CSNChicago.com

As Cubs search for rhythm. Samardzija powers through

By Tony Andracki

In a few months, this could all be a moot point.

If he’s traded before the deadline like many predict, Jeff Samardzija won’t have to worry about trying to come up with answers for what plagues the Cubs’ offense.

Until then, there’s nothing Samardzija can do but keep grinding.

In 14 innings this season, the ultra-competitive right-hander has allowed just two runs, but the Cubs have failed to provide any run support, getting shut out in both games, including a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies Saturday at Wrigley Field.

Still, Samardzija refused to make excuses or exhibit frustration at the lack of offense.

"I see these guys work every day," he said. "I know what they’re doing. It would be different if guys were being lazy or that. We’re doing everything we can.

"It’s early in the season and we’re going to keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."

After tossing seven shutout innings in the Cubs’ 10-inning, 1-0 loss on Opening Day, Samardzija allowed just two runs to the Phillies in seven innings Saturday. The offense generated 10 hits off former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, but left 10 men on base.

"Anybody would be disheartened by it, but Jeff went out there and got all fired up," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "He did the best he could for our club to keep us in the ballgame. Those guys that are on the field appreciate what he went through.

"He gave us a lot of innings, got us through some tough patches there. You gotta tip your hat to him. He did a great job."

Samardzija struggled to get Phillies second baseman Chase Utley out on the afternoon, as the veteran scored both runs on a first-inning homer and an RBI single from Domonic Brown in the fourth inning. In the series, Utley is 5-for-8 with two homers, a double, three runs, four RBI and a walk.

The Cubs hope Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo will emerge as go-to guys in the same capacity Utley has been with the Phillies the last decade. The duo exhibited signs Saturday they may be breaking out of their early-season slump, combining for five hits off Lee. But they failed to come through with runners on base.

The Cubs insist they’re not pressing at the plate, despite scoring only eight runs in five games.

"It’s definitely too early for that. Nobody around here is feeling extra pressure," third baseman Mike Olt said. "We’re just trying to figure something out."

The Cubs are just 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position this season and Renteria is trying to help the guys relax at the plate in those situations, even if it means repeating the same message over and over again.

"It’s OK if it’s a broken record," he said. "You keep repeating it. You keep talking about it. You never stop talking about it until you understand it and get a good feel for it.

"A lot of it just continues to be more games. We just keep getting in more (at-bats). I know we didn’t come out with a victory today, but it was a ballgame we were in the whole way."

Samardzija was the reason the Cubs were still hanging around late in the game, pumping 95 mph fastballs in the seventh inning and striking out the last four batters he faced. He admitted he takes pride in pitching deep into games and finishing strong.

The former standout receiver at Notre Dame loves when the pressure is on and said it doesn’t affect him when the Cubs offense gives him no room for error.

"Nothing changes. You just go out there and try to get three outs," Samardzija said. "I’ve learned over these past couple years to not look at it as a whole and break it more down to just inning-by-inning and hitter-by-hitter.

"You start going into a game saying, ‘I gotta go seven, eight innings,’ that’s a tall task to ask for yourself. But to go out and say, ‘I gotta get the first hitter out, the second hitter out, the third hitter out,’ that’s a little bit better approach.

"That’s part of the learning process and having that confidence in yourself."

Samardzija has that supreme confidence, regularly betting on himself and refusing to budge in past extension talks with the Cubs. He wants to get paid like a frontline starter and believes he will put it all together.

Who knows how many starts he has left at Wrigley Field. Who knows how many starts he has left pitching in front of an offense that can’t score behind him.

It’s not even a week into the 2014 season. Samardzija isn’t looking for an exit ramp just yet.

He knows some things are out of his control and the Cubs remain positive in the clubhouse despite a 1-4 start.

"Something’s going to click soon," Olt said, "and then we’ll go from there."

CSNChicago.com

Samardzija strong, but Cubs’ bats silent again in loss

By Tony Andracki

It may be early, but this is starting to become a theme already.

The Cubs received some strong starting pitching again, but lack of timely hitting led to a 2-0 loss to the Phillies in front of 30,651 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday.

Jeff Samardzija struck out eight and allowed just two runs in seven innings for the Cubs, but the offense couldn’t push across a run despite 10 hits off former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee.

Starlin Castro collected three singles and Anthony Rizzo and Emilio Bonifacio each had two hits, but the Cubs stranded 10 men on base.

On the season, the Cubs are 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position and have scored just eight runs in five games.

Meanwhile, the starting rotation has a 1.95 ERA through 32.1 innings.

CSNChicago.com

Amid offensive struggles, Cubs finalize starting rotation

By Tony Andracki

The Cubs finalized their rotation this weekend, announcing Carlos Villanueva would start Sunday’s series finale against the Phillies.

With Jake Arrieta sidelined due to a shoulder injury in spring training, the Cubs broke camp with Villanueva slotted in the fifth-starter role. But thanks to a pair of extra-inning games in Pittsburgh, the 30-year-old swingman has already made two appearances out of the bullpen and thrown 30 pitches on the season.

Villanueva took the loss in both games, serving up a leadoff homer to Neil Walker in the 10th inning on Opening Day and then allowing the walk-off run in Wednesday’s 16-inning marathon. Arrieta was slated to make a rehab start for Double-A Tennessee Saturday and may be back in the mix soon.

It’s only four games into the season, but the Cubs’ rotation has looked very good in the early going, entering play Saturday fourth in Major League Baseball with a 1.78 rotation ERA and third with a .172 batting average against.

"They’ve all been fantastic," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "They’ve been great."

The problem for the Cubs has been offense, as they’ve given their rotation just eight runs of support in five games, the lowest output in the majors.But the pitching has kept the Cubs in each game so far, which Renteria partially attributed to Welington Castillo’s work behind the plate. The Cubs have spent a lot of time the last couple years working with the young catcher on how to call a game and Renteria likes what he’s seen so far.

"Weli’s doing a great job with the staff," Renteria said. "They’re constantly communicating. This is a situation where he’s really improved.

"Everybody saw improvement with him last year, but I think the confidence and the comfort they’re starting to have with each other is big for our club."

CSNChicago.com

Ryne Sandberg remembers initiation of rooftop fans at Wrigley

By Tony Andracki

Ryne Sandberg could sit for hours — maybe even days — and tell stories about what it was like playing at Wrigley Field for so many years.

But the one story you don’t hear much of is how the rooftops surrounding The Friendly Confines became populated with fans. It started in 1984, when Ryno earned the National League MVP Award and the Cubs won 96 games.

As the Ricketts family duels the rooftop owners in city hearings and Showtime specials, Sandberg looked back at the birth of rooftop fans at Wrigley.

"In ‘84, the whole place came alive and I saw the first fans on the rooftops," Sandberg said during the Wrigley opener Friday. "It started with two guys in maybe late July on the rooftop. Then, we went away for a road trip, came back and it was maybe eight or 10 guys on the rooftop and a couple folding chairs.

"Just to see that transformation, to see it be a tough ticket here for the rest of my career and a packed house [was cool]. This is real, true baseball here. There was a lot of conversation about that from opposing players that liked coming here just for the atmosphere."

Messing with that “atmosphere” is one of the arguments from the rooftop owners who don’t want an advertising sign in right field and a Jumbotron in left. The Cubs have yet to install either sign in fear of a lawsuit from the rooftop owners.

On a bitterly cold day with biting winds topping 20 mph for the home opener against Sandberg’s Phillies Friday, the rooftops were almost bare. But the sun emerged and the temperature rose Saturday, bringing fans back to the top of the buildings surrounding Wrigley Field.

Chicago Tribune

Patience at plate pays off for Anthony Rizzo

In sign of progress, Cubs 1st baseman works count enough to notch 2 singles off Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee

By Fred Mitchell

Anthony Rizzo managed a pair of singles off Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee Saturday, fortifying his manager’s confidence in him.

"He stayed up the middle a little bit more, not really pulling off," Rick Renteria said. "They jumped ahead of him a little on a couple of breaking balls or pitches down and away. He stayed in there, kept working the count and tried not to do too much."

Last season the left-handed hitter had two hits in a game against lefties four times.

Touchy, feely: The Cubs avoided a big inning from the Phillies in the fourth when Wil Nieves grounded hard to third baseman Mike Olt, though it appeared Olt may have missed touching the bag at third for a force out before throwing to first for complete an inning-ending double play.

"I definitely thought I hit it," Olt said initially, before later adding, "Maybe I got lucky."

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg questioned the call between innings with umpire Hal Gibson, though he decided not to challenge it.

Making themselves at home: Renteria said he would like his ballclub to take advantage of the unique characteristics of Wrigley Field to score more runs. And that might involve him managing home games differently.

"We talk about the winds and things of that nature about how it might affect what we like to do on certain days," he said. "The ball might not be carrying … you change how you manage. You play a little bit more small ball; you put guys in motion, things of that nature. We kind of let the game play itself out. We have to get guys on base first."

Catch as catch can: Catcher Welington Castillo is hitting just .118, but he gets credit for calling effective games for the pitching staff.

"Welly is doing a great job with the staff," Renteria said. "They are constantly communicating. He has really improved."

"It’s hard to call a game when a pitcher doesn’t have anything," Castillo said. "But my job is just to try to keep him in (the game) as long as I can and keep the game close and give us a chance to win."

Extra innings: Starlin Castro was 3-for-4 to extend his hitting streak against the Phillies to nine games. … Emilio Bonafacio (2-for-4) is hitting .542. … Right-hander Casey Coleman, 26, was transferred from Triple-A Iowa to the short-season Class A Boise Hawks on Friday, effectively ending his playing career with the Cubs organization.

Chicago Tribune

Cubs selling minority stakes a natural progression

In modern world of sports franchises, it’s common for ownership to seek outside investment for many reasons

By David Haugh

When Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and his family purchased the team in 2009, hopeless baseball romantics likened Chicago’s newest sports ownership group to the O’Malleys, the longtime legendary former owners of the Dodgers.

Naturally, the Rickettses embraced any comparison to a name in their sport that signified stability and hands-on success during the O’Malleys’ historic reign from 1950-97.

Even the O’Malleys had minority partners.

After Walter F. O’Malley wrestled majority control of the Dodgers away from Branch Rickey in 1950, he owned 66 percent of the franchise. Not until 25 years later did O’Malley assume full ownership rights after acquiring the remaining 34 percent of the Dodgers, which the family eventually sold to Fox in 1998.

The league and the economy have changed significantly since the old-fashioned O’Malley days but teams still routinely sell minority stakes for a variety of justifiable reasons, making the Cubs’ news less startling than at first blush.

Their interest in investors doesn’t say the Rickettses are struggling financially under mountains of debt as much as it suggests the family is solving its issues more pragmatically. The move takes advantage of investors’ potential interest in a $1.2 billion franchise, according to Forbes, that has increased in value 42 percent during the Ricketts era and likely will be worth more after Wrigley Field renovation and the Cubs’ next television deal. Ricketts estimated improvements could generate “$30 to $40 million a year, minimum,” while teams such as the Dodgers and Rangers have proven the benefits of the possible TV windfall that awaits the Cubs.

"People see we’re doing a lot of the dirty work and we’ve laid the groundwork,” Ricketts said. "This is a good time to get in.”

The surprise shouldn’t be that the Ricketts family chose now to strongly consider seeking interested parties to help finance the $500 million renovation of Wrigley Field or buy a piece of the team. Perhaps everybody should be more surprised they didn’t choose this option sooner — particularly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel made it clear no public funds would be used on the project. If not inevitable, this was understandable.

According to sources, Emanuel’s firm stance compelled the Cubs to respond by exploring other financing options to defray their personal costs. More typically, teams arrange financing for stadium construction for new or existing projects through bonds or debt — but nothing about attempts to renovate the 100-year ballpark has been typical.

Look no further than to Chicago’s other professional sports teams for examples of minority investment. The Blackhawks offer the city’s exception to the rule with no minority investors, a spokesman said. But in 1990, the McCaskeys sold 20 percent of the Bears to Andrew McKenna and Pat Ryan. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf maintains controlling interest of the Bulls and White Sox but collaborates with limited partners of both teams.

"It’s really not abnormal,” Ricketts said.

Count the Diamondbacks and Mets among the most recent MLB teams to seek minority ownership. The Mets sold 12 shares worth $20 million apiece in March 2012, according to the New York Times. To attract potential investors, the Mets offered incentives such as offseason lunches with the manager and access to Mr. Met, the team’s mascot. Comedian Bill Maher was among the Mets new minority owners, illustrating how buying a stake could appeal to celebrities with disposable income looking for a fun investment.

After Ricketts addressed the matter Friday, news outlets reported billionaire Warren Buffett already had expressed interest. Speaking of Nebraskans, an individual Ricketts family member always could emerge as a minority investor. Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, approached me in the press box to ask on behalf of him and several friends how much money Ricketts sought from minority owners. (Will investment levels start at $50 million?) The list of intrigued investors will grow, likely including local venture capitalists and Chicago luminaries. Hello, John Cusack?

In terms of perception, Ricketts faces the challenge of making clear additional silent partners will stay silent to avoid any special interests being served. Buying a seat at the boardroom table shouldn’t guarantee any investor a voice in decisions, a reality the chairman vowed to enforce.

"Ultimately, the family will only sell minority stakes so the ultimate decision rests with the family,” Ricketts said.

Additionally, traditionalists need some assurance that all the personal investments won’t result in a commercial sell-off of every conceivable inch of Wrigley. The Bill Murray Box Seats. The Vince Vaughn VIP Section. Oprah’s ivy. The gauche possibilities go on.

The new and improved Wrigley Field must strike a balance between preserving tradition and maximizing profit opportunities. Once the revenue stream starts flowing vigorously because of a better ballpark and bigger TV contract, Ricketts reaffirmed the Cubs will spend like a big-market team should to compete for a World Series.

That remains the overall plan. This latest development merely represents another important part of the process.

Chicago Tribune

Cliff Lee and Phillies blank Cubs 2-0

Despite 10 hits, offense can’t get anything going as it wastes another strong outing from Jeff Samardzija

By Fred Mitchell

The Cubs have scored just eight runs in their first five games as their frustrating ineptitude with runners in scoring position has carried over from last season.

They were 0-for-7 in that key category in Saturday’s 2-0 loss to the Phillies at Wrigley Field, and 4-for-40 overall to start the season.

"We just haven’t been able to get the big hit," manager Rick Renteria understated as his team fell to 1-4 averaging just 1.6 runs per game.

Phillies veteran left-hander Cliff Lee scattered 10 hits and walked none over seven innings while blanking the Cubs.

Meanwhile, the Cubs wasted another strong outing from starter Jeff Samardzija, who also pitched seven innings. He allowed two runs on six hits while striking out eight and walking three (one intentional).

Cubs starters have a sparkling 1.95 ERA to start the season.

"We have a pretty veteran-laden staff that understands what you can control as a pitcher," Samardzija (0-1, 1.29) said. "It feels good to do your job and do it well. What happens outside of that is what it is."

Astonishingly, the Cubs collected seven hits from three of the top four men in the lineup — Emilio Bonifacio (two), Starlin Castro (three) and Anthony Rizzo (two). Yet they came up empty in the scoring column while leaving 10 men stranded.

"(Lee) was working both sides of the plate really well, and he was mixing his off-speed pitches and keeping us off balance," said third baseman Mike Olt, who went 0-for-4.

Lee threw 104 pitches before Jake Diekman and Jonathan Papelbon finished off the Cubs in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively.

The Phillies took a 1-0 lead in the first when Chase Utley lined a 1-1 pitch into the right field bleachers for his second homer in as many days. He was 3-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored Saturday.

"He’s right on the dish," Samardzija said of the Phillies second baseman. "He has a short swing, and he loves the ball in. As a pitcher, it sort of puts you in a tough spot right off the bat.

"You need to attack him away and see what his approach is. But for him knowing his power zone is in … and being on top of the dish … he covers the plate. Not to mention he has a great eye. You add those together and you have one tough out."

Domonic Brown lofted a soft, one-out RBI single to left to finish the scoring in the fourth after Utley had drawn a leadoff walk and Ryan Howard singled.

Renteria said he is trying to get his players to relax at the plate with runners in scoring position.

"I don’t know if it’s a mindset," he said. "You do have to be relaxed and know the pitcher’s on the ropes a little bit. You talk about it, and then you see if it is starting to take hold … their understanding of that particular type of situation."

The Cubs have been shut out twice in five games; the Pirates blanked them 1-0 in 10 innings in the season-opener in Pittsburgh. Samardzija was the victim in that loss too.

"I know we didn’t come up with a victory today, but for me it was a ballgame we were in the whole way," Renteria said.

Chicago Sun-Times

Sad situation at the plate for Cubs in 2-0 loss to Phillies

By Brian Sandalow

Manager Rick Renteria said before Saturday’s game the Cubs’ ­offense might be having “situational struggles.”

Those woes continued in a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs were shut out for the second time despite another good start from Jeff Samardzija and 10 hits off Phillies starter Cliff Lee. They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position to make them 4-for-40 in that department through five games.

“I don’t know if it’s a mind-set. You do have to be relaxed and know that the pitcher’s on the ropes a little bit,” Renteria said. “It’s something that you talk about and you see if it starts to take hold, the understanding of that particular type of situation so the guys can be a little more relaxed.”

The lack of timely hitting undid Samardzija’s second strong start — which actually raised the starters’ ERA to 1.95. Samardzija’s quality start was the Cubs’ fourth in five games, though only Jason Hammel’s on Thursday in Pittsburgh led to a win.

After throwing seven shutout innings for a no-decision in Monday’s opener at Pittsburgh, Samardzija went seven Saturday and surrendered two runs and six hits while striking out eight, but took the loss. He allowed Chase Utley’s first-inning home run and Domonic Brown’s RBI single in the fourth, but got no support.

That’s been a common theme, though Samardzija said that’s not affecting how he is pitching.

“I don’t think so. We have a pretty veteran-laden staff that understands what you can control as a pitcher,” Samardzija said. “We understand that.”

Samardzija showed he understands that, but he didn’t get much help from an offense that got three hits from Starlin Castro and two each from Anthony Rizzo and Emilio Bonifacio. Unfortunately for the Cubs, none came with runners in scoring position, and they stayed stuck on eight runs through five games.

“It’s definitely too early for [pressing]. No one around really around here is feeling any kind of extra pressure,” third baseman Mike Olt said. “We’re just trying to figure something out. Early in the season this happens a lot and then the good teams are the ones that can kind of get over it.”

Lee pitched seven shutout innings and struck out six, but the Cubs had chances against him in the first, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh. Each chance ended the same way.

That might have been different if the Cubs’ approach at the plate had been better. Renteria said the Cubs didn’t swing at the best pitches, and he will continue to tell them to look for better chances in run-scoring ­opportunities.

“It’s OK if it’s a broken record. You keep repeating that. You keep talking about it,” Renteria said. “You never stop talking about it until you start to understand it and get a good feel for it.”

Chicago Sun-Times

Ryne Sandberg too slow out of the gate on replay challenge

By Brian Sandalow

Ryne Sandberg might have had a case if he wanted to challenge whether Mike Olt touched third base on Phillies catcher Wil Nieves’ fourth-inning double-play grounder.

He just didn’t do it quickly enough to avoid altering pitcher Cliff Lee’s warmup.

With one out in the top of the fourth and runners on first and second, Nieves grounded to third. Olt fielded the grounder and tried to swipe at the base with his right foot before throwing to first.

Replays appeared to show Olt didn’t touch the base, but by the time Sandberg went out to the field the Cubs were in the dugout and Lee was already warming up for his next inning.

“The timing of it had a lot to do with it,” Sandberg said. “By the time we had some advice on it, my team’s out there and Cliff’s ­warming up.”

Olt said he touched the base, albeit barely.

“It was too close for comfort I guess but yeah, I definitely thought I [touched] it,” he said.

Carlos gets the call

Carlos Villanueva has two losses in two brief bullpen appearances, but is on track to make his first start.

Manager Rick Renteria said Villanueva will start Sunday’s series finale with the Phillies. Villanueva worked in relief Monday and Wednesday ­— losing both games — but threw a side session Friday and the Cubs decided he’s ready to make his first start despite the workload.

Villanueva threw eight pitches in Monday’s season opener at Pittsburgh and took the loss in the 1-0, 10-inning defeat. He relieved again Wednesday and threw 1 1/3 innings, giving up three hits and a run in the 4-3, 16-inning Cubs’ defeat.

Villanueva is expected to stay in the rotation as the fifth starter until Jake Arrieta returns from the disabled list.

Left in

Anthony Rizzo hit .189 with seven home runs against left-handers last season. Instead of shielding Rizzo from them, Renteria said the first baseman will get the chance to improve by facing more lefties.

He had that chance Saturday against Lee and Jake Diekman, going 2-for-4 and raising his average against lefties to .231.

“The more he continues to face lefties, the more he’s adjusting his approaches, over the long haul hopefully he starts to improve,” Renteria said. “But you can’t do it unless you’re out there.”

Goodbye, Coleman

The Cubs confirmed they have transferred pitcher Casey Coleman from Class AAA Iowa to short-season Boise, a move that effectively ends his time in the organization.

Coleman, 26, appeared in 48 games with the Cubs, going 7-13 with a 5.76 ERA.

Chicago Sun-Times

Saturday’s result: Phillies 2, Cubs 0

By Brian Sandalow

Manager Rick Renteria said before Saturday’s game the Cubs offense might be having “situational struggles.”

Those struggles continued.

Cliff Lee threw seven shutout innings and the Phillies beat the Cubs 2-0 for their second win of the series. Chase Utley homered for the second straight day and Domonic Brown also drove in a run, giving Lee more than enough support to beat Jeff Samardzija and a sputtering Cubs lineup.

They entered the day 4 for 33 with runners in scoring position, and that only got worse. They had 10 hits but were 0 for 7 Saturday with runners in scoring position to drop to 4 for 40 on the season, and squandered Samardzija’s second strong start to begin the year – which actually raised the Cubs’ starters’ ERA to 1.95.

After throwing seven shutout innings in Monday’s opener at Pittsburgh, Samardzija went seven Saturday and allowed two runs and six hits while striking out eight.

But that effort wasn’t enough to make up for the offense, which was shut out for the second time in five games.

“It’s not so much offensive struggles – it might be situational struggles at times – but as long as our pitching keeps us in the game and we catch the ball we’ve got a good chance every single day to have a chance to win a ballgame,” Renteria said early Saturday.

At least Samardzija did his part, though the Phillies didn’t need long to grab the lead.

Samardzija began the season with 7 2/3 shutout innings but Utley ended that early. With two outs in the first he took a 1-1 pitch through the wind and into the right-field bleachers, giving the Phillies a 1-0 lead.

Then the Cubs’ familiar problem cropped up.

The Cubs had their first good chance in the third. Samardzija and Emilio Bonifacio started the inning with singles, but Starlin Castro grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to blunt the rally. Justin Ruggiano then grounded out to short to end the inning.

Philadelphia had a chance in the fourth and capitalized. Against a laboring Samardzija, the Phillies doubled their lead on a Brown single that brought in Utley.

Once again, the Cubs had a chance to respond in the fourth. And once again, they couldn’t. Junior Lake doubled to right with one out and got to third when Mike Olt grounded back to Lee, but Welington Castillo struck out to keep the Cubs off the scoreboard.

The fifth was more of the same. Bonifacio and Castro singled with two outs but Ruggiano grounded into a fielder’s choice to strand two more runners.

Ruggiano had a chance again in the seventh with two outs after pinch-hitter Nate Schierholtz and Castro singled, but he struck out to drop the Cubs to 4 for 40 on the season with runners in scoring position.

Daily Herald

Same old song and dance for Cubs

By Bruce Miles

It looks like the Cubs’ template for 2014 is setting up like this:

• Get good starting pitching.

• Waste it by not hitting with runners in scoring position.

It was all on display again Saturday at Wrigley Field, where the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Cubs for the second straight day, this time 2-0.

Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija made his second start of the season. He took the loss as he fell to 0-1 with a nice 1.29 ERA.

The Cubs’ starting pitchers have a 1.95 ERA, having given up 7 earned runs in 32⅓ innings. Four of the 5 starts by the Cubs (1-4) so far have been quality starts, and Edwin Jackson’s non-quality start in Pittsburgh resulted in 1 earned run over 5⅓ innings.

But it matters not if you can’t score runs.

The Cubs have pushed across a grand total of 8 runs in five games. Their hitting — or lack thereof — with runners in scoring position is almost uncanny. They went 0-for-7 Saturday, bringing their season total to 4-for-40.

Manager Rick Renteria perused his lineup card while being asked to explain the numbers.

"I can’t," he said. "As I’m looking over the game card, we have the top of the order get on base quite a few times. We hit into a couple double plays with runners on first and second. Just haven’t been able to get the big hit. Some of the guys were starting to come to life a little bit today. All in all, I thought we played a relatively clean game."

Leadoff man Emilio Bonificio was 2-for-5, and he’s now hitting .542. Second hitter Starlin Castro was 3-for-4 with a double play. However, third-place hitter Justin Ruggiano was 0-for-4. Anthony Rizzo, who normally hits third but batted fourth against lefty Cliff Lee, was 2-for-4.

Overall, the Cubs outhit the Phillies 10-7, but the hits didn’t come when they needed them the most. Good hitters usually hit no matter the situation, and Renteria was asked if hitting with men in scoring position is a mindset.

"I don’t know if it’s a mindset," he said. "I do think you have to be relaxed and know that the pitcher is on the ropes a little bit. Again, it’s something you talk about and you see if it starts to take hold in that particular type of situation so guys can be little bit more relaxed."

Catcher Welington Castillo (0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts) agreed with the boss.

"Everybody wants to do good," said Castillo, who has been handling the pitching staff well. "Any time, we can turn that around. Just relax."

Samardzija has never been one to throw his teammates under the bus, and he didn’t start doing that Saturday.

"I see these guys work every day," he said. "I know what they’re doing. If it was a different situation and I thought guys were being lazy or this or that, obviously it would be different. These guys come to work every day and do everything we can. It’s early in the season, and we’re going to keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."

On the mound, Samardzija worked 7 innings, giving up 6 hits and both runs while walking three and striking out eight.

He gave up a solo homer to Chase Utley in the first inning. It was Utley’s second homer in two days. Samardzija also gave up a single run in the fourth. The strikeouts were timely, especially the one against Wil Nieves to end the sixth inning with two runners on base. Samardzija also relied on his softer stuff on some of those strikeouts instead of trying to blow the ball past every hitter.

"I think that’s part of the plan we’re talking about," he said. "When we’re attacking early in the zone, it gets them maybe a little more aggressive, which in turn later in the game, you can start going to your secondary pitches and getting swings and misses or easy groundballs.

"It’s not always going to be that way, but the first two games have been pretty positive with the way they’ve gone. We’ll keep looking to improve. There are still some things we can do better. If we can get Utley out or he can throw me a bone and get himself out, that would be great, too."

Daily Herald

Cubs only a memory now for Sandberg

By Barry Rozner

"I don’t think about them if we’re not playing them," Sandberg said while standing near the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field. "There’s players over there (in the other dugout) that I managed and I root for them, but Philadelphia is my home and this is my team. I don’t worry about other teams."

If it sounds like there’s a hint of bitterness, there might be. Some think he has a right to harbor ill will, but Sandberg is a black-and-white guy. Business is business. GMs are hired to make decisions.

The Cubs made theirs. Twice.

The Phillies have made theirs. End of story.

The ballpark here is great. The fans wonderful. The team not his problem.

"It’s very comfortable here with a group of people I know well," Sandberg said of the Phillies. "Getting the team back to a championship level is the goal. That’s what’s on my mind."

After six years in the minors and 42 games at the Phillies’ helm to conclude last season, the novelty has worn off and Sandberg is merely managing now, but the winter and the spring gave him a chance to build a coaching staff and start molding the team in his image.

There was a much-publicized moment in the spring when Sandberg benched star shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Eventually, Rollins went to Sandberg, the two had a conversation and the matter was put to rest.

From afar, it looked as though Sandberg picked out the biggest, baddest guy on the playground, bloodied his nose and made his point to the rest of the group. Sandberg says it was nothing that serious.

"Everything’s fine. There was an opportunity to set the tone on some things," Sandberg said. "We had a really good talk and it’s not a big thing at all. Everyone’s on the same page here.

"Part of spring training is players have to learn about the manager, and the manager learns about the players. That was just an instance of that."

Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa has known Sandberg since he was a 19-year-old, minor league shortstop in the Philadelphia organization, aiming to someday take Bowa’s job. He says Sandberg has taken to this as naturally as he did second base.

"He’s really good at it," said the 68-year-old Bowa, himself a big-league manager for six seasons. "He’s informed, he doesn’t panic and he communicates well.

"He’s got something nobody else managing has. He’s got the credibility of a Hall of Famer who rode buses for six years to get here. Mike Schmidt did it for a month. Ryno’s here because he wanted it, not because he needed it."

Sandberg insists on only a few things from his players.

"It’s not my way or the highway," Bowa said. "If you communicate with him and explain why this not that, he’s got an open door. He basically wants you to respect the game. A lot of young players today don’t respect the game. If you want to play for him, you better respect the game.

"He’s flexible. He’s fair. If you don’t run out balls, he won’t embarrass a guy or take him out. He’ll call a guy in and tell him he didn’t like the way he ran the bases or his demeanor after striking out. He’s a stickler for playing the game the right way.

"But he’s a really good teacher. He sees things not everyone sees because he was a details guy as a player and he passes his knowledge around. That ‘HOF’ gives him instant credibility, especially since he rode buses longer as a manager than most guys ever have as a player."

Sandberg laughed at the notion that he’s got it all figured out.

"I come to the park every day to learn something," Sandberg said. "As a coaching staff, we talk the game all the time and come up with ideas.

"I believe in a structure and culture and a locker room that is about winning a game every day, but it’s a game of adjustments. It always has been for me.

"If there’s a new idea on how to do things in this era of baseball, you keep the players informed. I’ve adjusted to sabermetrics. It’s helpful and interesting. It’s not everything, but it’s information and you never turn your back on information.

"We play around a lot with defensive shifts, which I never saw in my day, but the game has changed. You have to change with it or you fall behind."

As always, Sandberg stays ahead by looking forward — and the Cubs are in the rearview mirror.

Daily Herald

Sandberg explains reason for not challenging close play

By Bruce Miles

To challenge or not to challenge. That was the question for Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg in Saturday’s 2-0 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Phillies had a chance to blow the game open in the fourth inning, when they scored 1 to take their 2-0 lead. Wil Nieves grounded into a 5-3 double play to end the inning, but it looked like Cubs third baseman Mike Olt missed the bag with his foot.

The Phillies made nothing of it initially, but Sandberg did visit third-base umpire Hal Gibson as his team was warming up to begin the bottom of the inning. In the end, Sandberg went back to the dugout and did not challenge.

"Yeah, but there was some inconclusiveness on our end," he said. "It was a little awkward so late with our guys warming up there. By the time I got out there, our whole team is out there and Cliff (pitcher Lee) is warming up. It was an awkward moment. It was somewhat inconclusive.

"I was pondering if I was going to challenge it or not."

Olt said he thought he got the bag, but he did wear a sheepish grin in the Cubs clubhouse.

"It was too close for comfort, but I definitely thought I hit it," he said. "I got lucky."

Mutual admiration:

Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija gave up a home run to Phillies second baseman Chase Utley with two outs and nobody on in the first inning. Utley, one of the most underrated stars in the game, is 10-for-21 (.476) to start the season.

"He’s right on the dish," Samardzija said of how close Utley stands to the plate. "He has a short swing, and he loves the ball in."

Utley returned compliments from the Phillies clubhouse.

"Samardzija’s tough," he said. "Over the last few years, he’s really improved his command. He mixes his pitches better. We tried to get to him early. That was our goal."

It’s Villanueva:

Cubs manager Rick Renteria confirmed that right-hander Carlos Villanueva, who pitched twice in relief in Pittsburgh, would start Sunday’s finale.

Villanueva is a veteran swing man, and he maintained from the get-go he would be ready.

Minor matters:

Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ first-round draft choice (second overall) last year, hit his second home run in two days for Class AA Tennessee on Friday. … Relief pitcher Alberto Cabrera cleared waivers and assigned outright to Class AAA Iowa. The Cubs designed Cabrera for assignment at the end of spring training. …

Outfield prospect Jorge Soler has gone on Tennessee’s seven-day disabled list with a left-hamstring injury suffered in his only at-bat in Thursday’s opener. … Onetime Cubs pitcher Casey Coleman has been transferred from Iowa’s roster to their Class A Boise roster. That effectively ends Coleman’s tenure in the organization as Boise does not begin play until June 13. Coleman will try to hook on with another organization, but he will go to Arizona to begin working out.

Cubs.com

Samardzija’s strong start not enough against Phils

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Jeff Samardzija posted the fourth quality start in five games for the Cubs. Emilio Bonifacio and Starlin Castro got on base five times. Now, if the Cubs could just drive runners in — and keep Chase Utley quiet — they might turn things around.

Utley had three hits, including his second home run in as many games, and scored the Phillies’ second run to post a 2-0 victory Saturday over the Cubs in front of 30,651 fans bundled up to deal with the brisk game-time temperature of 39 degrees.

Samardzija took the loss in his first start at Wrigley Field this season, giving up six hits over seven innings and striking out eight. It was the fourth quality start in five games for a Cubs pitcher, and the Chicago starters now have a 1.95 ERA this season (seven earned runs over 32 1/3 innings).

"Jeff went out there with a lot of fire in him. He knew he did the best he could to keep us in the ballgame," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "He got us through some tough patches. You’ve got to tip your hat to him, he did a great job."

Samardzija had a tough opponent in the Phillies’ Cliff Lee, who looked more like a Cy Young winner than the pitcher who served up eight runs on Opening Day to the Rangers.

"They had their fair share of hits," Lee said of the Cubs. "I was able to make pitches when I needed to. … I just had to make pitches in situations where they were one swing away from tying it up or taking a lead. But yeah, seven innings, no runs, I’ll take that every time."

Renteria, still waiting to hear “Go Cubs Go” played after a home win, loaded the lineup with right-handed hitters Mike Olt, Junior Lake and Justin Ruggiano against Lee, who was the third left-handed starter the Cubs have faced in five games. Lee shrugged it off and scattered 10 hits over seven innings.

But the Cubs didn’t help themselves, stranding 10 runners, and now are 4-for-40 with runners in scoring position in five games.

"You do have to be relaxed and know the pitcher is on the ropes a little bit," Renteria said. "You talk about it and see if it starts to take hold, an understanding of that particular situation, so guys can be a little more relaxed."

Samardzija knows his teammates are doing everything they can.

"I see these guys work every day and I know what they’re doing," Samardzija said. "If it was a different situation and I thought they were lazy, it’d be different. Guys come to work every day and do everything they can. It’s early in the season and we’ll keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."

Anthony Rizzo did get two hits off Lee and even tried to bunt leading off the sixth to try and ignite the offense.

"That was on his own," Renteria said of the bunt attempt. "He’s just trying to do anything he can to get something going. We were down a couple runs and he was trying to get on base."

Renteria plans on repeating the message.

"It’s OK if it’s a broken record — you keep repeating it and you keep talking about it," Renteria said. "You never stop talking about it until you start to understand it and get a good feel for it. A lot of it is more games, just keep getting in more games. I know we didn’t come up with a victory today, but for me, it was a ballgame we were in the whole way."

He didn’t feel players were pressing.

"No one is feeling any extra pressure," Olt said. "We’re just trying to figure some things out. Early in the season it happens a lot and the good teams are the ones who get over it."

Utley connected in his third at-bat on Friday, but with two outs in the first on Saturday, he drove a 1-1 pitch from Samardzija to right and into the wind. In the fourth, Utley walked, moved up on Ryan Howard’s single and scored one out later on Dominic Brown’s single to go ahead, 2-0. Utley also doubled with one out in the eighth, the 300th double of his career.

The Phillies may have added more runs in the fourth, but the Cubs ended the inning with a questionable double play. Philadelphia had runners at first and second when Wil Nieves hit into a 5-3 double play, but it didn’t appear that Olt touched the third-base bag. The Phillies didn’t challenge the call.

"I definitely thought I had it," Olt said. "It didn’t look it? I must have been lucky."

Samardzija didn’t alter his approach knowing the hitters have been scuffling.

"Nothing changes," he said. "You go out and try to get three outs."

The right-hander struck out five of the last six batters he faced and didn’t need to blow them away with fastballs either.

"That’s part of the plan — when we’re attacking early in the zone, it gets them a little more aggressive and in turn, later in the game, you can go to your secondary pitches and get swings and misses and easy ground balls," Samardzija said. "I’m pretty positive about the way [his starts] have gone.

"There are still things we can do better," he said. "If we can get Utley out or he can throw me a bone and get himself out, that’d be great, too. … Situations like that against good teams, you need to be aware of which guys are hot and who their go-to guy is and he’s definitely that for that team."

Cubs.com

Renteria formally tabs Villanueva for finale

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Cubs manager Rick Renteria confirmed Saturday that Carlos Villanueva will start on Sunday in the series finale against the Phillies.

Villanueva, named the fifth starter in Spring Training, was needed to pitch in relief Monday and Wednesday in extra-inning games against the Pirates and took the loss in both.

The right-hander can only hope he continues the strong outings so far by Chicago starters. In the first four games, the Cubs starters have combined for a 1.78 ERA, giving up five earned runs over 25 1/3 innings.

They haven’t gotten much offensive support, though.

"It’s early," said Travis Wood, who posted a quality start but took the loss on Friday. "We have a good group of guys here who are gamers and they’re going to find their stroke and put some runs up on the board."

Renteria said the players’ approach at the plate is fine and noted that the Cubs outhit the Pirates in the opening series.

"It’s not so much offensive struggles — it might be situational struggles at times," Renteria said. "As long as our pitching keeps us in the game and we catch the ball, we have a good chance every single day to win a ballgame."

The Cubs rank 14th in the National League with runners in scoring position, batting .121 (4-for-33) in the first four games.

Renteria altering lineup against lefties

CHICAGO — On Saturday, the Cubs faced the Phillies’ Cliff Lee, the third left-handed starting pitcher in the team’s first five games. It’s the first time they’ve seen that many southpaws to start a season since 1995.

Manager Rick Renteria has responded by altering his lineups, depending on the starter. Mike Olt and Junior Lake get starts against lefties; Luis Valbuena and Ryan Sweeney are in the lineup against right-handers.

"We have the flexibility of right-handed, left-handed matchups," Renteria said Saturday. "Someone asked about guys getting comfortable on a daily basis [if not playing every day], and I think we’re trying to put everybody in the best possible position for success based on guys they’ve faced. You’ll see us double up and play against righties [against right-handers] and lefties [against left-handers]. It depends on where we’re at and what we see is the right fit."

Last season, the Cubs struggled against left-handed pitchers, batting .232, which ranked last in the National League.

One player who has started every day is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was 1-for-9 against lefties this year. Last season, he batted .189 against lefties, .252 against right-handers.

"The more he continues to face lefties, the more he’s adjusting his approach," Renteria said of Rizzo. "I think over the long haul it’ll start to improve, but you can’t do it unless you’re out there. A lot of our other guys also, there will be times when they’re facing some lefties, and people will probably wonder why, but you have to give them the opportunity to see them at some point."

Prospect Bryant off to hot start in Double-A

CHICAGO — Kris Bryant seems to be having no problems at Double-A Tennessee.

Bryant, the second player taken overall in last year’s First-Year Player Draft, snapped a scoreless tie with a solo home run in the seventh inning Friday to lift Tennessee to a 1-0 win over Pensacola. It was Bryant’s second homer in as many games as he also connected in the season opener Thursday, a 6-5 loss to Pensacola.

Ranked second among the Cubs’ top 20 prospects, Bryant led all college players last season with 31 home runs at the University of San Diego, and was the Cubs’ first-round pick in June. He moved up quickly, playing two games for the Mesa Rookie League team, then went to short-season Boise and finished at high A Daytona, which won the Florida State League championship.

The third baseman finished last year in the Arizona Fall League, where he was named Most Valuable Player.

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs’ woes in clutch look awfully familiar

Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO – It’s early, but the 2014 season certainly has a familiar feel.

The Chicago Cubs got another strong performance from their starter, this time Jeff Samardzija, who went seven strong Saturday, giving up just two runs while striking out eight and walking three (one intentionally). While the Cubs were able to put up 10 hits against Philadelphia Phillies starter Cliff Lee, they failed to come through when it mattered most, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranding 10 men on base.

The 2-0 loss to the Phillies was the Cubs’ second shutout in five games as they fell to 1-4 on the season. After hitting .218 with runners in scoring position last season, the Cubs are off to an even worse start this season, hitting 4-for-40 in those situations.

Manager Rick Renteria had no explanation for the Cubs’ early season woes with runners on.

"I don’t know if it’s a mindset. I do think you have to be relaxed and know that the pitcher’s on the ropes a little bit," Renteria said. "It’s something that you talk about and see if it starts to take hold, the understanding of those particular types of situations, so that guys can be a little bit more relaxed."

The Cubs are hardly a great hitting team overall — batting just .216 thus far — but their inability to come up with the big hit is quite remarkable. Add in the facts that they’re slugging just .280 and that nine of their 10 hits Saturday were singles, and it becomes a little clearer why this team has scored just eight runs in its first five games.

"We had the top of the order get on base quite a few times," Renteria said. "We hit into quite a few double plays. Just haven’t gotten the big hit. Some of the guys are starting to come to life today, but … All in all, I thought we played a relatively clean game. Jeff pitched great, minimized the damage. The relief corps did a great job minimizing the damage, and we just weren’t able to put any runs on the board."

Renteria was right that there was plenty to be happy with, first and foremost being Samardzija, who delivered his second consecutive strong performance. Samardzija had only three strikeouts on Opening Day but was back to his usual self Saturday, whiffing eight batters, including five of the final six he faced.

Samardzija said the strikeouts coming later in the game is part of his plan this season, as he’s working to be more efficient in the early innings.

"When we’re attacking early in the zone, it gets them a little more aggressive, which in turn means later in the game you can go to your secondary pitches and getting swings and misses or easy ground balls," Samardzija said. "It’s not always going to be that way, but the first two games [were] pretty positive with the way it’s gone. We’ll keep looking to improve because there’s still some things we can do better."

The other positives on the day were Emilio Bonifacio staying hot with a 2-for-5 day, Starlin Castro breaking out of his early season, 2-for-17 slump with a three-hit game and Anthony Rizzo managing to get two hits off one of the league’s best lefties in Lee.

The veteran Samardzija seemed unfazed by the lack of run support to this point.

"I see these guys working every day. I know what they’re doing," Samardzija said. "If it were a different situation, if I thought these guys were being lazy or this or that, obviously it’d be different. But these guys come to work every day doing everything we can. It’s early in the season. We’re gonna keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."

To a man, the Cubs insist they aren’t pressing, and only five games into the season, they shouldn’t be. While nobody is happy with the lack of scoring, the clubhouse appears confident, and, as reporters walked away from Mike Olt’s locker, the rookie third baseman said, with conviction, “It’ll happen,” referring to the hits coming when it matters most.

But until it does happen, the story will continue to be the Cubs’ inability to come through in the big moment. Renteria has no plans to stop preaching to his players to relax in those situations.

"It’s OK if it’s a broken record," Renteria said. "You keep repeating it, you keep talking about it. You never stop talking about it until you start to understand it and get a good feel for it. A lot of it’s just getting in more games. I know we didn’t come up with a victory today, but, for me, it was a ballgame we were in the whole way."

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Phillies 2, Cubs 0

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs fell to 1-4 after getting blanked by Cliff Lee and the Phillies on Saturday. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: The Cubs’ inability to come up with the big hit doomed them once again. The Cubs had 10 hits on the day but managed to go 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and failed to cross home plate for the second time in five games. The Phillies jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead when Chase Utley hit a two-out home run in the first inning. Utley reached base four times and scored both the Phillies’ runs, the second coming in the fourth on a Domonic Brown single.

What it means: The offense continues to struggle with men in scoring position (4-for-40 on the year), but there were some positives. Emilio Bonifacio once again produced at the top, going 2-for-5, Starlin Castro had his first multi-hit game of the season, delivering three singles, and Anthony Rizzo got a pair of hits off Lee, one of the better lefties in the game. … Jeff Samardzija wasn’t rewarded for a strong start. He went seven innings, allowing just two runs while striking out eight.

Outside the box: Jake Arrieta makes his first rehab start of the season for the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate, on Saturday night. If all goes well, Arrieta, who is working his way back from a sore shoulder, should make up to two more rehab starts with the hopes of returning to the Cubs rotation before the end of April.

Up next: The Cubs wrap up a three-game set with the Phillies as Carlos Villanueva makes his first start of the season for Chicago. Villanueva was used in the season’s first two games, which went into extra innings, in relief and picked up the loss each outing. A.J. Burnett makes his second start of season for the Phillies.

ESPNChicago.com

Rizzo getting chance to figure out lefties

By Sahadev Sharma

CHICAGO — Just four games into the season, Rick Renteria has been playing the matchups when making out his lineup. To the dismay of some, youngsters such as Mike Olt and Junior Lake have found themselves sitting when a righty is on the mound. However, one young player sure to find his name in the lineup every day is Anthony Rizzo.

“The more he continues to face lefties, the more he’s adjusting his approach,” Renteria said. “Over the long haul, hopefully he starts to improve. But you can’t do it unless you’re out there.”

Rizzo’s struggles against southpaws last season are well documented, as he posted a rough .189/.282/.342 line in 216 plate appearances against lefties. The early returns this season aren’t any better, as he’s managed just one hit in nine at-bats facing lefties. To be fair, one of those pitchers was Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano, who has silenced lefties for much of his career, holding them to a measly .556 OPS against him.

Many look at Rizzo’s 2013 season as a failure, but ultimately he improved in many areas. His 11 percent walk rate and .186 ISO (isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average, a very good indication of a player’s power) were up from his strong 2012 stint with the Cubs. What slogged down his numbers was his .233 batting average, which was partly so low due to his .258 BABIP. A combination of taking the ball the other way to overcome the exaggerated shift defenses use against him along with a sharpened approach against lefties would help raise Rizzo’s batting average and help lead to much improved 2014.

Rizzo is coming off a strong spring (.321/.368/.528) in which he fared particularly well against lefties. However, facing the likes of Liriano and Saturday’s starter, Cliff Lee, isn’t doing him any favors. But Renteria is hoping the prep he got in the spring will help lead to Rizzo turning things around quickly.

“The purpose (of having him face lefties in spring training) was that we knew there are a lot of lefties in this league and we wanted them to be a little more acclimated to it,” Renteria said. “Just get them comfortable. This is only the fifth game of the season; we got a lot of baseball left. Anything can happen over the year.”

Renteria indicated that it wasn’t just Rizzo, but other lefties who may occasionally be in the lineup with a southpaw on the mound. Nate Schierholtz, who was part of platoon in right field for much of 2013, got the start against Liriano on Monday and managed to get a hit. And although young kids like Olt, who many believe has a bright future with the bat, will likely find their way into the lineup on a daily basis, expect Renteria to do a lot of mixing and matching with his lineup depending on who toes the rubber that particular day.

“We have the flexibility of the right-handed and left-handed matchups,” Renteria stated. “Someone had asked (Friday) about guys getting comfortable on a daily basis. I think we’re trying to put everybody in the best possible position for success based on the guys they face. You’ll see guys doubling up and playing against righties and lefties, just depends on where we’re at and how we see the fit.”

But one thing is clear: Rizzo is going to see his name penciled in the lineup regardless of who the Cubs are facing. The Cubs hope he’s a big part of a bright future for the franchise, and getting himself right against lefties will be big step in accomplishing those goals.

05 4 / 2014

ESPNChicago.com

Olt and Lake sit while Cubs lose

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — There are many Chicago Cubs fans who are on board with the rebuilding plan the team has undergone. They will sit through cold-weather days and poorly played losses — like the 7-2 defeat to the Philadelphia Phillies in the home opener on Friday afternoon — and they will listen to Cubs brass explain over and over why their top prospects must advance slowly through the system.

But what few will understand — outside of Wrigley Field — is why when those prospects arrive they aren’t playing every day.

President Theo Epstein wants people to enjoy the journey of their young players, but if they aren’t in the lineup, how can they?

Four games into the season or not, this is the home opener for the Party of the Century. Right-hander Roberto Hernandez is on the mound, not Roger Clemens in his prime. Possible core players Mike Olt and Junior Lake were on the bench in favor of Luis Valbuena and Ryan Sweeney. That’s two starts in four games for Lake and Olt.

Why?

"We’re still trying to protect Olt," manager Rick Renteria said before the game. "It’s a little moist out there. We’re trying to do everything we can to transition him in and see how it goes. I think it’s going well. He had a nice game for us yesterday."

Olt hit his first major league home run in helping the Cubs to a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, but that didn’t earn him another start, and Lake was on the bench with him. Presumably, Renteria was referring to Olt’s shoulder when he said they were taking it easy on him. If that’s the case, why is Starlin Castro playing in “slick” conditions? He’s coming off a hamstring injury. And Olt says his shoulder is fine anyway.

"And we have a lot of guys playing in the game today that we’ve been using over the course of the last three days," Renteria said. "My idea is to keep everyone fresh and in tune as much as I possibly can."

That should not be Renteria’s idea or job.

No offense, but no one cares if Sweeney and Valbuena aren’t as fresh as Renteria would like. If there is going to be losing — and there will be — then the Cubs need to get something out of every loss. Every day that Lake and Olt don’t play is a day less of experience for them. It’s a day slower in the rebuilding process. If the Cubs won’t rush anyone up from the minors, can they at least play the ones who are here, especially on Opening Day? Show off the work you’ve done in rebuilding so far with this team. Show us the faces of the future. It’s not as if you’re going to do them harm. They’re not fatigued.

"All in all, we didn’t have a good plan of attack, and it cost us," Renteria said about his offense after the loss.

You can live with that if the Cubs’ core players are learning from days like Friday. But when they sit and you still lose, no good comes from it.

"It’s the fourth game of the season and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t panic anyway," Renteria said. "We’re going to continue to work and get better."

The other side of keeping everyone fresh is allowing no one to get into a groove. Hitters are creatures of habit, and Olt, in particular, could use the routine considering how off he was last season because of his vision problems. Renteria was asked how a player is supposed to get hot when he’s sitting.

"I think when you put them in the best possible position to face the guys that they face, it curtails that a bit," he said.

In other words, the right matchup offsets not playing every day.

So does this mean Renteria is planning on platoons all over the field, or is this just his feeling-out process until Olt and Lake take every-day jobs? After all, Emilio Bonifacio hasn’t come out of the lineup for obvious reasons. Are those the streaks others have to go on to play every day?

The Party of the Century won’t be much fun with another near 100-loss season — the Cubs are already on pace — but losing games while core guys gain experience could make it worth it.

But they have to play.

Now.

ESPNChicago.com

Cubs’ next steps? Don’t ask Ricketts

Owner has a fan’s optimism, but details on business and baseball a bit lacking

By Jon Greenberg

CHICAGO — Tom Ricketts is just like you, Chicago Cubs fans.

Billed from the get-go as the Fan Owner who met his wife in the bleachers and enjoys a nice Cubs-embroidered dress shirt, the man entering his fifth year as Cubs chairman is excited about those minor league studs down on the farm, just like you.

"I read the minor league reports every single morning," Ricketts said Friday before the Cubs’ home opener. "I have since day one. They’re just more interesting now than they used to be."

After 197 losses in two seasons — and a bunch more coming in this — you have to take in the big picture to truly embrace the baseball side of a massive rebuilding project.

And, just like you, Ricketts has no idea when anything is going to be done. Or, more likely, he won’t admit to knowing what he does know or what he doesn’t.

We’re all just here at this park waiting for something to happen.

And if you’re hungry for information, and have a press pass, the top guy in the organization is the wrong person to ask.

Sure, he gets the reports, but he’s not a baseball guy. He knows the messy details of the Wrigley Field renovations and the upcoming TV-rights deal, but he can’t tell you anything.

There’s no news like Cubs news, which is usually no news. It’s “Wait ‘til next press availability.”

Ricketts didn’t have much to say about the state of the will-it-ever-start rebuilding project, with an estimated cost of $300 million for Wrigley Field and $500 million for the entire campus project. Comcast SportsNet Chicago broke the news Thursday that the team is looking to add minority partners to help pay for it. Ricketts didn’t have much to say about that, either.

"I don’t have a 100 percent clear picture, but we definitely want to be ready to get going this season if we can," he said of the renovations.

So, what would the Cubs start this season?

"Well, there’s a whole plan," Ricketts said. "There’d a whole bunch of things that would happen as soon as we get started. It’s pretty involved. There’s a whole bunch of things that happen in sequence."

Such as the giant Budweiser sign that’s supposed to be in right field. It was supposed to be up for Opening Day, but a Cubs source told me earlier in the week it was held up over design issues, not the squabble with the rooftop owners.

Clark’s Clubhouse, the home for the team’s new mascot, did get finished for the opener. So there’s that.

Ricketts added that the Cubs can plan for things during the season so they can hit the ground running this offseason — as we thought they were going to do last offseason after getting the renovations rubber-stamped by the city council.

In late July, when the council approved the entire $500 million plan, the Cubs admitted it would take about more than a year to get the money-printing left-field video board ready, what with the bidding process, the design and construction time and the training of a staff to run it.

I asked Ricketts how that’s going.

"Um, I’m not sure exactly how much research or progress we’ve made on that yet," he said. "It does take a little while to get that done."

The prospect of such a large obstruction to the view of the rooftop club owners, or at least for one or two of them, has been the major divide in settling a pending, nauseating legal entanglement. Even though it’s not close to being done.

And what about those nettlesome rooftop owners? A recent Sports Business Journal story about Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary noted, “The Cubs hope to resolve the conflict by April 4” — according to Ricketts.

So, it’s April 4. The rooftop clubs’ outdoor seating was nearly empty on a chilly Opening Day, and nothing’s been solved.

"Well, I think that the key is to keep moving forward and keep talking," Ricketts said. "I expect something will work for us."

Stop me if you’ve heard that before. Rust Cohle was right, man. Time is a flat circle.

Ricketts and team president Theo Epstein are fond of talking about that faraway plan when business and baseball meet cutely in the bleachers and the Cubs start spending like the Red Sox instead of emulating them.

Epstein wisely avoided the media Friday, but his general manager, Jed Hoyer, gets that fans want to see good baseball in the present.

"I think people want to be here Opening Day and feel like they’re watching a team that they could be buying playoff tickets for," Hoyer said. "They wouldn’t be fans if they didn’t do that. I expect the fans to want it sooner than we can provide it."

There are still a handful of Cubs who could be “flipped” for prospects, most notably pitcher Jeff Samardzija, but the days of players dealing with nonstop questions about a summer sell-off are almost over.

"I think it’s stating the obvious, but we made a lot of those trades because we feel like we have to do that for the future," Hoyer said. "Obviously, you want to get away from that in time. It’s not a great thing for a team culture for you guys asking questions of guys early on, ‘Are you going to get moved in July?’ I mean, you guys are doing your job and we’ve made that a trend by doing it two years in a row, but, ultimately, we want to be in the opposite. ‘Who are you guys going to add? Which prospects could be traded at the deadline?’ We need to move more toward that because that’s a much better culture for the team than this currently."

But to do that, you need money. Not money to sign a blockbuster, over-the-hill free agent, but a collection of major league players to complement the young (cheap) talent down in the farm. Ricketts hasn’t given his front office a credible budget to do that yet. The Cubs have the majors’ third-lowest Opening Day payroll (not counting Alfonso Soriano’s salary to play for the Yankees), at around $74 million.

Despite the effect that losing has had on the current players, losing on purpose has worked out. It’s given the Cubs draft picks and signing-bonus money.

Trading veterans brought them Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards and so on. The plan is working, but when will it have worked? Past tense.

Follow the money.

Part of the Cubs’ TV deal is up after this season. The remaining portion, with team partner Comcast SportsNet, is up after 2019. TV money is everything in the modern game. The Cubs should get a chunk this offseason from someone. (An aside: Follow the Dodgers’ TV-network fiasco to see Chicago’s future.)

Do fans have to wait five more years to see this franchise spend like a big-market team? Will we be here next year asking about the next Emilio Bonifacio, a surprising veteran stopgap on a cheap team?

"We’ll see," Ricketts said. "We’ll know more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. So I’m not really sure."

Yup, Tom Ricketts is just like you. He’s not really sure, but he’s optimistic and confident about the future.

ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Phillies 7, Cubs 2

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs dropped to 1-3, losing their home opener 7-2 to the Philadelphia Phillies as the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field got underway. Here’s a quick look at the game:

How it happened: Chase Utley had three RBIs on a home run and a single off left-hander Travis Wood, who lasted 6 1/3 innings for the Cubs. He was outpitched by Roberto Hernandez as the home team had some early success but their offense shut down after the third inning. Welington Castillo homered to left in the second inning to put the Cubs on the board then Starlin Castro’s infield hit plated Darwin Barney in the third giving them a 2-0 lead. But a miscue by Luis Valbuena at third base led to a run for the Phillies in the fourth followed by the Utley home run the next inning. John Mayberry added a pinch-hit, two-run shot in the eighth to put the game away. Dominic Brown doubled home a run in the ninth.

What it means: There were curious lineup decisions all day long as power guys Justin Ruggiano, Mike Olt and Junior Lake combined for three at-bats — one each — on a day when the wind was blowing out. Manager Rick Renteria said before the game they were easing Olt into the majors as he’s sat twice in four games so far but with a lefty reliever on the mound he let Nate Schierholtz bat for himself in a one-run game in the sixth inning. He struck out. Castro continued a rough start, going 1 for 4 with two strikeouts and a double play grounder with two runners on in the eighth inning. His lone hit was an opposite field infield base hit. And the bullpen didn’t do its job as every reliever gave up runs or contributed to runs scoring.

Bonifacio cools off: After collecting 11 hits in his first three games, Emilio Bonifacio only got on base via a walk. He was 0 for 3.

What’s next: The Cubs and Phillies play Game 2 of the series at 1:20 p.m. CT Saturday featuring Jeff Samardzija against Cliff Lee.

ESPNChicago.com

Sandberg, HOFers throw out first pitch

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO – Former Chicago Cubs great Ryne Sandberg joined fellow Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams in throwing out the first pitch before the home opener against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday.

Sandberg is the manager in Philadelphia after a 15-year playing career with the Cubs and then coaching in their minor league system. He was passed over to manage the Cubs and joined the Phillies organization in 2011 before being promoted to manager last season. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Cubs are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field.

ESPNChicago.com

Minors report: Soler hurt, Bryant homers

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Opening day didn’t go well for Chicago Cubs Double-A prospect Jorge Soler as he left Thursday night’s game against Pensacola after re-injuring his left hamstring running out a double in his first at-bat.

"We’ll probably get an MRI [Friday] and see how it is," general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday morning from Wrigley Field.

Soler was slowed near the end of spring training with the sore hamstring and Hoyer indicated he may have rushed himself back to be available on Opening Day.

Soler signed a nine-year, $30 million deal in 2012 but was slowed by a foot injury last season. He’s ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the Cubs organization by MLB.com.

Bryant homers: In the same game that Soler left due to his injury, Kris Bryant, the second pick of the 2013 draft, homered in his first at-bat of the season. He went deep off Cincinnati Reds starter Matt Latos, who was making a rehab start.

"It was nice he did it against a big-leaguer," Hoyer said.

Latos beaned Bryant later in the game while the slugger also walked, struck out and scored two runs.

Baez debuts: Top prospect Javier Baez started his stint at Triple-A Iowa with a walk and two strikeouts and made an error.

The Cubs plan to be patient with him.

"I don’t see us wavering on that one," Hoyer said. "He does have development left. We told him ‘Go dominate Iowa.’ If (he) dominates Iowa and Triple-A (he) puts the pressure on us."

Former No. 1 pick Josh Vitters homered for Iowa and starter Chris Rusin lasted just 3 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and five runs.

ESPNChicago.com

After homer, Olt sits in home opener

By Jesse Rogers

CHICAGO — Coming off his first career home run on Thursday in Pittsburgh, Chicago Cubs third baseman Mike Olt will have to wait at least a day to make his Wrigley Field debut.

Luis Valbuena will start at third base against the Philadelphia Phillies in Friday’s home opener and bat fifth in a lineup that also features hot-hitting Emilio Bonifacio leading off for the fourth straight game. Here’s the rest of the lineup which will face righty Roberto Hernandez:

1. Bonifacio, CF

2. Starlin Castro, SS

3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B

4. Nate Schierholtz, RF

5. Valbuena, 3B

6. Welington Castillo, C

7. Ryan Sweeney, LF

8. Darwin Barney, 2B

9. Travis Wood, P

ESPNChicago.com

Series preview: Cubs vs. Phillies

By Jesse Rogers

After record spring training crowds and an opening series in Pittsburgh, the Chicago Cubs begin the 100th-anniversary season at Wrigley Field with a three-game set against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday.

The series:

• Friday: 1:20 p.m., Travis Wood vs. Roberto Hernandez

• Saturday: 1:20 p.m., Jeff Samardzija vs. Cliff Lee

• Sunday: 1:20 p.m. Carlos Villanueva vs. A.J. Burnett

Sandberg returns: It’s not his first visit as an opposing manager, but Ryne Sandberg is back at Wrigley as he guides the Phillies in his first full season at the helm. The Hall of Fame Cub was passed over during the past couple of Cubs managerial vacancies, and now he’ll oppose Rick Renteria for the first time. On Thursday, Renteria said he doesn’t know Sandberg very well, though the two played against each other. Renteria, who played five seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said they didn’t face each other often because “Sandberg was in the big leagues much longer than I was.” Sandberg played 16 seasons in the majors, his last in 1997.

Wrigley debuts: Emilio Bonifacio should get a nice ovation after his 11-for-16 start on the road, while Mike Olt is looking forward to seeing Wrigley Field for the first time without snow covering it. What kind of reception will Starlin Castro get after an off year and slow start in Pittsburgh?

Wood’s first start:  The Cubs’ lone All-Star last season saw his first start pushed back to Friday so he could face a lefty-dominated team in the Phillies. Wood pitched like an ace at times last season but still flies under the radar. Pitching coach Chris Bosio has said he wants even more out of Wood as he tries to take the next step in a career moving in the right direction. Wood could become one of the better lefties in the game.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs: Ricketts looking at all options in Wrigley deal

By Patrick Mooney

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts pushed back against the idea that selling minority ownership shares could signal deeper financial issues for the franchise.

That’s one option on the table as the Cubs try to figure out how to pay for the $300 million Wrigley Field restoration. The final bill could run closer to $500 million, including the Clark Street hotel and neighborhood development.

“Most teams are owned by dozens of investors,” Ricketts said before Friday’s home opener against Ryne Sandberg’s Philadelphia Phillies. “It’s unusual for anyone to own 95 percent of a team. So we’re going to look at whether or not that fits for us.”

Multiple sources dismissed the rumors connecting the Cubs to billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Historically, the Ricketts family has not been that close with “The Oracle of Omaha,” despite their shared Nebraska roots.

One possible theory has the Cubs looking at John Canning Jr.’s network. The Madison Dearborn Partners chairman owns a piece of the Milwaukee Brewers and has a good relationship with commissioner Bud Selig. Canning organized a group of Chicago businessmen who submitted a losing bid after Tribune Co. put the team up for sale on Opening Day 2007.

“Anytime you’re looking at privately financing a big project like this,” Ricketts said, “you’re going to look at all your different sources of potential financing. We’re going to take a look at whether or not it makes sense to bring in outside people.”

The Ricketts family has watched the franchise value soar 42 percent since entering into a leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009, an $845 million deal that also included a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

Working from the recent $1.2 billion Forbes valuation, the Cubs could sell 15 percent and generate $180 million. That back-of-the-envelope calculation could cover the roughly $150 million the Cubs once projected in their amusement-tax proposal, before getting mixed up in presidential politics and the 2012 Super PAC controversy.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel – who took his second-row seat in the second inning and watched part of the game next to Ricketts – is said to be frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations between Cubs executives and the rooftop owners.

Building the Jumbotron that would impact the Waveland Avenue rooftops is a process that could take up to two years. Ricketts said he wasn’t sure exactly how far the Cubs had gotten into that process.

The Cubs had intended to put up the Budweiser sign in right field for the home opener, part of a sponsorship deal said to be in the neighborhood of 10 years and $140 million. It’s not ready yet.

“We’ll take that day-by-day and see how it’s going,” Ricketts said.

There are rumblings that the Cubs have been approached by outside investors in the past. But the non-controlling shares currently being discussed wouldn’t give you a real voice in how the team is run or a seat on the board of directors.

It’s more a chance for a few deep-pocketed individuals to rub elbows with celebrities, stand on the field during batting practice and tell people you own a piece of the Cubs. In these types of deals, the cash payout doesn’t come until the team is sold.  

“From time to time, people reach out,” Ricketts said. “But the process is just getting started. It’s just an option for us.”

CSNChicago.com

Would selling Cubs shares do anything for Theo’s rebuild?

By Patrick Mooney

The Ricketts family can look for wealthy investors on the North Shore and in the Fortune 500 crowd. But ultimately Cubs fans just want them to put a good product on the field. The private financing details for the Wrigleyville project won’t really move the needle.

So would selling minority ownership shares help pour more dollars into Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department?

“In the end, renovating the ballpark does create that cash flow,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Friday at the beginning of Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary celebration.

For all the comparisons to Fenway Park, it’s hard to believe Epstein thought he’d leave the arms race between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and get outspent in his own division by the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cubs began Year 3 of Epstein’s rebuild with a payroll just south of $90 million. The actual Opening Day roster came in around $75 million when you factor in the Alfonso Soriano payments in The Bronx.

President of business operations Crane Kenney is supposed to deliver with the renovated stadium and the new TV deals, though the Cubs in essence won’t become a real broadcasting free agent until after the 2019 season, when they could, in theory, start their own cable network.

As for the interim, Ricketts said, “The way we look at it is, you’re going to put the dollars in, you want to put it into something that has a long-term return. We think the renovation of the ballpark is $30 to $40 million of incremental revenue per year.

“If you’re going to put money in: Why would you not put it in a way that gives a long-term return where it’s consistent and you have that in perpetuity as opposed to a single season or one player?”

There’s been simmering frustration inside the baseball operations department as the Cubs missed on players that would make sense for the long-term — prime-age free agents like Yoenis Cespedes, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Masahiro Tanaka — and got handcuffed by a collective bargaining agreement that limits spending in the draft and the international market.

There’s also a grudging recognition that this is the way it’s going to be here. Whether or not the Ricketts family ultimately decides to sell a non-controlling interest, insiders say the restrictions imposed by the leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. will remain in place through 2019.

So while Cubs fans would rather read about their team trading for big-time players and signing free agents to megadeals, they’ll still be staring at pieces of a complex financial puzzle.

CSNChicago.com

'Slightly awkward' moment for Ryne Sandberg in Wrigley return

By Patrick Mooney

Ryne Sandberg showed up for the “Party of the Century” at 7:30 on Friday morning and found that the visiting team’s gate was locked. Standing in the rain, the Philadelphia Phillies manager decided to walk through the Captain Morgan Club.

“It was packed already with fans and cameras,” Sandberg said. “That was my entrance to the ballpark.”

The memories come flooding back whenever Sandberg approaches Wrigley Field. But this became a business trip, not a marketing opportunity, even though the Cubs did have him and Billy Williams throw out a first pitch and then pose with fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkins. And then walk back toward the visiting dugout.

“Yeah, it was slightly awkward,” Sandberg said after a 7-2 victory.

The Cubs didn’t sell out their home opener (38,283), the beginning of a season-long celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary. Sandberg became part of it after winning the National League’s 1984 MVP award, seeing the rooftop business explode and getting a Cubs hat on his Cooperstown plaque.

“It’s a special day,” Sandberg said. “The fan base would go out every year with the optimism: ‘This is going to be the year.’ I thought that every single year I played. I thought that was the year, regardless of who was on the roster or who my teammates were. That was the mentality.”

The Phillies (2-2) are trying to squeeze more out of their aging core and keep their window of contention open. Sandberg, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, called second baseman Chase Utley (2-for-5, home run, three RBIs) a “carbon copy” of the player he used to be on the North Side.

Sandberg went to his bullpen in the sixth inning and used five different relievers to get the last 11 outs. He even made a pitching change with a five-run lead and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. This on a gray day where the wind chill made it feel like 28 degrees, which didn’t go over well with the fans sticking around to the very end.

“Well, we have a heater in the dugout, so I wasn’t that cold,” Sandberg said with a laugh.

The Cubs have cleaned house since Sandberg managed at Class-A Peoria, Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa and got passed over when Lou Piniella retired in 2010. Jim Hendry’s crew and Theo Epstein’s group didn’t think he had what it takes to manage in the big leagues. Rick Renteria is now the fourth different Cubs manager in the last five seasons.

When Sandberg returned to Wrigley Field for the first time as Philadelphia’s interim manager last August, he admitted winning that game felt extra special. He even tweaked the Cubs by pointing out the empty seats and saying how it used to be “a tough ticket.”

This time, Ryno went with the vanilla answer. The Cubs job is an old story now.  

“Opening Day is a big deal out here,” Sandberg said. “It’s good to take the first game and set the tone for the series. We’ll get after it tomorrow.”

CSNChicago.com

Ryne Sandberg: Wrigley Field ‘is home to me’

Charlie Roumeliotis

Ryne Sandberg suited up for 15 home openers for the Cubs as a player, but his 16th was quite different than the others. Sandberg was a part of history Friday, managing against his former team for the first time as a manager — with the Philadelphia Phillies — and the 100th Wrigley Field opener.

Even though he wasn’t sporting Cubbie blue, Sandberg said it brought back memories to take in another Opening Day at Wrigley.

"It’s a special, special day for me to be here just for the festivities and memories of Opening Days here. The fan base and the excitement of Opening Day brought every year with the optimism of ‘This is gonna be the year,’" said Sandberg, following the Phillies’ 7-2 win vs. the Cubs.

"I thought that every Opening Day I played in, that was the year, regardless of who was on the roster, who my teammates were. That was just the mentality that I had and was just hoping to get to the postseason every year and it all started with Opening Day here. It’s a special day."

Sandberg’s new home is now in Philadelphia, but he admits Chicago holds a special place in his heart.

"This is a home for me," he said. "This was a place I enjoyed playing in. Every game on television was a big deal to me. I knew that everybody back home was watching and that really got me fired up to play every game and that brought the most out of my abilities."

Although Sandberg looked forward to playing at Wrigley Field on Opening Day as a player, the Hall of Famer wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of the month it was played in.

"I enjoyed the day games and saw the ball well here. Any time I was struggling at the plate, Wrigley Field usually fixed it for me just getting back to home, except for in April," Sandberg said. "In April, I was a .230 lifetime hitter that was because of here and the high grass and the wind blowing in, but I always looked forward to May 1st and the warmer weather and little different winds blowing and then things usually came around, but I had a hard time playing in April here."

CSNChicago.com

No pressure: Castro knows Cubs will break out of offensive slump
By Tony Andracki

Tomorrow is a new day.

That seems to be new manager Rick Renteria’s official motto four games into the Cubs’ 1-3 start to the 2014 season.

His players have started to pick up on it, too.

"It’s tough, but tomorrow’s another day," Starlin Castro said after the Cubs’ 7-2 loss in the Wrigley opener Friday.

The Cubs have scored just eight runs in four games and are hitting .201 as a team. Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, coming off disappointing 2013 seasons, are a combined 4-for-34 (.118 average) while hitting in the middle of the Cubs’ order.

With a strong wind blowing out on a frigid day at Wrigley Field on Friday, the Cubs’ bats never warmed up as they mustered just three hits off the Phillies’ pitching staff and none after Castro’s RBI single in the third inning.

But there’s no sense of panic yet in the Cubs clubhouse. You get the feeling the word “panic” might not even be in Renteria’s vocabulary.

"It’s the fourth game of the season," Renteria said. "And quite frankly, I wouldn’t panic anyways. We’re going to continue to work, we’re going to continue to try to get better, we’re going to continue to improve on the things we need to."

Castro missed almost all of spring training with a hamstring issue but insists he’s healthy now and refuses to make excuses, saying he’s simply trying to get into a rhythm in the early going.

"I feel good," he said. "I’m just trying to be aggressive."

A small contingent of frustrated fans let Castro have it in the eighth after he grounded into an inning-ending double play with two men on.

The 24-year-old shortstop has gotten used to the ups and downs of the season and said he doesn’t pay any attention to the boos. He’s not putting pressure on himself and claims he feels relaxed at the plate.

"My mind’s strong," Castro said. "I know who I am. I know what I can do, and I’m going to be fine."

Renteria and the Cubs are keeping a positive approach with their franchise shortstop.

"I don’t think we look at his outcomes in terms of hits as the definitive answer to how he’s doing," Renteria said. "We look at the approaches first and foremost. Is he chasing? Is he expanding the zone too much? Things of that nature.

"And those are things that we continue to talk about. It really has more to do with trying to see if we can help him focus a little better in the hitting areas that are conducive to him having the potential to have a better outcome."

It is just four games into the season, and the Cubs have been playing in cold, wintry conditions that are not likely to yield to big offensive outputs.

"The first few games, it’s always tough to score runs. Not only for us," Castro said. "But tomorrow is a new day. Every day is a new day.

"We try and score runs, but we have left a lot of guys in scoring position. We could have a lot more runs. We’ll keep grinding, keep being aggressive at the plate and we’ll be all right."

CSNChicago.com

Sandberg, Phillies have last laugh over Cubs in Wrigley opener

By Tony Andracki

Rick Renteria’s reaction perfectly summed up the home-opener at Wrigley Field on Friday: “Wow.”

That was the first-year manager’s response to the media scrum that awaited him before the 7-2 loss to the Phillies.

In the other dugout, Ryne Sandberg, something of an expert on the Chicago market, managed his team to a victory in front of 38,283 fans on hand to kick off the season-long Wrigley 100 celebration.

On a frigid day (it was 28 degrees with windchill at first pitch) with 23 mph winds blowing straight out to right field, the Cubs mustered just three hits and none after the third inning. Catcher Welington Castillo delivered a long solo homer in the second, and Starlin Castro drove in Darwin Barney on an infield single in the third. Phillies veteran Chase Utley homered and drove in three runs.

Travis Wood picked up right where he left off last season, giving the Cubs another quality start, allowing four runs — but only three earned — in 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight. He was tied for fifth in the National League last season with 24 quality starts during an All-Star campaign.

After Wood departed, the Cubs’ bullpen struggled, allowing three more runs on five hits and two walks in 2 2/3 innings of work.

CSNChicago.com

Prospects still at center stage for Cubs at home opener

By Tony Andracki

It’s Opening Day at Wrigley Field, but that didn’t stop Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts from fielding questions on the organization’s top prospects.

In his pregame media session, Hoyer spent almost half his time talking about the minor leagues, providing updates on Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.

These players are still months — or even years — away from Wrigley Field, but the focus in this market is on the future and the young guys coming up through the system. As he maneuvers the Wrigley renovation project and the potential sale of minority shares, Ricketts said he reads the organization’s minor-league reports every day (which he admitted have been more interesting of late).

Baez is the closest to the big leagues, kicking off his 2014 season with Triple-A Iowa Thursday night. Coming off a dominating 2013 campaign with 37 homers and 111 RBI in 130 games, the 2011 first-round pick once again turned heads during spring training.

But the Cubs are sticking to their guns and plan to keep Baez in the minors until at least mid-summer.

"I don’t see us really wavering on that one," Hoyer said. "He does have that development left. We told him, ‘Go dominate Iowa. If you dominate Iowa and you dominate Triple-A, you put the pressure on us.’

"[Anthony] Rizzo did that a couple years ago, where he just went down there and crushed the league and we called him up…I look forward to seeing [Baez] do that."

The Cubs acquired Rizzo from the San Diego Padres before the 2012 season and the slugger tore up Triple-A to the tune of a 1.101 OPS before a mid-season call-up. The Cubs hope Baez will do the same thing, and aren’t worried about him getting complacent in the minors.

"You’ve got a game every night. That would not be a good trait to get bored," Hoyer said. "For him, he’s got a competition against the pitcher every night. I’d like to think his focus is going out and beating the opposing pitcher and making it hard on us.

"If he doesn’t perform down there, then that’s not going to make it hard on us. He’s got to go compete."

Bryant, drafted two years after Baez, is on the fast track to the big leagues and the cries for the 2013 No. 2 pick to make his debut in Chicago this season only got louder after he drilled a two-run homer in his first Double-A at-bat Thursday. The shot was even more noteworthy given that it came off Reds starter Mat Latos, who was rehabbing with Pensacola.

"It’s nice to see him do it against a big-leaguer," Hoyer said. "Sometimes in the minor leagues, you wonder who a guy is performing against. That was impressive and hopefully he’ll keep it going.

There’s almost no chance Bryant will be playing at Wrigley Field before 2015, but the Cubs are impressed with the way he’s dominated at each level. After debuting at Arizona and a stint with short-season Boise, Bryant helped Advanced Class-A Daytona win a championship and then went on to take home the Arizona Fall League MVP Award.

Soler, meanwhile, would like to forget his 2013 season. He played in just 55 games, suffering through injury, an incident where he grabbed a bat and charged the opposing dugout and a short stint on the bench after failing to hustle out a ground ball.

Hitting behind Bryant, Soler doubled in his first at-bat off Latos Thursday, but re-aggravated a hamstring injury and had to be removed from the game after the first inning. He was scheduled for an MRI Friday and was placed on the 7-day disabled list.

"Maybe he rushed back early to get to Opening Day or maybe it was just unfortunate that he did the same thing," Hoyer said.

"It’s a shame because he hits a double in the gap off Latos to start his season. Hopefully we’ll…get him back on the field soon."

Pitching prospect Pierce Johnson is also dealing with a hamstring issue and is expected to join Soler and Bryant in Double-A Tennessee when healthy.

Hoyer spoke about the optimism within the organization that the day is coming where the big-league club is the main focus, especially on the day of home opener.

But until then, the prospects will still be center stage.

CSNChicago.com

Cubs exploring sale of minority shares for Wrigley renovation

Patrick Mooney

The long-running drama at Wrigley Field now has a new twist.

It shouldn’t be as chaotic as Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. takeover, the descent into bankruptcy and a rocky transition to the Ricketts family. But the Cubs are exploring the idea of selling minority ownership shares as a way to help finance the stadium renovation, according to multiple sources within Chicago’s business community.

A Cubs source confirmed the plans, describing those shares as a non-controlling interest while also cautioning that the Ricketts family hasn’t made any final decisions yet. It’s an X-factor for the business/baseball plans at Clark and Addison, and an acknowledgment of the team’s complicated financial reality.

Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary season kicks off with Friday’s home opener against Ryne Sandberg’s Philadelphia Phillies, so get ready for all the sentimental looks back into the past. But this next chapter will be all about the future in a story that has reverberated from Wall Street to City Hall and all the way to the White House.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is said to be getting antsy as Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts continues to negotiate with the rooftop owners after already missing one offseason of construction.

Emanuel wants the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the groundbreaking, the image of hard hats, concrete and steel. Ricketts wants assurances the team won’t get sued before green-lighting the $500 million Wrigleyville project, which would also include a new hotel across the street from the iconic marquee. The roofies want their piece of the action, clinging to a revenue-sharing agreement with the team that runs through 2023 and trying to block the Jumbotron.

Moneyball

An industry source predicted the Cubs would be working from the latest Forbes valuation – $1.2 billion – that put the franchise behind only the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox at a time when commissioner Bud Selig estimated the sport’s revenues could top $9 billion this year.

That’s a 42-percent jump from the $845 million deal that finally closed in October 2009 and included a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago. The game’s rising tide hasn’t lifted the Cubs out of fifth place since the Ricketts family entered into that leveraged partnership with Zell’s Tribune Co., which demanded any buyer take on a debt-heavy structure that would create a shelter from huge capital-gains taxes.

The Cubs source said a sale wouldn’t impact the futures of team presidents Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein, who both have long-term contracts and run business and baseball operations without much interference from a hands-off ownership group.

The Cubs began this season with a major-league payroll around $89 million, which ranked 23rd out of 30 teams, according to an Associated Press salary survey. There’s been a reckoning since the nearly $147 million poured into the 2010 Opening Day roster.

The projection for the actual on-field product this season is closer to $75 million when you factor in the money the Cubs owed the Yankees for the final season of Alfonso Soriano’s win-one-for-the-Tower megadeal.

The Cubs have been writing off major-league seasons, building an elite farm system and collecting seven of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects. They’re hoping to build a sustainable contender through the draft, trade-deadline deals and the international market, though a restrictive collective bargaining agreement has made it more difficult to acquire amateur talent.

Major League Baseball would need to approve any new investors, though the Cubs source said it hasn’t advanced to that stage yet. Insiders say that as the Ricketts family does estate planning, the intention is to still control the team through at least the next generation.

Whatever happens, team sources suggest the spending restrictions imposed by Zell’s terms will remain in place through the 2019 season. At that point, the Cubs would also be free to start their own cable network, while seeing new revenues from the Wrigley Field renovation, forces that could again make them a big-market power.

The Deal

Raising cash will invite comparisons to the New York Mets selling minority ownership stakes in wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal. The Mets closed those deals in 2012, repaying loans to Major League Baseball and Bank of America, adding investors that included comedian Bill Maher and SportsNet New York, their regional cable partner, trying to erase the stains from that Ponzi scheme.

Even if it creates perception issues – and the Cubs have felt some pressure from the investment banks – this would still in essence be straight from the playbook in professional sports. Jerry Reinsdorf might be one of the most powerful men in baseball behind Selig, and he’s the public face of ownership, but there are multiple investors in the Bulls and White Sox.

The San Francisco Giants list 30 principal owners on their masthead. That franchise has become a model of business/baseball synergy, building AT&T Park, creating an atmosphere around the waterfront stadium and winning World Series titles in 2010 and 2012.

The DeWitt family is one of 15 investors listed in the media guide for the St. Louis Cardinals, perhaps the best-run organization in baseball.

The Cubs are said to be looking at the idea of a small group of investors, who would be buying equity in a marquee franchise in a booming business – and all the Wrigley Field perks and access that would come along with that.

Kenney – the former Tribune Co. lawyer now in his 21st season in the organization and at the center of all these issues – tipped off the plan at Cubs Convention in January.

Inside a Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers ballroom, Kenney told fans and reporters that the Cubs generated the fifth-highest revenues in the game last season. Kenney mentioned that Ricketts family “assets” would be used to finance the Wrigley Field project.

That signaled a shift from the convention talking points in 2013, when the Cubs rolled out a new lobbying tactic, asking for the city to ease restrictions and unveiling conceptual designs for a $300 million stadium restoration.

Kenney told reporters the Ricketts family is “prepared to write the whole check themselves” if the Cubs would be treated like the other 29 big-league clubs, allowed to put up advertising signage where they want and given more flexibility to schedule night games.

That reset the PR campaign after a bitter presidential election that put the spotlight on family patriarch Joe Ricketts, the somewhat reclusive TD Ameritrade founder, and his Super PAC’s anti-Obama campaigning.

A story leaked to The New York Times went viral in May 2012 and infuriated Emanuel. Obama’s former chief of staff froze out the team at a time when internal projections had the Cubs potentially getting around $150 million in public funding through the amusement-tax proposal.

The Chicago Way

Outside of this week’s profile on Showtime’s “60 Minutes Sports,” the Ricketts family generally prefers to keep a low profile in the media. There’s been a learning curve for Tom, Laura, Pete and Todd, who convinced their father to push ahead with the Zell deal, an education in the game’s changing economics as well as bare-knuckle ward politics.

Tom Ricketts has tried to stay out of the political fray, knowing he’d have to make his way in Chicago. Associates describe the Cubs chairman as someone who cares about the family’s legacy in the city and has a nice personal touch around the office. While there are more cynical explanations for building a homegrown core, he knows scouts by name, visits minor-league affiliates and shows a genuine interest in player development. The staffers on the ground appreciate being able to put a face to ownership.

Looking to close in the middle of a financial crisis, the Ricketts family once considered raising around $100 million by selling non-equity stock, as Crain’s Chicago Business reported in April 2009, before the bank lending loosened up again, scrapping that plan.

Privately financing the Wrigley Field renovation will be a massive undertaking. While selling the ballpark’s one-of-a-kind charm, Cubs executives also repeatedly point to the public money used in building U.S. Cellular Field and stadiums all across the country. From an ownership point of view, it would be paying for it either by writing the check or diluting future returns by selling equity shares to third-party investors.

Once again, the biggest stories surrounding the Cubs will have nothing to do with what happens on the field.

 

Chicago Tribune

2014 Cubs displays all the hallmarks of 2013

Though Rick Renteria remains ebullient and optimistic, anemic offense at home opener offered same sad story as last season

By David Haugh

One out away from a 7-2 victory over the Cubs in Friday’s Wrigley Field opener, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg strolled to the mound to change pitchers.

A crowd of 38,283 unleashed a torrent of boos on Ryno like he was a Cardinal.

Sandberg, a Hall of Famer usually revered in Wrigleyville, drew hearty applause when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch alongside fellow Cubs legends Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. But that was before frustrated fans sat through three hours of weak hitting by the home team in 38-degree temperatures.

By the time Sandberg summoned right-hander Jeff Manship to face rookie Mike Olt to prolong the Cubs’ agony with a needless pitching switch reminiscent of Tony La Russa, all anybody at Clark and Addison wanted to do was leave. Not even the most optimistic Cubs fan thought Olt could hit a five-run homer but Sandberg went to the bullpen anyway to protect an insurmountable lead. Take that, Chicago.

"We have a heater in the dugout so I wasn’t that cold,” kidded Sandberg, sounding particularly pleased at beating the team that wouldn’t hire him as manager. "We needed a guy to get in there and get a hitter this early in the year.”

If somebody had laid odds before the game on a manager getting booed Friday, almost nobody in town would have put money on Sandberg. But for one brief, shining moment, the Cubs’ Rick Renteria was the most popular manager in the ballpark.

That’s the kind of positive spin on the ninth inning that would make Renteria proud.

The man with the indefatigable enthusiasm managing his first game at Wrigley managed to wear a smile into the interview room after his team managed a meager three hits off Roberto Hernandez with a 23 mph wind blowing out. The Cubs now have scored just eight runs in four games with core players Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both hitting .118 but Renteria exuded the optimism he was hired to exude.

"We didn’t get the outcome we wanted but tomorrow’s another day,” Renteria said. "The one thing we have to maintain, and I will maintain, is we take an even-keeled approach. Every game is the same.”

Therein lies the problem. Every game is the same. Without a calendar, nothing distinguished the first home loss of 2014 for the Cubs with the last one of 2013: lack of focus at the plate, runners stranded on the bases, zeroes on the scoreboard.

Castro resembles a hitter who could have used a couple of weeks in the minors to develop better timing after missing much of the final month of spring training with a hamstring injury. As much as Renteria sought to protect his shortstop — “I don’t think we look at his outcome in terms of hits,” he said — Castro looks somewhere between lost and overmatched at the beginning of what must be a bounce-back year for him.

"I don’t feel pressure and my mind is strong,” Castro said. "I’m feeling pretty good. Tomorrow’s another day.”

Yeah, but tomorrow also brings Cliff Lee to the mound for the Phillies. Sunday, the Cubs will see A.J. Burnett. So much for working for the weekend.

The 1-3 Cubs are hitting .201 as a team. Their lineup is as incomplete as the ivy on the left-field wall, which exposed about three feet of brick after re-attachment problems. Their starting pitching has fared respectably — Travis Wood gave up three earned runs in 61/3 innings — but so far the offense has awakened only long enough to say, “We need Javy Baez.” The offensive hero of the home opener shouldn’t be third-base coach Gary Jones, whose aggressiveness allowed Darwin Barney to score from second on an infield hit by Castro.

"It’s the fourth game of the season and quite frankly I wouldn’t panic anyway,” Renteria answered when asked to assess his level of concern.

Renteria sounded as vague as Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts explaining why opening day came and went without a deal with the rooftop owners that was expected by Friday’s artificial deadline. Ricketts sat in the cold next to Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a couple of innings but they would have looked better standing behind a lectern announcing once and for all a deal has been struck. Much of the buzz surrounded Ricketts’ confirmation the family will consider minority investors for the $500 million renovation, which won’t begin until the Cubs resolve their differences with the roofies.

"We’re close,” Ricketts repeated.

He was referring to a deal — certainly not his baseball team.

Chicago Tribune

Left-handed hitters take Travis Wood to shed

Cubs lefty starter can’t make tough pitches when he needed to against Phillies he was counted on to get out

By Mark Gonzales

Cubs left-hander Travis Wood struck out eight and pitched into the seventh inning Friday.

But his problems against left-handed hitters were his downfall in a 7-2 loss to the Phillies.

"They held their own," manager Rick Renteria said, though the Cubs’ decision to hold Wood back so he could face the Phillies’ top left-handed hitters flopped.

Third baseman Luis Valbuena’s error to start the fourth preceded left-handed hitters Ryan Howard and Domonic Brown knocking out consecutive singles. But Wood paid the price for not hitting his location on a pitch that Chase Utley hit with the aid of a 25-mph gust into the right-field bleachers that gave the Phillies the lead for good.

Wood thought he pitched “very solid” but acknowledged the mistake to Utley and a single to left-handed hitter Ben Revere that signaled his departure in the seventh.

Open door: General manager Jed Hoyer said the Cubs haven’t closed the door on negotiations with starter Jeff Samardzija or any player during the regular season.

"It’s really up to the player," Hoyer said. "We don’t have any problems negotiating in season. … We take it on a case-by-case basis."

Hoyer acknowledged he would like to reverse the Cubs’ current trend in which veterans are traded at midseason for prospects.

"We had to do that for the future," Hoyer said. "Ultimately, we want to be the opposite. We need to move toward that."

Soler on DL: Double-A Tennessee outfielder Jorge Soler, rated the Cubs’ fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, was placed on the seven-day disabled list one day after aggravating a tender hamstring while doubling in his first at-bat against the Reds’ Mat Latos, who was on a rehab assignment at Pensacola.

Pitcher Dillon Maples, the Cubs’ 18th-rated prospect, will miss up to two months after breaking a rib late in spring training. Pitcher Pierce Johnson (hamstring) is close to joining Tennessee.

Big guns: Renteria elected not to challenge a call on which Darwin Barney contended he was struck by a pitch that he swung at and was ruled a foul ball because a reverse would have meant it would have been a third strike. Barney finished the at-bat by hitting a single and scoring the Cubs’ second run. … Cubs Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and Ryne Sandberg — now the Phillies’ manager — threw the ceremonial first pitches.

Chicago Tribune

Ryne Sandberg and Phillies rain on Cubs parade

Manager drags out victory in opener at Wrigley Field that brings no peace to home team in freezing park on dreary day

By Paul Sullivan

Shortly after dawn before the home opener for the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg was trying to get inside the ballpark.

"It was 7:30 in the morning I’m getting poured on by the rain at the visitors’ gate," Sandberg said. "So I stood there, and then I figured out I had to go through the Captain Morgan Club, which was packed with fans and cameras.

"So that was my entrance into the ballpark. It was a little tough entry. But just the memories of driving up here, getting close to the neighborhood and then seeing the ballpark … I did it for years and I always felt the excitement as soon as I saw the ballpark."

Sandberg had good reason to be excited on Friday. After all, he was playing the Cubs.

Eleven hours later, Sandberg and the Phillies left with a 7-2 victory, spoiling the home opener festivities, along with manager Rick Renteria’s home debut.

It was the Cubs’ fourth straight home opening loss in the Ricketts era, and few of the 38,283 in attendance hung around for the end when Sandberg changed relievers with two outs in the ninth and a five-run lead.

Perhaps it was Sandberg’s way of saying: “Thanks for making me stand outside in the rain after I helped turn your franchise into a gold mine 30 years ago.”

Beforehand, the Cubs were all smiles, moving into their lockers and pumping up Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in the clubhouse. That was the last time the word “hot” was uttered. The game-time wind chill was 28 degrees, and the Hawk wind made it seem even colder.

Cubs’ swing man Carlos Villanueva was given the “crazy” locker in the corner of the clubhouse near the stairwell, named for its previous two occupants, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza.

Villanueva admitted he did not request it, but he is hoping to change the locker’s karma. He even went so far as to nickname it “Villa de Paz,” which translates to “House of Peace.”

"I’m going to bring some peace to this place," Villanueva said.

Once batting practice began, it was time for Chairman Tom Ricketts to come down to the field and make his annual opening day speech about the exciting future of his ballclub, which is now a combined 104 games below .500 since the Ricketts family took control in 2010.

Ricketts explained his idea of selling non-voting, minority shares of the Cubs to help finance the proposed $300 million ballpark renovation. Someone asked if having a better ballclub would lead to better overall attendance, which would lead to greater revenues to finance renovations.

"Obviously attendance is somewhat correlated to wins, right?" Ricketts said. "So, yeah, a better team would help some. But for us the focus is to do things right for the long term."

The focus for some on Friday was the jarring look of the left field wall, where the ivy ended about four feet from the top, leaving exposed brick. The ivy was pulled down over the winter to repair the bricks, the Cubs said, as part of routine maintenance.

"It’ll grow back to the top," said Carl Rice, the Cubs vice-president of ballpark operations.

How long will that take?

"Spring," Rice said. "Don’t know. It needs warm weather."

By the eighth inning, after John Mayberry Jr.’s two-run homer broke the game open, fans began to leave in droves. Down at Clark’s Clubhouse, home of the new Cubs’ mascot, fans sidestepped a spilled beer in the entrance way to take photos of children with Clark.

Ricketts left his seat before the end, but at least he managed to outlast Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who came late and left early.

In the nearby box seats in the bottom of the ninth, frozen fans were livid that Sandberg continued the torture, calling on rookie Jeff Manship to face Mike Olt with two outs and nobody on base with the aforementioned five-run lead.

At that point, every Cubs fan could have used a few minutes of peace at Villa de Paz.

The start of the party of the century did not go exactly as planned, but everyone survived.

"Tomorrow is another day," Renteria said.

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ prospects sidelined with injuries

By Mark Gonzales

The Chicago Cubs are counting on the continued progression of their top prospects to help their major league team in the upcoming seasons.

But three prospects currently are sidelined because of injuries.

The most serious involves pitcher Dillon Maples, who was ranked as the 18th top prospect  by Baseball America. Maples, 21, who finished the 2013 season with a 5-2 record and 2.14 ERA in 10 games at Class-A Boise, suffered a broken rib late in spring training and will be sidelined for about two months, according to multiple sources.

Pitcher Pierce Johnson is expected to join Double-A Tennessee soon as he recovers from a tight hamstring. Johnson is ranked as the sixth best prospect.

Tennessee outfielder Jorge Soler was placed on the seven-day disabled list after aggravating his hamstring Thursday night after hitting a double off Cincinnati pitcher Mat Latos, who was on a rehab assignment for Pensacola.

Soler is the Cubs’ fifth top prospect.

Chicago Tribune

Cubs’ Ricketts: Investors search in 1st inning

By Mark Gonzales

Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts emphasized Friday the search for outside investors to help fund renovations at Wrigley Field is in the early stages.

“It’s pretty simple,” Ricketts told reporters in front of the third base dugout at Wrigley Field. “Any time you’re looking at a big project like this that’s privately financing, you’re going to look at all your different sources and potential financing. And we’re going to take at look at whether or not it makes sense to bring in outside investors.’’

Ricketts emphasized that the idea of selling shares doesn’t mean the franchise is in any kind of financial stress.

"Most team have multiple investors,” Ricketts said. "We’re taking a look at whether it fits for us."

If the Cubs secure an outside investor, that group would be a non-controlling minority investor. Ricketts added that people have contacted them in the past about buying a share of the team.

"But the process is just getting started," Ricketts said.

Ricketts reinforced his eagerness to start construction on renovations. But they won’t start until they receive assurances by rooftop owners of no lawsuits. The target date to complete renovations is by opening day of 2018.

“There are certain things we can prep for before the end of season, but the major work needs to get done when the place is empty,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts acknowledged adding minority investors creates a cash flow, adding that the renovation of the park can create $30 million to $40 million in incremental revenue per season.

"And if you’re going to put money in, why would you not put it in a way that gives you a long term return where it’s consistent?" Ricketts said.

As for making more concessions in negotiations with the rooftop owners, “we’ve made a lot of concessions,” Ricketts said. “At some point, it has to end somewhere. But we’re not there. We’ll keep working and see what we can get done.’’

Chicago Tribune

Cubs already looking ahead after latest loss

After dropping a 7-2 decision to Phillies in home opener, Starlin Castro and punchless offense get ready for Cliff Lee challenge

By Mark Gonzales

Less than an hour after the Cubs’ latest offensive struggle, Starlin Castro responded calmly when asked if he knew whom he and his teammates were facing Saturday.

"I know already," Castro said in response to former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee of the Phillies. "I have him in the book. I hit a homer off him (three years) ago.”

For Castro and the Cubs, ridding themselves of the recent past represents a challenge after they were limited to three hits Friday under miserable weather conditions in a 7-2 loss to the Phillies before a hearty crowd of 38,283 in the home opener at Wrigley Field.

Despite tailoring lineups designed to present the most favorable matchups, the Cubs have mustered just eight runs in four games. The theme of patience understandably was stressed in the postgame media session, but one alarming flaw surfaced — there’s no apparent plan.

It showed as the Cubs didn’t get a hit and had only two baserunners after Luis Valbuena drew a walk with one out in the fourth.

"We did not have a very good plan of attack in general," manager Rick Renteria said. "So it kind of cost us.”

Though Castro drove in the Cubs’ second run with a two-out single off the glove of second baseman Chase Utley in shallow right field, he was booed after grounding into an inning-ending double play with the Cubs trailing by five runs in the eighth.

"I was trying to stay aggressive," Castro said of his matchup with Antonio Bastardo. "He got two fastballs right on me. With two strikes, I have to protect the plate and put the ball in play."

Like their plan to be patient with their prized prospects in the minor leagues, Renteria gave no indication he will shake up the lineup only four games into the season.

"It’s really early to talk about lineup changes," Renteria said. "We’ve had three difficult battles in Pittsburgh and traveled (Thursday) night like everyone does. We had lot of energy and are waiting for the right outcome."

Mike Olt, who homered in Thursday’s victory at Pittsburgh, and Junior Lake didn’t start Friday , but general manager Jed Hoyer and Renteria pointed out the Cubs remain careful with Olt because of his tender right arm and that the Cubs have faced two right-handed sinkerball specialists in Charlie Morton of the Pirates and Roberto Hernandez of the Phillies.

The roster was designed to give Renteria as much flexibility as possible, although Hoyer indicated that could present a challenge.

"He has to keep everyone happy and playing," Hoyer said before the game. "Winning keeps everyone happy, and hopefully we’ll get off to a good start."

Chicago Tribune

Missing ivy will grow back at Wrigley

By Paul Sullivan

The most noticeable change at Wrigley Field on opening day is the absence of ivy at the top of left field wall, just to the left of the well.

The ivy ends about four feet from the top, leaving exposed brick, looking like it took a trim.

It’s a jarring look to longtime observers, but the Cubs insist it’s only temporary.

“It’ll grow back to the top,” Cubs vice-president of ballpark operations Carl Rice said before Friday’s opener against the Phillies.

How long will it take to grow back to the top?

“Spring,” Rice said. “Don’t know. It needs warm weather.”

The Cubs replaced bricks in the left field wall in the off-season as part of the usual ballpark maintenance, and had to take down the ivy for the work. They plan to replace the bricks in the entire outfield eventually, doing it piecemeal in the coming offseasons.

Otherwise, the ballpark looks great. Head groundskeeper Roger Baird and the grounds crew have the playing field in good shape, despite the brutal winter that had the ground frozen only a couple weeks ago.

“”There was three feet of snow in right field, and that had to be removed,” Rice said. “The weather, we got lucky there with a few days last week that had the warmth that helped us get the field prepared. It’s still going to be a challenge. We need spring to show up in Chicago.”

The Cubs did not carry through on their plan to install a Budweiser sign in right field, which would have brought a lawsuit from the rooftop owners.

Chicago Tribune

Bryant’s HR highlights Cubs minor league openers

By Mark Gonzales

Despite the pleas of Kris Bryant’s unpaid advisers, the Chicago Cubs’ prospect remains a long way from being promoted to the major leagues.

But Bryant started his 2014 season in an auspicious manner, as he hit a two-run home run in his first at-bat of the season off Mat Latos in Double-A Tennessee’s 6-5 loss at Pensacola.

Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, went 1 for 3 with two runs and a stolen base. Jorge Soler hit a double in the first inning but was pulled because of recurring hamstring tightness.

Josh Vitters went 2 for 4 with a home run, but Chris Rusin was tagged for five runs on six hits in 3 2/3 innings as Triple-A Iowa lost to Memphis 10-2.

Arodys Vizcaino pitched a scoreless inning as Class-A Daytona lost at Brevard County 1-0.

Center fielder Jacob Hannamann, the Cubs’ third round pick in the 2013 draft, went 2 for 5 with two runs in Class-A Kane County’s 8-4 win at Quad Cities.

Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs might be six years away from big-market spending

By Gordon Wittenmyer

The casual mentions of ‘‘no end in sight’’ have increased with every passing month and year during the Cubs’ renovation process.

How’s this for an end line: 2020.

In other words: another six years of growing pains and limited baseball budgets.

Even before the Cubs lost their home opener Friday, their third loss in four games this season, chairman Tom Ricketts didn’t rule out the possibility that a long-promised boost to the baseball-operations budget might take that long to be fully realized.

That’s when the Cubs’ TV-rights deal with CSN (for more than half of their games) expires, making it the first year the Cubs can offer a single regional outlet their full schedule of TV rights — and theoretically reach full cash-in potential on any megadeal they plan to negotiate between now and then. The Cubs exercised an opt-out clause for the end of this season with the WGN portion of their rights package.

Industry analysts say the potential of a new TV deal — far more than new stadium revenues — is the real game-changer for Cubs revenues and, by extension, their on-field rebuilding.

So Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t get its big-market budgets back until 2020? The Cubs won’t have spending power comparable to their market size before that?

Ricketts didn’t offer the teeth-gritting, patient fan base much reason to think so when he answered that question before Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

‘‘We’ll see,’’ he said ‘‘I mean, we’ll know a lot more about what our media-rights options are as the year goes forward. I’m not really sure.’’

That can’t be a comfort to fans paying some of the top ticket prices in the game — fans who just endured a last-place season, followed by a do-nothing winter, followed by four games in which the Cubs are averaging 1.8 runs per nine innings.

Even the news that the Cubs might be willing to create cash flow through minority investors might not be the baseball boon it has the potential to be. The plan would involve big-pockets investors buying ‘‘shares’’ of the team to offset the $500 million tab for stadium renovations and development outside Wrigley Field.

Asked if that kind of revenue could be used as cash flow to add to baseball operations, Ricketts said: ‘‘Well, in the end, renovating the ballpark does create that cash flow.’’

Eventually, maybe.

‘‘The way we look at it is, if you’re going to put the dollars in, you want to put it into something that has a long-term return,’’ he said. ‘‘We think the renovation of the ballpark is $30- to $40 million in incremental revenue per year.’’

Which, according to sources, about covers the Cubs’ annual debt-service cost.

‘‘If you’re going to put money in,’’ Ricketts added, ‘‘why would you not put it in in a way that gives a long-term return, where it’s consistent and you have that in perpetuity as opposed to a single season or one player?’’

Of course, it’s not about necessarily a single player, or even deep dives into the free-agent market. But it is about paying for major-league players — whether at market price or in strategic overpays for ideal fits ­— a necessary and large cost for any successful front office.

Even Epstein has repeatedly said the kids in the farm system won’t get this done themselves. And an accelerated competitive timeline would go a long way toward restoring annual attendance losses projected to cost $23 million in lost revenue this year alone.

‘‘Obviously, attendance is somewhat correlated to wins, right?’’ Ricketts said. ‘‘So a better team would help some. But for us, the focus is to do the things right for the long term.’’

Long. Term.

Chicago Sun-Times

Ryne Sandberg sure would look good managing Cubs

By Dan McGrath

Whether you know him as Rich, Rick or Ricky Renteria, all three names are appropriate for the Cubs’ new skipper, who did the managerial work of three men in the 34 innings that made up the season-opening series in Pittsburgh.

Challenging umpires, arranging favorable pitching matchups or conjuring a double-play grounder from a five-man infield deployment, Renteria appeared to be on top of his game. That he had only one victory to show for his work speaks to the state of a team whose best player might be Emilio Bonifacio, a 28-year-old utilityman with his fourth organization.

These are, after all, the Cubs. It’s telling that the seasonlong tribute to Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday honors the ballpark itself more than the baseball played therein. A hundred years of Cubs highlights would make for a pretty short celebration.

But that will change once fresh money is onboard to help underwrite ballpark renovations.

New investors won’t have a say in how the Cubs are run, the Ricketts family notes, but why should they when things are going so swimmingly? A third consecutive 90-loss season is almost a certainty. The video board, the signage, the other enhancements that will fund a championship operation . . . it’s going on five years, but they’re coming. In fact, the word in the organization is no longer ‘‘if’’ the Cubs win the World Series but ‘‘when.’’

Huh? Kris Bryant did hit a home run in his Class AA debut the other night. And Clark the Adorable Mascot presides over ‘‘Clark’s Clubhouse,’’ an adorable new children’s play area on the first-level concourse.

Yep, swimmingly.

Maybe the unfailingly upbeat Renteria will turn out to be another Casey Stengel. But a poll of the 38,283 hardy zealots who braved 28-degree wind chill to witness the Cubs’ home opener Friday probably would conclude the ideal Cubs manager was sitting in the visitors’ dugout.

That would be Ryne Sandberg, a Wrigley Field icon who’s in his first full season running the Philadelphia Phillies, rewarded with a three-year contract after taking over for Charlie Manuel last August. Sandberg’s preparation far exceeds the 42-game audition he underwent as Manuel’s interim replacement. The idea of a Hall of Fame player enduring a six-year minor-league apprenticeship to earn a shot as a big-league manager is unprecedented, but that’s what Sandberg did after then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry told him his lack of experience ruled him out as a successor to Dusty Baker after the 2006 season.

He was the antithesis of a ceremonial manager and made his mark developing young players, but Sandberg knew it was over for him in Chicago four years later. Lou Piniella took early retirement, and Hendry turned the dugout over to Mike Quade, a decision that encapsulates why Hendry no longer runs Cubs baseball.

The Theo Epstein regime, understandably, wanted a clean break from a not-so-glorious past. By its reckoning, the 12 losing teams Sandberg played on in 15 seasons here outweighed his stature as a franchise luminary when they sought a replacement for Quade after one lamentable season.

Epstein and his cronies aren’t much for second-guessing themselves, but in pointing to the stalled development of cornerstone players Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo as grounds for dismissing Dale Sveum, they acknowledged Sveum’s shortcomings in an area where Sandberg is strongest. And no do-over with Ryno moving on to Philadelphia, where he’s feeling secure enough to have former Phillies managers Larry Bowa and Pete Mackanin on his coaching staff.

They aren’t running the ’27 Yankees. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the core group of a five-season playoff run, are well past 30, and Howard hasn’t been much good since popping his Achilles in the 2011 playoffs. Marlon Byrd, the Phillies’ main offseason acquisition, is 36 and playing for his seventh team. The pitching staff looks thrown together, with the closer’s job up in the air.

Terry Francona inherited similar disarray when he replaced Jim Fregosi as the Phillies’ manager in 1996. He was fired after four fruitless seasons, only to surface as a two-time World Series winner in Boston. Such history is of no concern to Sandberg.

‘‘I’m doing something I set out as a goal seven or eight years ago, and it’s a great opportunity,’’ he said before joining fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins for a first-ball ceremony Friday.

Tall, tan and trim at 54, Sandberg still looks good in a uniform. Our loss that it’s not a Cubs uniform.

Chicago Sun-Times

Ryne Sandberg right where he belongs in Wrigley return

By Toni Ginnetti

Ryne Sandberg knows his way around Wrigley Field as well as anyone, so the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager knew what to do when he arrived early Friday to find the visitors’ entrance locked.

‘‘I went through the Captain Morgan Club, which was already open — and packed,’’ he said.

The Hall of Fame second baseman had dreams of his playing career turning into a managing career at Wrigley. It has, but as the Phillies’ skipper — the job he was given full-time in the offseason after finishing 2013 as interim manager.

‘‘I’m doing something I set as a goal seven or eight years ago, and to do it with the team that originally drafted me out of high school is the right place. It’s coming full-circle,’’ he said.

Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, who in 2012 was the team’s first Gold Glove winner since Sandberg, learned under Sandberg in the Cubs’ farm system.

‘‘I always knew Ryno would be a big-league manager someday,’’ Barney said. ‘‘He obviously had the determination. He was willing to put in his time. There are a lot of ex-players, especially players of his caliber, who maybe don’t want to put in the time [in the minors]. And he’s a guy who respects the game enough, and you could just tell that he was willing to do that.

‘‘I think it’s going to pay off for him and the Phillies and whoever he winds up managing in the future.’’

The home opener at Wrigley on the park’s 100th anniversary was the right place for Sandberg.

‘‘This is home for me,’’ he said from the visitors’ dugout where he first sat last September in his interim manager role. ‘‘This was a place I enjoyed playing in — every game on TV was a big deal to me because I knew everyone back home was watching me, and that fired me up. But I also enjoyed the day games.

‘‘Any time I was slumping, Wrigley Field always fixed me — except in April,’’ he joked. ‘‘I hit .230 in Aprils.’’

Sandberg joined the other living Cubs Hall of Famers — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins — to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on a dreary day akin to the Aprils of his career.

‘‘I’m familiar with everything, but I don’t think there’s a big advantage,’’ he said of ‘‘knowing’’ the park. ‘‘You remind the fielders to check the [flags]. And the sun would play a big role in this field, though it’s cloudy today.’’

Mostly, Sandberg can tell his team what they would know for themselves when they step on the field.

‘‘It’s just a good atmosphere for baseball,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d talk to opposing players when they’d be at second, and they’d say how this is real-time baseball.’’

The baseball world best remembers the ‘‘Sandberg Game’’ of June 23, 1984, when his consecutive game-tying home runs off another future Hall of Famer, Bruce Sutter, defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in that playoff year.

‘‘That was a special game for the team and me personally as far as taking my game to a different level,’’ he said.

It also catapulted him to his first All-Star Game — ‘‘I was in second place in the voting, and within three days I got past Steve Sax’’ — and the MVP award that season.

Sandberg was part of two playoff teams, ‘‘but I thought that every single year,’’ he said of Opening Day optimism. ‘‘No matter who was on the roster, you were hoping to get to the postseason.’’

Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs paying attention to Starlin Castro’s approach at plate

By Toni Ginnetti

The Cubs had only three hits Friday against six Philadelphia Phillies pitchers. One of the hits was an RBI single from shortstop Starlin Castro.

But to hear some after the Cubs’ 7-2 loss, Castro is front and center in the Cubs’ offensive woes.

‘‘We don’t look at his outcomes in terms of hit, but he did have a hit today,’’ manager Rick Renteria said. ‘‘We look at the approach, and those are things we continue to talk about, to see if we can get him to ­focus in on those [things].

‘‘But [the team] didn’t have a very good plan of attack in general.’’

After getting one hit in 27 at-bats with runners in scoring position in three games in Pittsburgh, the Cubs had only three opportunities Friday. Castro delivered once in the third with a two-out single off starter Roberto Hernandez (1-0).

‘‘Focus is staying [mentally] in the game and concentrating on my at-bats and in the field,’’ said Castro, who said the biting wind and cold were difficult for him.

Castro missed most of spring training with a hamstring injury. He’s hitting .118, but so is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had a ­solid full spring. He hit .321 with two home runs and 11 RBI.

‘‘I feel OK,’’ Castro said. ‘‘It’s been tough to score runs from the first game, but not just us. We left a lot of men in scoring position, but if we keep aggressive, we’ll be all right. Every day is a new day.’’

That is the mantra Renteria repeats for a season still in its infancy.

‘‘We didn’t do a good job on the offensive side,’’ he said. ‘‘It seemed the ball was traveling well, but we were just missing sometimes.’’

And he was quick to dismiss any suggestions that the team’s early fortunes are reason for concern.

‘‘It’s the fourth game of the season, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t panic,’’ he said. ‘‘We will maintain. Offenses rise and fall, and the whole thing is to try to keep some kind of even-keeled approach through the whole season, and that’s what we’ve got to try to do.’’

Chicago Sun-Times

Field ready for opener, but not ivy

By Gordon Wittenmyer

Nobody expected the ivy to be green for the home opener. But missing?

Two to three feet of brick across the top of the left-field wall was exposed Friday because of brick-replacement work late in the offseason that left the ivy a little short when it was reattached.

“It hasn’t started to grow yet. If we would have spring, you would see ivy,” said Carl Rice, vice president of ballpark operations, who wasn’t sure how long the process will take. “We need warm weather.”

The brick work is part of an “area-by-area” replacement process that is part of the larger renovation plan, Rice said.

The rest of the ballpark seemed remarkably ready for the opener, considering the severity and length of winter.

“It was difficult,” Rice said. “Three weeks ago, there was three feet of snow in right field that had to be removed.”

The process took a week to 10 days, he said. Crews then used tarps and large heaters to help the greening process for the grass.

“We got lucky with the weather those few days last week with just some warmth that helped us get the field prepared,” Rice said. “But it’s still going to be a challenge. We need spring to show up.”

Chicago Sun-Times

Cubs GM Hoyer: Minority owners can be helpful

By Gordon Wittenmyer

Cubs baseball executives wouldn’t speculate on how a plan by ownership to take on minority investors might impact the front office’s rebuilding plan.

But general manager Jed Hoyer, who saw effective use of minority ownership when he was with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres, calls the idea a ‘‘positive’’ for the Cubs.

‘‘It’s something that’s common in baseball,’’ he said. ‘‘The other two organizations I’ve been in had a ton of minority owners. In a lot of ways, some of those guys added expertise from a business or from their careers that was helpful in other ways.’’

Chairman Tom Ricketts said the minority-investor plan was only an ‘‘option’’ being considered by ownership to help fund the Wrigley Field renovation project. But it’s clear the business operation is well down the road in its planning and intent to raise money from the non-voting shares of the team.

The franchise’s value has increased by more than 40 percent to $1.2 billion, according to Forbes, in 4 ½ years of Ricketts ownership.

‘‘I see it as a positive,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘I hope we find minority partners that can assist us in a lot of ways.’’

Culture change?

Asked about the roster-purging policies that have helped stock the farm system the last two years, Hoyer said, ‘‘It’s obviously something you want to get away from in time. It’s not a great thing for a team culture for [the media] to be asking questions of guys early on, ‘Are you getting moved in July?’ [But] we’ve made that a trend by doing it two years in a row.’’

Count on a third this year. When that will change — with big-leaguers added at the deadline instead — is unclear, but Hoyer said getting closer to that ‘‘culture’’ is important.

‘‘But given the [collective bargaining agreement], and given the restrictions on getting young players, you wouldn’t be looking at Mike Olt and Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez almost making the team,” he said of players acquired in last summer’s Matt Garza trade. ‘‘You wouldn’t be looking at those guys if we didn’t make those tough decisions.’’

Wood chipping in

Travis Wood pitching one out into the sixth, allowing three earned runs, gave the Cubs three quality starts in the first four games.

‘‘I’d like to have a couple pitches back,’’ Wood said, referring in part to Chase Utley’s go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth. ‘‘But other than that, I thought I kept them pretty off-balance and kept us in the game.’’

The rotation has a 1.80 ERA.

Notes

Prospect Jorge Soler, who was slowed this spring by a hamstring injury, aggravated it running out a double in Class AA Tennessee’s opener and was to have an MRI exam Friday. Officials don’t expect it to be a long-term injury.

◆ The Cubs still haven’t decided whether to stick with Carlos Villanueva for his scheduled start Sunday after he made two relief appearances in Pittsburgh, manager Rick Renteria said.

Daily Herald

Cubs attack woefully offensive

By Bruce Miles

The final score line had the Phillies beating the Cubs 7-2 Friday at frosty Wrigley Field.

Truth be told, this one felt out of reach after the Phillies took a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning.

The visitors from Philadelphia ruined the home opener for the Cubs and most of the 38,283 in attendance on a brutally cold day, with a game-time temperature of 38 and wind chills in the 20s.

It was one of those odd days when the wind was blowing out despite the cold air, but this Cubs offense couldn’t take advantage.

You’re liable to hear that when heat advisories are in effect come July. Simply put, this Cubs attack is going to have trouble attacking no matter what the calendar reads.

On Friday, the Phillies outhit the Cubs 11-3. The Cubs are batting .201 as a team over the first four games of the season, with cornerstones Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo each being 2-for-17.

Cubs hitters managed to take a 2-0 lead against Phillies starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez by the third inning, but they couldn’t come up with any more hits after that.

"All in all, we did not go in there and have a very good plan of attack in general, so it kind of cost us," said Cubs manager Rick Renteria, whose team is 1-3.

There’s really not much Renteria can do. He goes with a different lineup every day, so he pretty much laughed off any notion of a shake-up.

"It’s the fourth game of the season, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t panic anyway," he said. "We’re going to continue to work. We’re going to continue to try to get better. We’re going try to improve on the things we need to.

"These guys have to keep playing. I think it’s really, really early to talk about lineup changes and things like that, quite frankly."

Castro batted second in the order for the second straight game after opening the season as the No. 3 hitter. Rizzo moved up to his customary third spot after batting cleanup in Pittsburgh to start the year. Against the Phillies, Castro was 1-for-4 with an RBI infield single. Rizzo was 0-for-4.

"I feel pretty good," said Castro, who missed almost all of spring-training games because of a hamstring injury. "I felt, like, not OK the first game. I’m just trying to be aggressive."

The fourth time in four games, the Cubs got a good pitching performance from one of their starters. Travis Wood took the loss, working 6⅓ innings and giving up 6 hits and 4 runs, 3 earned. A 2-run windblown homer by Chase Utley in the fifth put the Phillies up 3-2.

Relievers Wesley Wright (homer to John Mayberry in the eighth) and Brian Schlitter allowed the remaining runs.

"Pretty solid," Wood said of his performance. "I’d like to have a couple pitches back, the one to Utley and the one to (Ben) Revere that ended up chasing me from the ballgame (a single in the seventh). But other than that, I thought I kept them pretty off-balance and kept us in the game."

Until late Friday, the Cubs had been in every game, playing three 1-run contests in Pittsburgh. For now, Renteria will stay the course.

"The one thing I have to maintain and we will maintain is that we take an even-keeled approach," he said. "We’re going to address those things that need to be addressed. And we’re going to get ready to play another game tomorrow."

Daily Herald

Suburban fans find Opening Day at Wrigley plenty cool

By Burt Constable

Friday’s Opening Day fans help the Cubs celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field with dreams of a modern championship team and a ballpark to match. But ignore the cellphone selfies and the small video screen above the right field wall, and you might think it’s 1940, 1967 or 1979.

The promised $300 million renovation of Wrigley, with its lush facilities for players and giant Jumbotron for the fans, is just a bit behind schedule. So is the team rebuilding project that has been brewing since the 1908 World Series championship. Neither of those delays can deter Dave Yarnall of Lindenhurst from an afternoon away from work to take in a ballgame on a raw day with a 23-mph wind and a 28-degree wind chill.

"Love of the Cubs," Yarnall says to explain away any of the reasons a person might opt to be elsewhere. The Lake County probation officer and his 18-year-old son, Jonny, won’t let a mediocre team, a 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, long lines at the bathroom or the 38-degree temperature keep them from having fun with 18-year-old twins Steve and Sean Smart, and their dad, Pete, 54, of Lake Villa.

"We all play pond hockey together, so we’re used to the cold," says Dave Yarnall, explaining how the breeze on the ice of Lake Linden can be nippier than anything Wrigley offers.

A little fussy as his mom wipes his runny nose, Maddox Denava of Mount Prospect has an Opening Day streak older than he is.

"This is his third Opener," says proud papa Fernando Denava, 24, who took the day off from his job as an auto repair shop manager.

"Well, the first one, he was in the womb," mom Hillary, 22, says of her young Cub fan who turns 2 on June 10.

As Mom scoots after the toddler, Dad addresses the obvious question about whether they named their son Maddox as a nod to the great Cub pitcher Greg Maddux.

"Yeah," the dad says as his wife drifts out of hearing range. "She won’t admit that, though."

They are expecting again, but it seems unlikely they’ll name the second kid Bonifacio, after current Cub favorite Emilio Bonifacio, who enters the day batting a phenomenal .688 before going hitless on Friday. Fernando Denava predicts the Cubs will be winners before his son starts grade school, because of the talent of the team’s youngsters in the minor leagues.

"Those kids coming up are going to be huge," Denava says. "Give us two or three more years and we’re going to be fun."

When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs in the fall of 2010, Tom Ricketts promised that the family would modernize the century-old ballpark, restock the farm team, build a contender and win a World Series.

"I love what they’re doing," says Steven Smart of Lake Villa, who admits to skipping school at Grayslake North High School with his brother, Sean.

"We said we were going out of town," says Sean Smart, pointing out that Chicago technically is out of town from Grayslake.

"I was down here in 1969 when the Cubs blew it," says their dad, Pete Smart, 54, a plumber who wears a Cubs cap but proudly displays his World Champion San Francisco Giants sweatshirt. "That’s when I became a full-time Giants fan."

Dallas residents Sonny Boyer, 32, and his sister, Michelle Boyer, 35, left 84-degree comfort in Dallas to fly in for the season’s first game at Wrigley.

"This is my fifth year for Opening Day," Sonny Boyer says, shrugging off the cold. "It’s like my own personal holiday. Our Cubbies are worth it. It’s a rough stretch, but I believe they are going in the right direction."

As he reflects, the wind blows Chase Utley’s fly ball into the right-field bleachers to give Philadelphia a 3-2 lead from which the Cubs will never recover.

"We can be patient a few more years," says Steven Smart, predicting the Cubs will start winning next year, or the year after, or the year after that.

"Let’s just hope it happens before I die," says Dave Yarnall, who celebrates his 57th birthday Saturday and vows to keep coming even if dreams of modern amenities and a championship team don’t materialize. "I’ve had a lifetime of misery. I’ll still come."

Daily Herald

Ricketts reveals revenue plans for renovations

By Bruce Miles

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts confirmed Friday that his family is considering bringing on additional, non-controlling investors to help generate revenue for the planned renovations of Wrigley Field.

Reports surfaced Thursday that the Ricketts family may seek outside investors, who would not have voting shares.

Ricketts issued a flat-out “no” when asked if this meant fans should worry about the team’s financial health.

"It’s pretty simple," he said on the field before Friday’s home opener. "Anytime you’re looking at financing a big project like this, you’re going to look at all your different sources of potential financing. We’re going to take a look at whether it makes sense to bring in outside investors.

"Most teams are owned by dozens of investors. It’s unusual for anyone to own 95 percent of the team. We’re going to look at whether or not that fits for us. But it is non-controlling minority shares."

The Cubs made a lavish presentation of renovation plans in January 2013 at their annual fan convention. The city of Chicago has cooperated along the way. However, the Cubs still face possible legal opposition from neighboring rooftop owners, who have a long-term contract with the club to charge admission for fans to watch games from those vantage points.

The Cubs do not want to proceed with their renovations until they get assurances the rooftop owners won’t take legal action against them. At issue are signs in Wrigley that the rooftop owners claim will block their customers’ views of the field.

If the Cubs can get started, they maintain they can get the renovations done in four off-seasons.

"I don’t have a 100 percent clear picture, but we definitely want to be ready to get going this season if we can," Ricketts said. "The key is to just keep moving forward and keep talking. I expect that something will work for us.

"There are certain things we can prep for and get started with before the end of the season. Obviously the major work has to be done when the place is empty."

Soler hurt again:

Outfield prospect Jorge Soler was to undergo an MRI after injuring his left hamstring Thursday for Class AA Tennessee. Soler doubled off major-league pitcher Mat Latos, who was making a rehab start for Pensacola.

The 22-year-old Soler was slowed by a hamstring injury late in spring training.

"It sounds like the exact same injury," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "He maybe rushed back too early to get ready for Opening Day or maybe it’s a coincidence. He hits a double in the gap against Latos and it’s a shame that’s the way his season started out. Hopefully, we’ll get good news and he’ll be back on the field soon."

Rotation roulette:

Right-hander Carlos Villanueva still is the scheduled starting pitcher for Sunday’s finale against the Phillies. However, Villanueva worked Monday and Wednesday out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh, pitching 1⅓ innings and suffering 2 losses.

"We’re still going to talk about it and see where we’re at," manager Rick Renteria said of Sunday’s start.

Daily Herald

Who is this Bonifacio? Just a new guy with 11 hits already

By Bruce Miles

The go-to guy for the media in the Cubs clubhouse before Friday’s Wrigley Field opener wasn’t Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo.

It was Emilio Bonifacio.

Who would have thought?

The Cubs didn’t even sign Bonifacio until Feb. 15, and that was on a minor-league contract with an invitation to big-league spring training.

Not only did Bonifacio make the team, he opened the season with 11 hits in the first three games of the season at Pittsburgh. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first player in the modern era (since 1900) to collect 11 hits in his first three games with a team.

It’s hard to keep that kind of production out of the lineup, and Cubs manager Rick Renteria had Bonifacio leading off and playing center field against the Phillies.

Bonifacio went 0-for-3 in the Cubs’ 7-2 loss.

"I’ve got a new opportunity with a club," said Bonifacio, who turns 29 on April 23.

So who is this guy? He is a 5-foot-11 switch hitter who has played all over the diamond for the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Marlins, Blue Jays and Royals.

"I think we felt he was sort of miscast in the American League," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "He’s a really good National League player, a guy that can do a lot of different things, play positions, lead off, pinch run. You need those guys to have a good bench in the National League. For us, in places like Toronto and Kansas City, I think it’s al little bit of a waste of what he can do well on a baseball field. I think he gives Rick Renteria and the coaching staff a lot of different weapons within the same player."

Bonifacio entered this year with 138 stolen bases while being caught only 36 times. Asked to tell fans what he brings, he gave a simple answer.

"Speed game," he said. "That’s part of my game."

Hoyer said it is possible he could outgrow the “utility” label and see a lot of action for the Cubs.

"I would love it if he would," the GM said. "He’s certainly not a young player where you think he has that kind of upside, but I think he’s got coaching staff that likes him a lot. He’s got a role where he can play a great deal. Sometimes those kind of players in that kind of season can outperform expectations.

"I also like the fact that he knows what his game is. You don’t see a lot of flyballs out of him. You won’t see him get big with his swing very often. He knows why he’s on the team and what he’s trying to do."

As for Bonifacio’s imperfect day Friday, Renteria said: “Bonnie’s human. But he’s a pretty good human.”

Daily Herald

Cubs get chilly reception on Opening Day

By Barry Rozner

Ryne Sandberg bounced out of the Phillies’ dugout early Friday morning at Wrigley Field, looked up at the flags and shook his head.

"Does it feel familiar?" Sandberg laughed, repeating the question. "Yeah. It feels like a .220 career batting average in April."

 

Actually, he hit .235 the first month of the season over a Hall of Fame career that saw him bat .297 the other five months.

It only felt like .220 because of the cold and wind, the ever-present reminder that Arizona is a distant memory and winter will be over at a moment of its choosing — clearly not any time soon — and rarely at any time during the first month of the baseball season.

Friday was no exception, not on another frigid day during The Winter That Would Never End.

The game-time wind chill was an unpleasant 28 degrees, with winds whipping at 23 mph and gusting to 30, conjuring up memories of Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” when he proclaimed, “It’s gonna be cold. It’s gonna be gray. And it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.”

Cubs fans know the feeling — on so many levels.

The worst Chicago winter in four decades raged on Friday, howling through Wrigley Field on Opening Day, with the Cubs (1-3) playing a game that looked familiar, felt familiar and — in reality — was familiar.

They pitched well for 6 innings, made mistakes in the field and failed to secure a hit after the third inning as the Phillies (2-2) defeated the North Siders 7-2.

The best moment of the day arrived before a pitch was thrown in anger, when Sandberg joined fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins for a ceremonial first pitch to begin Wrigley’s 100th birthday, the one they’re calling, “The Party of the Century.”

The Cubs asked the Phillies’ manager to wear a Cubs hat and jersey, an odd request considering he currently wears another uniform, and would have had his players and ownership wondering about his loyalties.

There’s also the small matter of him being passed over for a managing position here — twice — not to mention the Cubs’ claim at the Convention that Sandberg was invited, which turns out to be on the opposite side of true.

Rest assured, Sandberg has moved on emotionally and geographically, and by the fifth inning Friday so had a majority of the fans, as much a result of the game as the weather.

"Fans come here to see a good ballgame and see the team play well," said new victim Rick Renteria after his first game at home. "They have every right to be dissatisfied, as are we in the clubhouse."

Starlin Castro (2-for-17) was booed twice, once for a misplay in the field and again after hitting into a double play to end the eighth, a surprisingly impatient response to what nearly everyone knows will be another rough season amid a lengthy, but necessary rebuilding process.

"We’re going to have a great year," owner Tom Ricketts said before the game. "I don’t want to put a number on it, but I just know we’re going to be a better team, and we’re going to have an exciting summer on the field."

Ricketts might actually believe that, but he’s the same guy who said David DeJesus was a tremendous player and Cubs fans would fall in love with him.

In any case, another 95-loss season would surprise no one, and with Opening Day bringing only 38,283 to the yard — 3,000 under a sellout — it’s fair to wonder if failing attendance will test Ricketts’ patience.

"It’s obviously been a long time (without) a title," said GM Jed Hoyer. "I think with that is the patience. People want to be here Opening Day and feel like they’re watching a team that they can be buying playoff tickets for.

"They wouldn’t be fans if they didn’t do that. I want the fans to want that possibly sooner than we can provide it."

There remains no timeline for that to occur.

"I feel really good about where the organization is," Hoyer said. "We’re on the right track. I think it will be very soon that we’re sitting here on Opening Day and we’re talking about a team that can play deep into October."

Cold as it may seem, that day was not Friday.

Daily Herald

Ricketts’ only option is to stay the course

By Mike Imrem

Tom Ricketts was excited Friday morning.

The Cubs’ chairman made his media rounds in anticipation of the club’s home opener. Hope was in the air and his voice.

Then this.

The Phillies drubbed the Cubs 7-2. The Wrigley Field crowd of 38,283 wasn’t a sellout. There was a smattering of boos from the smattering of fans left at the end.

Meanwhile, neighbors of the remote parking lot 2.5 miles from the ballpark groused about the extra traffic.

Happy New Year, Mr. Ricketts.

This kind of day could discourage the rosiest optimist, but Ricketts is in too deep now to get too down on his plan to renovate 100-year-old Wrigley Field.

Nor should Ricketts consider any more dramatic changes to the grand design. Other sports owners trying to upgrade facilities in Chicago became desperate and settled for less when more was needed.

The White Sox couldn’t negotiate what they wanted and wound up playing at the wrong location. The Bears became desperate and wound up in a stadium with the NFL’s smallest seating capacity.

The Cubs could give in to the rooftop owners delaying the process, accept fewer revenue streams and take only what they can get instead of what they need.

No, no, no.

Look, I disagree with much of what the Cubs are doing in rebuilding the ballclub and renovating the ballpark.

The Ricketts family certainly shouldn’t squash the rooftop owners to squirm out of a contract the Tribune ownership signed a decade ago.

At this point, though, the Ricketts must stay the course, as bumpy as it is. They have to keep trying to negotiate an out or search for loopholes to prevail in court.

"We’re trying to do things right for the long term," Ricketts said.

What he thinks is right isn’t necessarily right but the team and park are his babies now and he has to continue working toward the family’s concept of a perfect world.

Or what’s left of it.

"We’ve made a lot of concessions," Ricketts said.

Side with Ricketts or with the rooftop owners. Endorse the rehab or prefer to leave the ballpark as is. Campaign for a move to Rosemont or to stay in Wrigleyville.

Whatever you believe doesn’t matter. All that matters is what Ricketts believes.

"We want to do things right for the long term," Ricketts said.

As progress stalls like Cubs on the bases, tedious is the word that comes to mind. The temptation might be to give in just to get the whole thing over with.

Still, doing nothing is better than doing half of something.

Most successful businessmen have a way of getting their way. They build empires upon the ability to play the system.

Except that the Sox and Bears learned how difficult it is to get something done amid conflicting political, social and economic interests in Chicago and Illinois.

The Sox and Bears were patient and patient and patient until their patience ran out of patience.

The Ricketts shouldn’t make the same mistake and so far indicate no inclination to do so.

At least the delay enabled the Ricketts to ponder a plan to sell minority interests in the franchise to help pay for the renovations.

The one thing the Ricketts shouldn’t do is what the Sox and Bears did … desperately compromise for what they can get instead of waiting for what they require.

"We’re going to keep working and see what happens," Tom Ricketts said.

If it takes another season or a couple seasons or an eternity, Cubs’ ownership has to stay as close to the original blueprint as possible.

Yes, even though circumstances might suck the excitement out of a couple more home openers.

Cubs.com

Cubs can’t take home win to start Wrigley’s season

After opener festivities, Wood’s solid effort for naught thanks to Utley

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Ernie, Billy, Fergie and Ryno took part in pregame ceremonies, helping celebrate Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary, but the Phillies spoiled the festivities at the Cubs’ home opener.

Chase Utley hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning and added an RBI single in the seventh to lift the Phillies to a 7-2 victory Friday over the Cubs in front of 38,283 chilled fans.

"We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but tomorrow’s another day," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said.

The game marked the start of the team’s year-long celebration of Wrigley Field, which first opened in 1914 and has been the Cubs’ home for 98 seasons. Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg shared the first-pitch duties and all but Sandberg sang the seventh-inning stretch. The former Cubs second baseman had to take care of his on-field duties.

"Slightly awkward there," Sandberg said of the first pitch.

It was a day for blankets and balaclavas at Wrigley, as the westerly wind coupled with 38-degree game-time temperature made it feel like a very winter-ish 28 degrees. The cold and Phillies pitchers finally cooled off Emilio Bonifacio, who entered the game tied for the Major League lead in hits with 11 but went 0-for-3 with a walk.

The Cubs totaled three hits, including Welington Castillo’s solo home run, which wasn’t enough for Travis Wood. The lefty took the loss in his first start of the year, striking out eight and scattering six hits over 6 1/3 innings. Wood totaled 24 quality starts last season, and picked up his first this year.

"Give Travis credit, he got through some innings that we kind of muffed a little bit and he got out of them, but that took his pitch count up," said Renteria, especially pointing to the Phillies’ fourth.

In that inning, Marlon Byrd reached on an error by Chicago third baseman Luis Valbuena, who couldn’t close his glove on the ball. Byrd moved up on Ryan Howard’s single and scored on Domonic Brown’s base hit that skipped past shortstop Starlin Castro.

With one out in the Phillies’ fifth, Carlos Ruiz singled and Utley smacked the first pitch into the right-field seats to take a 3-2 lead. A career .267 hitter against left-handers, Utley had never faced Wood before Friday’s game, and he hit his RBI single in the seventh off another southpaw, Wesley Wright.

"I missed with a pitch, and he made me pay for it," Wood said of Utley. "I’d like to have a couple pitches back — the one to Utley, and the one to [Ben] Revere that ended up chasing me from the ballgame, but other than that, I thought I kept them pretty off-balance and kept us in the game."

"Overall, I think he did a really good job with that lineup," Castillo said. "They have a lot of good hitters."

Renteria believes he has some good hitters, too, but in four games, the Cubs are batting .201.

"We’ve been having good at-bats and guys are seeing pitches," Darwin Barney said. "We’re getting to the starter a little bit, but we’re not keying in in situations and making it hurt. I think four games in, hopefully, we can keep getting more comfortable and keep getting better."

The Cubs’ staff is looking more at the approach at the plate, not the numbers.

"You don’t know, four games in, the identity of an offense," Barney said. "I think none of us are too worried about it. Obvoiusly, pitching has been good enough to be 4-0 right now. If we can turn it around offensively a little bit, I think things will look better."

Castro and Anthony Rizzo are each 2-for-17, although Rizzo nearly took advantage of the bizarre 23-mph westerly wind in the first when he hit a fly ball to the track in center. On cold days at Wrigley, the wind usually blows in and favors pitchers.

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that way — I asked a lot of guys and even asked Sandberg about it," Barney said. "He said it was really odd that the wind was blowing out, even though it was so cold."

Sandberg, who played for the Cubs from 1982-94 and again from 1996-97, was fooled by the weather. He thought Utley’s ball wasn’t going to reach the bleachers.

"I was screaming, ‘Get in the basket,’" Sandberg said of the baskets rimming the front of the bleachers. "It got in the second row, so it carried a little bit further than what I was thinking."

Castro, slowed this spring by a strained hamstring that resulted in him playing more Minor League games than Cactus League contests, wasn’t worried about the slow start. The shortstop said in Spring Training he wanted to get back to having an All-Star type season. Is he putting pressure on himself?

"No," Castro said. "I try to get my mind strong. I know who I am, I know what I can do and I’m going to be good."

The fans have high expectations for the Cubs, and some showed their displeasure at the sluggish offense.

"We all know how the fans are," Renteria said. "They want to see a good ballgame and they want their team to do well and they have every right to be dissatisfied when we don’t do well, as we all are in that clubhouse. The one thing I have to maintain and we will maintain is that we take an even-keel approach and address those things that need to be addressed, and we’ll play another game tomorrow."

Cubs.com

For Cubs, patience and positivity are key

By Phil Rogers

CHICAGO — Stay positive. Under all circumstances, just keep staying positive.

Ryne Sandberg said that was his mantra when he played for the Cubs, and it worked. Well, it did in 1984 and ‘89, anyway.

Every year when Opening Day rolled around, Sandberg pulled on his Cubs jersey, walked out to face the ivy and in that short walk to the dugout dreamed big dreams.

"This is going to be the year,’" Sandberg said. "I thought that every single year, every Opening Day I played in, that was going to be the year, regardless of who was on the roster, who my teammates were. That was the mentality I had, just hoping to get to postseason every year, and it all started with Opening Day."

Sandberg was sitting in the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field when he met with reporters on a frigid Friday morning. He would later join Cubs Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams in throwing out a ceremonial first pitch before the game, which marked the start of the ballpark’s centennial celebration, but his real purpose was to lead the Phillies to a victory over the team he had represented so well as a player.

Mission accomplished. Chase Utley’s two-run homer was the big blow in a 7-2 win for the Phillies, who — with the third-oldest roster in the Major Leagues — are the antithesis of these Cubs.

Rick Renteria, hired both for his upbeat personality and his reputation for developing young players, said afterward it was “awesome” to get rolling on his new job before 38,283 fans at Wrigley Field. He’s had a lot of firsts in the last couple of months, including the season-opening series in Pittsburgh, where the Cubs won one and lost two.

Those who have been around Renteria this spring say there’s no doubting his enthusiasm and energy. But like Dale Sveum before him, he’s managing a transition roster filled with veterans who fell through cracks elsewhere, few of whom are likely to be lining up along the third-base line for introductions once the Cubs have become a consistent contender.

Those guys are, for the most part, still in the pipeline on teams like Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee and Class A Daytona or in the team’s monstrous scouting database. The Cubs lost 101 games in 2011 and only five fewer last season, but under Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, they seem to have worked wonders with the farm system.

While the Cubs’ 2014 season is being billed as “the party of the century,” an ode to the season-long celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday, few believe the team can avoid more labor pains in trying to deliver a consistent contender.

"Obviously it’s been a long time [waiting] for a title, with that is the [need for] patience," said Hoyer, the general manager. "But people want to be here Opening Day and be watching a team they could be buying playoff tickets for. They wouldn’t be fans if they didn’t do that. I expect the fans to want that possibly sooner than we can provide it. But I feel really good about where the organization is. Spring Training showed a lot of our young talent, and I think we’re certainly getting there on the right track. I think very soon we’ll be sitting here on Opening Day talking about a team that can play deep into October."

Not much went right for the Cubs in the home opener. The Phillies even found a way to cool off Emilio Bonifacio, who had collected 11 hits in the three-game series in Pittsburgh.

Before Bonifacio strung together four-hit, five-hit and two-hit games at PNC Park, no player since 1900 had generated as many as 11 hits in their first three games with new teams. Only the Philadelphia Athletics’ Nap Lajoie and the Dodgers’ McKay Christensen had 10 hits in their first three games.

Imagine the excitement to get such an outburst from the 28-year-old Bonifacio, whom the Cubs signed after he was released on Feb. 10. The Royals needed a spot for lefty Bruce Chen, who they had re-signed.

"It was a real big confusion," Bonifacio said. "I was in Venezuela, playing the Caribbean Series, and I got no communication [from the Royals]. Then I received a call from my agent. It was confusing. But something I can’t do anything about. I’m glad the Cubs picked me. I’m glad to be here."

Bonifacio is the type of “undervalued asset,” to use the language of Epstein and Hoyer, that the Cubs have been trying to stack their roster with over the last three seasons. He is a switch-hitter and has already started games at second base and center field, with lots of other tricks in his repertoire.

"We felt like he was sort of miscast in the American League," Hoyer said. "He’s a real good National League player, a guy who can do a lot of different things, play different positions, lead off, pinch-run. You need those guys to have a good bench in the National League. For us, having him in [AL cities] like Toronto and Kansas City, I think was a little bit of a waste of what he can do well on a baseball field. I think it gives Rick Renteria and the coaching staff a lot of different weapons within the same player."

Bonifacio, who hit leadoff, was 0-for-3 against winning pitcher Roberto Hernandez and worked a walk from reliever Antonio Bastardo. He did a nice job battling heavy winds (23 mph with stronger gusts) on a 38-degree day, making a nice catch rubbing against the ivy on a drive by Ryan Howard, but in general had a back-to-reality day.

Bonifacio will still feel pretty good when he gets to Wrigley on Saturday, however, as his batting average dropped down to a mere .579. For him, it should be a snap to think positive.

Cubs.com

Wrigley faithful gets pair of aces in Lee, Samardzija

By Joe Popely

With the pageantry of the Cubs’ home opener at Wrigley Field in the rearview mirror, the attention turns to a battle of aces.

Saturday’s duel is between Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee and righty Jeff Samardzija. Lee will look to bounce back from an Opening Day start in which he was shelled for eight runs on 11 hits in five innings of the Phillies’ wild 14-10 win over Texas. He said he likes the potential of Philadelphia’s rotation, which will eventually feature three-time All-Star Cole Hamels, who is unlikely to return until the end of April, and includes dependable veteran Kyle Kendrick.

"I mean, it’s three established guys that have been doing it for a while and have had success," Lee said. "That makes your rotation that much deeper, which gives the team a better chance to win over time."

The Cubs are in full rebuild mode, featuring a roster stocked with young prospects like Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro trying to prove they belong, with veterans sprinkled in.

Samardzija qualifies as one of those veterans, and he will look to build off an impressive season debut in which he blanked the Pirates for seven innings.

Starting pitching has not been a problem for the Cubs. The staff has a 2.55 ERA through four games (12 ER in 42 1/3 IP) while the team has hit just .201 and .121 with runners in scoring position, though the latter stat is skewed by an 0-for-11 and 1-for-16 performance in back-to-back losses to the Pirates. Chicago has yet to score more than three runs in a game.

"No, these guys have to keep playing," said Cubs manager Rick Renteria of whether he was concerned about the lack of offense. "I think it’s really, really early to start talking about lineup changes and things of that nature, quite frankly.

"These guys — we’ve had three really difficult battles in Pittsburgh. We traveled last night, just like everybody does, and we came in this morning with a lot of energy, hoping for the right outcome. It just didn’t happen."

Bowa has advice on Wrigley conditions

Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa knows all too well what the conditions can be like on the North Side in April.

Friday’s official game-time temperature was 38 degrees with a 28-degree wind chill and wind blowing across from left to right field at 23 mph.

"You know, you try to explain it to them that the conditions change every pitch — not every inning, every pitch," said Bowa, who played 3 1/2 seasons with the Cubs and made many a return trip as a manager of the Phillies. "And you’ve got to be aware of the wind, which way it’s blowing, the grass is a little bit thicker, just a lot of things that go in to playing here. That’s what makes this field so unique. It plays different almost every inning."

Saturday’s forecast calls for a high of 44 degrees and sunshine, with temperatures possibly climbing into the 50s on Sunday.

Cubs: Renteria not worried about slow starts by Castro, Rizzo

 Through four games, Rizzo and Castro have combined to go 4-for-34 (.118) with one run scored, three RBIs and one extra-base hit.

Renteria seems confident the two will turn things around, especially given the small sample size.

"No, I think it’s the fourth game of the season, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t panic anyway," Renteria said. "We’re going to continue to work, we’re going to continue to try to get better, we’re going to try to continue to improve on the things we need to."

For his part, Castro said he’s not pressing.

"I feel good and I’ll be all right," he said. "I try to be aggressive on every pitch. I don’t feel bad or anything like that."

Worth noting

• The Cubs have lost their last four home openers. They last secured a home opener victory on April 12, 2010, a 9-5 win over the Brewers.

• Dating back to May 1, 2013, Ben Revere’s .344 batting average is second to only two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera’s .346. Revere went 3-for-5 with a run and stolen base on Friday.

• Cubs leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio, who started the season 11-for-16 (.688) through three games — including a five-hit game at Pittsburgh on Wednesday — was hitless in three at-bats Friday.

Cubs.com

Villanueva confident he’s ready to start finale

By Carrie Muskat

CHICAGO — Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva threw a bullpen session Friday in preparation for what he feels will be his first start on Sunday. The right-hander was eager to get back on the mound.

"I threw a bullpen and I told [pitching coach Chris] Bosio, ‘I wish I could pitch today,’" Villanueva said. "I feel really good today."

Villanueva took the loss in the Cubs’ first two games Monday and Wednesday, pitching in relief. His start on Sunday was in question because of the workload, and manager Rick Renteria said he would talk with Bosio to go over their options.

As far as Villanueva is concerned, he’s starting in the series finale against the Phillies.

"I’m in on Sunday," Villanueva said. "Unless they tell me otherwise, I’m in."

Villanueva won the fifth spot in the rotation, and he was expected to stay there until Jake Arrieta is activated from the disabled list. Arrieta, slowed this spring by tightness in his right shoulder, was to make his first Minor League rehab start on Saturday for Double-A Tennessee in Pensacola, Fla.

Losing the first two games, both extra-inning losses, was tough for Villanueva, but also part of the job as swingman.

"For me, it goes back to doing whatever it takes in whatever situation," Villanueva said. "It would’ve been nice if it came out the other way. I feel pretty good. It happened quick. The full inning [Wednesday], I felt pretty good that inning.

"In those situations, you can’t really make a mistake, and I made two mistakes, I’d say," he said. "I made the mistake to [Starling] Marte with a high changeup, and a high changeup to [Neil] Walker. I worked on that in the bullpen today."

Ricketts: Cubs considering selling minority shares

CHICAGO — Want to invest in the Cubs? Owner Tom Ricketts said Friday they are considering selling minority shares in the team to help finance the $500 million renovation plan for Wrigley Field and the surrounding area.

"Any time you’re looking at privately financing a big project like this, you’re going to look at all your different sources of potential financing," Ricketts said prior to the Cubs’ home opener. "We’re going to take a look at whether or not it makes sense to bring in outside investors."

The shares would be non-controlling and shareholders would join the Tribune Co. as investors in the team. The Tribune Co. kept a 5 percent stake in the Cubs after it sold the franchise to the Ricketts in 2009.

"Most teams are owned by dozens of investors," Ricketts said. "It’s unusual for anyone to own 95 percent of the team. We’ll look at whether or not that fits for us. It is non-controlling minority shares."

Ricketts said the process is in the initial stages and “just an option for us.”

The Cubs had hoped to begin the renovations this past offseason on the ballpark, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. However, all work has been delayed while the Cubs deal with objections from the surrounding rooftop owners regarding additional signage in the outfield.

There were plans to have a see-through advertising sign in right field on Opening Day, but the only addition was a Weber ad on one of the outfield doors.

"We’ll take that day by day," Ricketts said of the new signage.

He was optimistic the team could get something done with the rooftop owners and avoid litigation.

"The key is to keep moving forward and keep talking," Ricketts said. "I expect something will work for us — we’ll figure it out."

The original plan had been for the renovations to be completed over five offseasons, but Carl Rice, vice president of ballpark operations, said Friday they could get the work done in four.

"We have looked at the schedule, and collapsed it to four years as long as we can start at certain periods of time," Rice said. "If we get delayed it’s a little more problematic."

Rice said if they start this October, the goal would be to complete the project by Opening Day 2018.

Renteria keeping hopeful mindset for Cubs

CHICAGO — Maybe on Saturday, Cubs manager Rick Renteria will take the train to work. On Friday, his first day at his new home office, Wrigley Field, he drove, and he finally got to see his new office.

"I got a desk and a phone and everything I need," Renteria said.

This is Renteria’s first big league managing job, and the 52-year-old has been very positive but also low key about his role.

"I feel pretty calm, quite frankly," he said prior to Friday’s game. "I’m not too worried about anything, just got to go play the game. We still have to play the game."

Renteria opened the home portion of the schedule against the Phillies and former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who is very familiar with Wrigley Field’s elements.

What can Renteria do to change the Cubs, who have four straight losing seasons?

"Hopefully, it’s just the mindset," Renteria said. "I’m a pretty positive individual, and I think I try to make sure we understand we have to stay focused and grind out every game and every piece of work we do does matter, every at-bat matters, every out matters, and there’s a way to approach the game, win, lose or draw. Hopefully, I bring an attitude that’s a fighting attitude and wants to win."

The Cubs may not be predicted to finish high in the National League Central, but Renteria is optimistic.

"For us, not winning is disappointing for any manager or team," he said. "That’s the goal. I know if we fall short of that, it’ll be disappointing because we want to win and the club wants to win.

"Every club wants to get into the playoffs, and our mindset is to get into the playoffs," he said. "Most people might think that’s unrealistic, but these kids here are playing pretty well. We had a decent spring. What do they say? ‘Hope springs eternal?’ We’ll see where we’re at when it’s all said and done."

No. 5 Cubs prospect Soler placed on DL

CHICAGO — Cubs No. 5-ranked prospect  Jorge Soler had to leave his Minor League season opener Thursday because of a sore right hamstring, and he was placed on Double-A Tennessee’s disabled list Friday.

Soler doubled in the first inning off Mat Latos, who was making a rehab start for Pensacola. Soler was limited to 55 games at Class A Daytona last season because of a strained left calf.

"It sounds like the exact same injury [Soler had this spring]," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Friday. "He maybe rushed back too early to get ready for Opening Day or maybe it’s a coincidence. He hits a double in the gap against Latos, and it’s a shame that’s the way his season started out. Hopefully, we’ll get good news and he’ll be back on the field soon."

Soler was to have an MRI on his leg either Friday or Saturday, Hoyer said.

Extra bases

• Hoyer would not say whether the Cubs are still talking to Jeff Samardzija about a contract extension, or if the team would discuss anything this season.

"We’ll keep that in-house," Hoyer said. "In general, it’s up to the player [whether to talk in-season]. We don’t have any problem negotiating in-season. I don’t have to hit a fastball or throw a strike. It doesn’t bother me or [president of baseball operations Theo Epstein], but if he or his agent thinks it’ll influence a performance at all, then we don’t do it. We take it on a case-by-case basis."

04 4 / 2014

Cubs.com

Hammel keeps Bucs down in nearly spotless debut

Backed by Olt, Bonifacio, righty gives up one run on two hits in 6 2/3

By Carrie Muskat

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs apparently play better on less sleep.

Mike Olt hit his first Major League home run to help Jason Hammel win his Cubs debut and post a 3-2 victory Thursday over the Pirates, giving Chicago manager Rick Renteria his first victory.

There was no beer shower or champagne bottle waiting for Renteria, but he was soaked because of the rain that started late in the game and drenched his lineup card and game notes.

"I was hoping the water would cleanse me a little bit," he said.

The win came after the Cubs opened with two extra-innings losses, including Wednesday’s 16-inning marathon that ended shortly after 1 a.m. ET Thursday. It was a quick turnaround for the 12:35 p.m. start in the series finale. Cubs catcher John Baker was upset that there wasn’t enough time after Wednesday’s game to finish a movie he’d rented at the hotel.

"My movie expired before we got out of there," Baker said.

Don’t tell him how “Wolverine” ended. He’s still hoping to finish it at a later date.

Hammel would’ve liked a slightly different ending to his first Cubs start. He wanted to finish the game. The right-hander, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal in February, days before pitchers and catchers reported, held the Pirates to two hits over 6 2/3 innings, striking out five. The Cubs bullpen was short-handed because of the extra innings the night before.

"I was pretty surprised the way I was moving through the game," Hammel said. "I wanted to complete it and take it as far as I could have."

Hammel was at the team hotel and not at PNC Park for the end of Wednesday’s game.

"I was the only guy well-rested — maybe other than Wandy [Rodriguez, Pirates starter]," Hammel said. "But I didn’t fall asleep. I turned the game on. I’m one of those guys, when I start watching something, I watch it all the way to the end. My wife watches a movie with me and watches the credits, and then falls alseep. I watch it to the end. It was definitely in my head that I had to get deep [in the game]."

Emilio Bonifacio can apparently fall out of bed and hit. He led off the game with a single, his 10th hit in his 13th at-bat, then stole second, and two outs later, scored on Anthony Rizzo’s single.

"He’s on fire and hopefully he continues," Renteria said of Bonifacio, now 11-for-16 for the season. "We’re seeing a lot of guys have good at-bats. We had some balls hit well. We’re on the right track."

Bonifacio remembers a hot streak like this when he played for the Marlins in 2009.

"I’m just swinging at strikes," he said. "That’s the main difference."

Bonifacio doubled to open the third and scored one batter later when Justin Ruggiano grounded into a double play. When Bonifacio grounded out in the fifth, the crowd of 11,418 at PNC Park cheered. Finally.

"I was laughing — it was funny," Bonifacio said. "That’s part of the game."

The Pirates had walked Bonifacio in the 11th inning on Wednesday, only the third time he had been intentionally walked in his career.

"I told [catcher Russell] Martin, ‘Really?’ and he said, ‘We can’t get you out,’" Bonifacio said. "Even the umpire was laughing."

Olt, who hoped to continue his spring comeback story this season, made it 2-0 with a leadoff home run in the second off Rodriguez, hitting an opposite-field shot to right for his first big league homer. He showed exactly what the Cubs — and most likely the Rangers — were hoping for. Chicago acquired the third baseman last July; he’d struggled with vision problems, which apparently have cleared up.

"That ball, down and away, to hit it the other way with some power, it shows you the kind of thump he has in his stick," Renteria said of Olt.

"It’s not that I go out there trying for [home runs]," Olt said, "but it was nice to get the first hit out of the way and that it happened to be a home run makes it a little sweeter."

The Pirates did not go quietly. With two outs in the the Pittsburgh seventh, Hammel walked Neil Walker and was lifted. Pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez doubled off James Russell, and Tony Sanchez singled to drive in both runners and close it to 3-2.

Pedro Strop picked up the save, but nearly wiped out Baker with a chest-to-chest collision on a popup by Gaby Sanchez in the ninth.

"We didn’t want to go home 0-3," Bonifacio said. "We just played two really good games. This win was really important for us."

Friday will be the Cubs’ home opener. Renteria has yet to see his office at Wrigley Field.

"It’s not so much the eagerness to get there, but the season is moving forward, and it’s going to be nice to be in our home ballpark," Renteria said. "It’s going to be an exciting moment for all of us. Like I’ve said, it’s still baseball."

And he can arrive with a smile at Wrigley.

"I didn’t think it was going to be such a relief [to get the win], but it’s quite a relief, quite honestly," Renteria said.

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Cubs.com

Wrigley Field has plenty in store for 100th birthday

Cubs set for promotions to celebrate historic ballpark’s centennial year

By Phil Rogers

CHICAGO — Long awaited, the Wrigley Field centennial season arrives on Friday.

In a perfect world, the Cubs would mark the occasion by running a pennant up the flag pole or welcoming All-Star players in July, with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo as the greeters. They would be in their third consecutive season as a playoff team, not the third in the Theo Epstein rebuild. The ivy would already be green after a mild winter and balmy start to the spring.

But if it was going to be easy, it wouldn’t be the adventure of so many lifetimes, would it?

Word of advice to Cubs fans for Friday: get to the park early or stay late, when the place is its quietest. Close your eyes, cover your ears and see if you don’t hear echoes from the back-to-back Bruce Springsteen shows two Septembers ago.

The Boss sang “Thunder Road” both nights, and you know how it goes:

"So you’re scared and you’re thinking

"That maybe we ain’t that young anymore

"Show a little faith there’s magic in the night …"

And in the day, as Ernie Banks is always quick to tell us.

The Cubs have lots of cool promotions planned, including a Chicago Federals jersey giveaway on April 23, the 100th anniversary of the Feds’ win over the Kansas City Packers in the first baseball game ever at the ballpark, and bobbleheads to commemorate Banks, Joe Tinker, Gale Sayers, Red Grange and even Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot.”

But in the spirit of Mr. Cub and eternal optimism, here are some happenings that can make the 100th season of baseball at Wrigley as special as it should be:

• No rain, no rain, no rain — That chant didn’t exactly work at Woodstock, but maybe it will in Chicago, beginning with the marginal forecast for Friday. Nothing’s better than baseball in great weather, so here’s hoping that an idyllic spring and summer is the payoff after the frigid, frightful winter.

• Saying hello to the new Banks (or Ryne Sandberg) — Few organizations have ever had a middle infielder lead their league in home runs, but Chicago has had two. Javier Baez,who smacked 37 home runs last year, is likely to make his debut at some point in 2014. He’s worth a look at shortstop, but the Cubs remain committed to Castro to write him off, so he’ll probably play alongside Castro as a second baseman.

• A chip on their shoulder against the Cardinals — Historically, this has been a one-sided rivalry. But Chicago baseball is its best when the games against St. Louis seem to count double, as they did when Dusty Baker squared off against Tony La Russa. The Cubs are 19-32 against the Cards the last three years. They don’t have the roster to match up this season, but maybe Rick Renteria will be Mike Matheny’s Kryptonite.

• Phil Wrigley/Bill Veeck Day — Wrigley’s civility and Veeck’s creativity paved the road for the Cubs to thrive as a franchise. It’s easy history to honor.

• Fans lyrically chanting a favorite player’s name — When the wind blows right, you can hear the crowd a mile away. That made the first half of 2008 so much fun, with newcomer Kosuke Fukudome being celebrated with sing-song versions of his name — Fuke-o-dome-eh, Fuke-o-dome-eh. It was beautiful, and it showed the power of multi-syllabic names.

If Emilio Bonifacio continues to get four or five hits a night, fans might try Bon-eee-fass-eee-oh, Bon-eee-fass-eee-oh. Or more likely, Ja-vee-Buy-ez, Ja-vee-Buy-ez. That one works whether he is in a Cubs uniform or hitting home runs in Des Moines.

• A no-hitter — Once, the Cubs were no-hit twice in 22 days. First by the Reds’ Jim Maloney on Aug. 19, 1965, and then again that September when Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game. One of the stubborn points of pride for Chicago fans is that the team hasn’t been no-hit since then — a longest-in-baseball streak that stands at 7,666 games. That’s cool, but the Cubs haven’t thrown a no-hitter at Wrigley since Milt Pappas’ in ‘72. There have been only seven no-hitters ever at Wrigley Field, half as many as at Fenway Park and two fewer than at the Coliseum in Oakland, which opened in ‘66.

• A Derek Jeter moment — He’ll visit on his farewell tour from May 20-21, and it would be nice if he did something, especially since his home in Kalamazoo, Mich., is only about 145 miles from Wrigley Field. He’s played Major League games in 41 ballparks, including three games in Wrigley back in 2003 (he was on the DL when the Yankees played at Wrigley in ‘11), but it and San Diego’s Petco Park are the only two places where he doesn’t have an extra-base hit, an RBI or a stolen base.

• Hack Wilson Day — It has been 84 years since the Cubs’ brawling slugger set the record with 191 RBIs, and only Manny Ramirez has come within 25 of it (165, 1999) in the last 75 years. Wilson took the mark from Lou Gehrig on Sept. 17, 1930, homering twice at the Polo Grounds off the Giants’ Tiny Chaplin, and oddly it wasn’t celebrated at the time. In fact, according to Bill Chastain, author of “Hack’s 191,” the feat was relegated to the third item of a Chicago Tribune notebook. Why not blow that out on Sept. 17, when the Cubs host the Reds?

• A September that begins with a shot at .500 — High Draft choices are great, and the Cubs are likely to get another future building block with the fourth overall pick in June. They did that when they landed Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant with the ninth, sixth and second picks, respectively, the last three years. But the on-field needle is going to start pointing upward at some point. Why not during the Wrigley Centennnial?

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Cubs.com

Extras force Cubs to consider pitching options

By Carrie Muskat

PITTSBURGH — Carlos Villanueva is still scheduled to start Sunday for the Cubs, but manager Rick Renteria said Thursday that he and pitching coach Chris Bosio will discuss their options on Friday when they return to Chicago.

Villanueva won a spot in the rotation this spring, but pitched in relief in the first two games Monday and Wednesday, which both went extra innings. The right-hander threw eight pitches on Monday, and another 22 in 1 1/3 innings on Wednesday.

Renteria said he would meet with the Cubs’ front office on Friday prior to the team’s first home game. Villanueva would’ve thrown a side session on Thursday, but did not because of his innings in games. Jose Veras and Wesley Wright, who both pitched in Wednesday’s 16-inning game, were not available on Thursday against the Pirates, Renteria said.

"Everybody else is OK for a little bit of work," Renteria said.

The Cubs have played 26 innings in their first two games, the first time they’ve opened the season with back-to-back extra inning contests since 1964.

"We’re moving in the right direction with our mentality and attitude, quite frankly," Renteria said. "We want to win every game and that’s not changed. We’re going to keep going after it. Sooner or later, they’ll start to fall."

Losing extra-inning games can be difficult for a team to overcome.

"It’s deflating if you want it to be," Renteria said. "I’m not going to come in here and have these guys laying down and being sad. I’m going to play my music, and I’ll come in here every single day ready to go. You say I have a lot of energy, well, that’s what I want those guys to have, too."

His music tastes? Everything from rock to pop to salsa to jazz.

"Whatever it takes," Renteria said.

Fashion faux pas: Lake dons wrong jersey

PITTSBURGH — Give Cubs reliever Justin Grimm an assist for helping Junior Lake stick to the team dress code.

Lake saw two grey jerseys in his locker at the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park and grabbed one for Thursday’s game. But it was the wrong one.

The outfielder could’ve blamed lack of sleep for his mistake. The Cubs were playing a few hours after a 16-inning marathon game that ended shortly after 1 a.m. ET Thursday. Lake headed to left field with a grey road top, but it said “Chicago” across the chest. The new version, which all his teammates were wearing, says “Cubs.”

Grimm was in the bullpen, which is in left-center at PNC Park, and noticed Lake’s fashion faux pas.

"[Grimm] said, ‘Hey, you got the wrong jersey,’ and I looked," Lake said. "I thought he was joking. When I looked, I saw everybody [wearing the other jersey]. I said, ‘[Darn].’ I said, ‘What the [heck] is going on?’"

The clubhouse staff normally hangs that day’s game jersey in an obvious spot in the locker.

"I see two grey, and I took one," Lake said. "Everybody was in grey, and I took the wrong grey."

Was the problem a lack of sleep? Unfortunately, no.

"I slept seven hours," Lake said.

Lake dashed into the clubhouse after the first inning and changed into the appropriate top.

Former Cub Orie remembers time with Ryno

PITTSBURGH — On Friday, Ryne Sandberg returns to Wrigley Field with the Phillies. The former Cubs second baseman is now Philadelphia’s manager, and this will be his second trip to his former home ballpark as a skipper.

Another former Cub, Kevin Orie, remembers when Sandberg was his teammate on Chicago back in 1997 and some souvenirs the second baseman gave him.

"I either got sent down or went to [Triple-A] Iowa on rehab, or both, but when I got to Iowa, I unloaded my bag and I’m getting ready to strap it on and I pulled out my cleats and here were his wristbands, his baseball cards," said Orie, now a member of the Pirates’ radio broadcast team. "That was all in my shoes, along with some Bazooka gum. It was funny. It was such a good laugh — nobody wants to be at Triple-A for rehab or if you’re sent down. At the right time, you get a little chuckle."

That was typical Sandberg humor, Orie said.

"I could play with eight Rynos on the field any day of the week," Orie said. "We had the same agent. We had some stuff in common, except for the Hall of Fame. I can’t draw that comparison."

Orie said it was easy to play with Sandberg.

"Fundamentally, he was as sound as anybody," Orie said. "He had really great hands. His top hand was something that jumped out at me. It’s all about the glove, but that top hand, you learn, is a second glove for you and he was really good at it. You see a lot of bad hops that look routine because of his hands."

Sandberg was generous as well.

"He gave me a few of his bats, they were Rawlings, and let’s just say they were Hall of Fame-type bats and real good wood," Orie said. "As for mine, if I had a dozen bats, nine were pretty good. And that’s in the big leagues. You go to the Minors and zero were good. I think I ended up hitting a majority of my home runs with his bats. You’d think I would’ve been smart enough to switch, but I didn’t. I think it was because the barrel was a little skinnier than my model."

Report: Ricketts considering selling minority shares

PITTSBURGH — The Ricketts family is reportedly considering selling minority shares in the Cubs to help finance the $500 million renovation plan for Wrigley Field and the surrounding area.

Comcast SportsNet Chicago first reported the story on Thursday. The shares would be non-controlling, and shareholders would join the Tribune Co. as investors in the team. The Tribune Co. kept a 5 percent stake in the Cubs after it sold the franchise to the Ricketts in 2009.

"The Ricketts family is looking at a number of financial options to be prepared to finance expanding and preserving Wrigley Field if there is a settlement to the issues in the talks with the rooftops," Dennis Culloton, a spokesperson for the Ricketts family, told Crain’s Chicago Business.

Castillo feels refreshed, but rests Thursday

PITTSBURGH — Cubs backup catcher John Baker joked that Welington Castillo may have to play Thursday. That was OK with Castillo, even though he was behind the plate for 16 innings in a game that began Wednesday night and ended 5 hours 55 minutes later.

"After the game, I did eight minutes in the cold tub and I was fine," Castillo said. "That’s why I’m very happy, because my body feels like that after 16 innings. It’s not 16 easy innings — it was tough. We had long innings, we had foul balls, I got hit. My body feels really, really good. I’m really happy about it."

Even though Castillo felt good, Baker got the start on Thursday. The longest game Castillo remembered playing in was 14 innings. He was even happier to pick up his first hit of the season. Extra inning games can be brutal on a player’s batting average.

"Every time I had to go to the plate, I saw on the board [that I didn’t have a hit] and I said, ‘I need to get one,’ and I was really happy to get mine," said Castillo, who singled in the 14th inning.

The total workload? The Cubs’ nine pitchers Wednesday threw 256 pitches. The only ones who didn’t pitch were Monday’s starter Jeff Samardzija, Thursday starter Jason Hammel, and Friday starter Travis Wood. Wood did, however, pinch-hit.

Extra bases

• Starlin Castro batted third in the Cubs’ first two games, but he was bumped to No. 2 on Thursday in hopes of easing some “anxiousness” that Renteria said he noticed.

"Putting him in the two-hole may ease it a little bit," Renteria said. "We’ll continue to do whatever we can to put him in the best position possible. We need him. We need him to be able to show his offense. Put him in the two-hole now plays a little better, that’s what we’ll do."

Castro was 0-for-9 in two games heading into Thursday’s matinee against the Pirates.

• In the 13th inning Wednesday, the game was tied and the Pirates had loaded the bases. What to do? Renteria had a meeting on the mound, and called left fielder Junior Lake in.

"I brought him in, and when we were on the hill, I said, ‘Where do you feel the most comfortable?’" said Renteria, who wanted to go with a five-man infield. "I knew he had played third base. He looked over [at third]. I wanted to validate it. That was an easy decision, [him having played] third base in the past."

The move worked, as Clint Barmes hit the ball to Lake, who started a 7-2-3 double play.

The Cubs escaped any damage then, but lost, 4-3, in 16 innings.

• Emilio Bonifacio is the first player in the last 100 years to start his Cubs career with at least four hits in each of his first two games.

"I feel pretty good at the plate," Bonifacio said. "I’ve been having good results."

At one point Wednesday, Bonifacio had five hits, and the Pirates had five hits.

"I just try to get a base hit every at-bat," he said. "You have to stay positive. You want to get the win after you play that long."

• The Cubs’ 16-inning marathon game against the Pirates was the 100th game of at least 15 innings in franchise history, and the longest since an 18-inning contest on Aug. 15, 2006, in Houston.

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Cubs.com

Cubs to open at home by celebrating Wrigley Field

Phils hope to crash party with Hernandez on the hill in first start

By Todd Zolecki

CHICAGO — Ryne Sandberg recently recalled his coldest game at Wrigley Field.

"It was 19 degrees," he said.

It should be a little warmer Friday — the forecast is 42 degrees, but with 26-mph southerly winds — when the Cubs and Phillies open a three-game series at Wrigley. The afternoon begins Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary celebration. Wrigley is the second-oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball behind Boston’s Fenway Park.

The team is billing this as the “party of the century.”

"Wrigley Field is a special place to me and my career, so going back there and going back in this capacity [as Phillies manager], I’m very anxious and excited about that," Sandberg said.

Partying aside, baseball will be played. Cubs left-hander Travis Wood will face Phillies right-hander Roberto Hernandez.

"The place will be packed, it’ll be jumping, it’ll be nice," Wood said.

Cubs manager Rick Renteria said they made the decision to start Wood on Friday because of matchups. Wood has made three starts against the Phillies in his career, and has held them to five runs and 13 hits in 21 1/3 innings.

"I had a pretty good track record against them and hopefully I can keep it going and start the season off right," Wood said.

Hernandez makes his Phillies debut Friday after signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal in December.

Phillies: Rollins not with team

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins left the team Wednesday in Texas to be with his wife in Philadelphia for the birth of their second child.

The Phillies have not yet placed Rollins on the paternity leave list, but it could happen Friday. Players have up to three days of paternity leave.

Infielder Jayson Nix will play shortstop for the Phillies while Rollins is with his family.

Sandberg said he likes the idea of a paternity leave list.

"Takes the pressure off everybody," he said. "Just to get it done. I think it’s good. … There is stress on both sides. Job stress and stress from the family side. So I think this being in place takes care of that, just makes it a done deal for the player and the team deals with it. It takes the pressure off the player."

Cubs: Barney looking forward to opener

Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney is fired up for Friday.

"Opening Day at Wrigley is always special," he said. "You have Bill Murray running around the bases — that’s something you don’t see anywhere else. They probably don’t allow it anywhere else. There’s always something memorable there. You can almost see the whole season ahead of you in the ivy. You’re waiting for it to turn green. It was a little warmer last year and it was a little spotty green early. This year, I have a feeling it’ll be really dark."

But at least the snow should be gone.

"I think we’re all looking forward to going home," Barney said.

Murray, by the way, had been scheduled to throw a ceremonial first pitch on April 5, 2012, but took off and sprinted around the bases instead.

Worth noting

• The Cubs are 6-2 in eight Wrigley Field openers against the Phillies, most recently defeating Philadelphia, 2-1, on April 10, 1990. Les Lancaster earned the win while Mitch Williams picked up the save.

• It will be the 101st opener at Wrigley. The Chicago Federals went 2-0 in Wrigley openers (1914-15) and the Cubs have gone 52-45-1 in Wrigley openers from 1916-2013.

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ESPNChicago.com

Ricketts explore selling Cubs shares

By Darren Rovell

Four and a half years after buying the Chicago Cubs and related interests for $845 million, the Ricketts family is considering offloading a piece of its investment.

Cubs spokesman Julian Green confirmed ESPN.com and other published reports Thursday that the family will explore selling minority shares in order to finance the proposed $500 million renovation of Wrigley Field and redevelopment around the stadium, including a plaza and hotel.

Sources tell ESPN.com that the ownership group has hired Galatioto Sports Partners, the firm that helped the Ricketts buy the team. GSP already has begun to talk to high net worth individuals with the goal of raising capital through as few investors as possible.

The Ricketts own 95 percent of the Cubs, with the Tribune Co., which sold the team to the family, owning the rest.

Progress around the renovation of Wrigley Field, which turns 100 years old this month, has stalled due to threats by Wrigley rooftop owners. The rooftop owners, who have a contract with the Cubs to give 17 percent of their gross revenues to the club through 2023, are not happy with the Cubs’ plans, which threaten to ruin some of the views into the ballpark.

Forbes magazine values the Cubs at $1.2 billion, fourth-most valuable among major league teams, but sources say the shares being sold will include all Ricketts-related sports assets including the team, the Wrigleyville development project and a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

The Cubs’ home opener is Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

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ESPNChicago.com

Junior Lake wears wrong jersey

PITTSBURGH — Chicago Cubs outfielder Junior Lake wore the wrong road jersey as his team took the field for the first inning of Thursday’s 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs have two gray road jerseys this year — one with “Cubs” written across the front, the other with “Chicago” written on it. They wore the “Cubs” jersey during their entire three-game series with the Pirates, but Lake took his place in left field for the final game of the series wearing the jersey that said “Chicago” on it.

"Bullpen guy [Justin Grimm] told me I had the wrong jersey. I looked and said [f—-]," Lake said following the game.

After the Pirates’ final out in the bottom of the first inning, Lake immediately went into the clubhouse to change. He said he got confused because both jerseys were hanging in his locker, and he chose the wrong one.

"Everyone looked at me," he said. "I see two gray, I take the wrong one."

Lake, who finished the game 1-for-4, batted in the top of the first inning wearing the wrong jersey. Manager Rick Renteria was unaware of the mistake until after the game.

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ESPNChicago.com

Day of firsts adds up to Cubs’ first win

By Jesse Rogers

PITTSBURGH — It was a game of firsts for the Chicago Cubs as they earned their first win of the season on Thursday afternoon, 3-2 over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And there were the firsts for the individuals involved. Rick Renteria notched his first win as a big-league manager, third baseman Mike Olt hit his first major league home run and pitcher Jason Hammel won his first game as a Cub. What does it all mean?

Renteria’s First Win

It wasn’t an easy series for the first time manager. Three one-run games, including two that went extra innings, tested his strategy as well as his bullpen. But more important than anything was the response the Cubs showed after losing a heartbreaking 16-inning affair on Wednesday night only to have to play a matinee hours later.

"It’s deflating if you want it to be," Renteria said before the game. "I’m not going to come in here and have these guys lying down and be sad. I’m going to play my music and come in here every single day and be ready to go. You say I have a lot of energy, that’s what I want those guys to have to."

Olt added: “We had a better attitude than we could have,” he said regarding the Wednesday loss. “I think that’s what helped us play well today.”

These are the times we learn about the environment the manager is creating around his team. How many more Renteria wins are ahead in his Cubs career and will he be here when the team turns the corner?

"I didn’t think it was going to be such a relief, but it’s quite a relief, quite honestly," Renteria said of the first win.

Olt’s First Homer

Olt took a 3-2 pitch out to right field in the second inning for his first home run as a Cub and first of his career. It was his first hit of the season as well.

"It felt really good," he said. "It feels good to get just the first hit out of the way and just happened to be a home run which makes it a little bit sweeter."

It could be the first of many for the 25-year-old slugger and on top of it the Cubs were able to retrieve the ball from a fan. The fan got a souvenir for the exchange while Olt gets a symbol of all the hard work he’s put in coming back from vision problems that plagued him last season.

"I haven’t seen it yet but I hear they have it," Olt said of the ball.

Hammel’s First Victory

While Olt may have his first of many home runs as a Cub, Jason Hammel might simply be one win closer to being traded. Granted, it won’t happen for a while but with the Cubs propensity of flipping veterans on one-year deals it’s more likely to happen than not.

Especially if he keeps pitching like he did on Thursday.

"I was pretty surprised the way I was moving through the game," Hammel said. "I wanted to complete it and take it as far as I could have."

Hammel gave up two hits in 6 2/3 innings and didn’t give up much hard contact to the Pirates. He was never in serious danger. Other teams will have interest if he keeps it up.

"It was great to win," he said.

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ESPNChicago.com

Rapid Reaction: Cubs 3, Pirates 2

By Jesse Rogers

PITTSBURGH — Rick Renteria earned his first victory as a major league manager when the Chicago Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2 on Thursday. Here’s a quick recap:

How it happened: Starting pitcher Jason Hammel was brilliant in his Cubs debut while the offense got just enough early runs to get him and the team victory No. 1 of the season. Anthony Rizzo drove home Emilio Bonifacio in the first inning after Bonifacio singled and stole second base then Mike Olt hit his first big-league home run in the second inning followed by a double play ball by Justin Ruggiano to plate Bonifacio in the third. It stayed that way until Hammel came out in the seventh after a two-out walk. James Russell and Justin Grimm allowed two runners to score but the Cubs shut the door the rest of the way. Pedro Strop earned the save.

What it means: Hammel saved a tired bullpen while mowing down Pirates en route to a 6 2/3 innings pitched, two-hit performance. He mixed up his pitches and allowed his defense to play behind him as he gave up several long fly outs but few balls were hit very hard off of him. Olt showed off his power going out to straightaway right field.

Bonifacio: The Cubs newcomer added two more hits on Thursday to become the third player (Cecil Cooper, Ira Flagstead) in history to record 11 hits in his first three games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Pitching rotation: Renteria still isn’t sure what to do about Sunday’s starter as Carlos Villanueva has already pitched two games in relief this week due to extra-inning contests. He was scheduled to pitch against the Phillies but Renteria said he’ll discuss it with pitching coach Chris Bosio and Villanueva.

What’s next: The Cubs begin their 100th season at Wrigley Field on Friday when they take on Ryne Sandberg’s Philadelphia Phillies at 1:20 pm. All-Star Travis Wood takes on Roberto Hernandez in the series opener.

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ESPNChicago.com

When does spring performance matter?

By Jesse Rogers

PITTSBURGH — Someone needs to explain to me when exactly spring training performance matters.

For the second consecutive year the Chicago Cubs have a closer who had a bad spring training and then went out and blew his first save attempt. The Cubs showed no concern over Carlos Marmol’s 6.97 ERA in the spring of 2013 and subsequently he lost his closer’s job by the end of the first week of the regular season. Could the same fate face Jose Veras?

Veras had a memorable 38-pitch Cubs debut on Wednesday night in blowing a 12th-inning save against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He threw 19 balls and 19 strikes while hitting a batter, walking two and giving up a game-tying base hit. But hey, he struck out National League MVP Andrew McCutchen to extend the game. The damage was done and the Cubs eventually lost in 16 innings.

“That’s part of the game,” Veras said afterwards. “It happens. You can’t control those things.”

Well, actually, you can control some of those things. In fact, you can control your control. Veras was all over the place — which brings us back to spring training.

“Veras knows how to get himself ready,” manager Rick Renteria said back on March 25. “Most closers during the spring don’t have the best outings. I’m not concerned. … When the lights turn on sometimes it’s a whole different ballgame.”

That was said in the midst of Veras producing a 7.00 ERA during Cactus League play. And this wasn’t a veteran working on a new pitch or a pitcher with the resume of Mariano Rivera. This was a second-year closer who was all over the place with his stuff — just like Marmol before him.

“I’m still not worried about him,” Renteria said after Wednesday’s loss. “We got him up a few times over there. That was his first outing out there. I actually thought he was going to get through it, to be honest with you.”

So the spring didn’t matter for the veteran Veras, but somehow it mattered for Donnie Murphy (.200, 1 HR) and Mike Olt (.276, 5 HR). The former was put on waivers and the latter won a roster spot because of their spring production. It mattered for non-roster invitee John Baker and 40-man roster guy George Kottaras. One earned a contract, the latter was released. It mattered for Ryan Kalish (made it) and Josh Vitters (didn’t). It just didn’t matter for the closer.

Once again.

Because of his high pitch count Veras is unavailable on Thursday, so perhaps Pedro Strop will get a save opportunity. He could be the closer of the future or maybe it’ll eventually be prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who throws nearly 100 mph. But Vizcaino is at Single-A right now. Veras certainly will get some more chances to close out a game, just like Marmol did.

“I feel good,” Veras said. “I was ahead of the hitters on the first two guys. They just battled and battled but I got in trouble when I hit the guy.”

Sounds a lot like the last guy who owned the job out of spring.

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ESPNChicago.com

Cubs lineup: Castro back in 2-hole

By Jesse Rogers

PITTSBURGH — Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria wants shortstop Starlin Castro to relax at the plate so after two games batting third, Castro is back in a more familiar position of hitting second.

"It’s not because he’s not on pitches," Renteria said before the series finale between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday. "I think it’s his anxiousness more than anything because he’s taking some pretty good hacks on some really good fastballs."

Castro missed most of spring training with a hamstring strain but Renteria isn’t using that as an excuse. Castro is 0 for 9 in two games and made a critical error on Wednesday night allowing a run to score. He also swung at an off-speed pitch on a 3-0 count with runners on second and third in the 11th inning of a tie game.

"I think it would have been a strike if he had taken it but on a 3-0 count you’re not usually looking for a breaking ball," Renteria said. "I think he’s been a little more anxious in the 3-hole."

Here’s the rest of the lineup against lefty Wandy Rodriguez on Thursday:

1. Emilio Bonifacio, CF

2. Castro, SS

3. Justin Ruggiano, RF

4. Anthony Rizz, 1B

5. Junior Lake, LF

6. Mike Olt, 3B

7. Darwin Barney, 2B

8. John Baker, C

9. Jason Hammel, P

Jose Veras and Wesley Wright aren’t available for today’s game after their heavy workload on Wednesday night.

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ESPNChicago.com

Hammel begins potentially short Cubs run

By Jesse Rogers

PITTSBURGH — New Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jason Hammel is used to making debuts for new teams. Thursday will be his fourth in an eight-year big league career.

But is it just the beginning of the end for th