Cubs' Garza guarantees he'll be ready for Opening Day

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Cubs' Garza guarantees he'll be ready for Opening Day

Cubs starter Matt Garza recently received clearance from his doctors to begin throwing as he continues his rehabilitation from a right elbow stress reaction that sidelined him for the last 11 weeks of the 2012 season.

Garza called the injury the toughest thing he has had to deal with in his career but told me Friday that he feels great and he plans to be ready for Opening Day.

CUBS: 12 defining moments in 2012

"If spring training started tomorrow, I would be ready to go," he said. "I'm not ready to pitch six innings today, but I will be ready to go when the season starts. I will be ready to go Opening Day, that's guaranteed."

Garza has resumed throwing and he reported no issues with his elbow and he appears to be back on track to compete for the top spot in Dale Sveum's starting rotation when the Cubs break camp in April.

Now the question is -- will he still be there when the trading deadline comes and goes at the end of July?

Javy Baez blast brings Cubs offense out of hibernation in blowout over White Sox

Javy Baez blast brings Cubs offense out of hibernation in blowout over White Sox

Charles Tillman must be the Cubs' good luck charm.

Just a few minutes after the Bears legend sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field, Javy Baez sent one almost out onto Waveland Ave.

That two-run shot put a charge into a Cubs offense that had been scuffling as Baez and Co. wound up beating the White Sox 8-1 in front of 41,166 fans at Wrigley Field.

"Living the dream," Baez said. "It was one of my dreams to [hit a go-ahead homer] late in the game. There it is."

White Sox starter Anthony Ranaudo was tossing a no-hitter against the team with the best record in baseball before Kris Bryant parked one into the left-field bleachers with one out in the sixth inning.

Baez's blast in the seventh inning turned out to be the game-winner and helped lift this offense out of its funk by tacking on five eighth-inning runs.

Cubs starter Jason Hammel admitted that homer helped provide a sense of relief for the Cubs offense.

"It's almost like...wait. Just wait. It'll happen," Hammel said. "We got enough pop in the bats to score pretty quickly and a lot in a hurry. So as long as we can do a good job on the mound, just keep it close, just give them a chance."

Ben Zobrist had an RBI double in that eighth inning and then Addison Russell delivered the big blow with a grand slam off former Cub Jacob Turner that nearly brought the house down at Wrigley.

"It was kinda surreal," Russell said. "Just rounding the bases, trying to remember the pandemonium of the fans and then stepping on home plate was awesome."

That late rally ensured Aroldis Chapman did not get his first save in a Cubs uniform, but manager Joe Maddon still employed his shiny new bullpen anyway.

Hector Rondon worked a perfect eighth inning and then Chapman came on to toss the ninth with a seven-run lead.

The new Cubs closer wowed the Wrigley crowd with fastballs clocked at 102 and 103 mph as he struck out Jose Abreu, got Todd Frazier to ground out and then struck out Avisail Garcia.

Ranaudo was the story for the first two-thirds of the game, driving in the only run with an opposite-field homer off Hammel and then keeping the Cubs offense at bay. 

Ranaudo's first career MLB hit was the only blemish on Hammel's line, as the Cubs veteran right-hander struck out seven in seven innings.

"I felt great," Hammel said. "I was trying to hide in the dugout from Joe so he wouldn't take me out. It was nice to let go. I felt like I got better as the game went on." 

Trying to make sense of Aroldis Chapman’s lost-in-translation rollout with Cubs

Trying to make sense of Aroldis Chapman’s lost-in-translation rollout with Cubs

Aroldis Chapman lost the press conference, which won’t matter if the Cubs win the World Series. That’s the calculated decision chairman Tom Ricketts, team president Theo Epstein and their inner circle made in trading for the 105-mph closer from the New York Yankees.

But Chapman’s lost-in-translation introduction to the Chicago media (and, by extension, the fans) should force the Cubs – and anyone covering the team – to reassess that system-wide failure.

“It’s over with,” Chapman said through a different translator – catcher Miguel Montero – after finishing off the White Sox during Wednesday night’s 8-1 victory at Wrigley Field. “I just got to move on.”

This isn’t diminishing the seriousness of the allegations Chapman faced after a domestic dispute in South Florida last October, leading to a 30-game suspension to start this season. Or completely falling for the sleepy/nervous defense presented after Chapman – under repeated questioning – said he had no recollection of the off-the-field expectations Ricketts outlined during that phone call the Cubs absolutely needed before closing the deal with the Yankees.

Major League Baseball required all teams to hire a Spanish-language translator this season, and the Cubs deployed quality-assurance coach Henry Blanco, a widely respected former big-league catcher who doesn’t have any real experience handling such a sensitive media session. This wasn’t asking Jorge Soler about a hamstring injury or a game-winning home run. Chapman’s agent, Barry Praver, watched the entire scene unfold in the visiting dugout on Tuesday afternoon before a crosstown game at U.S. Cellular Field.

ESPN’s Pedro Gomez – who asked the only question in Spanish during the group scrum – then got a one-on-one interview with Chapman that yielded more insight into the player and the conversation with ownership.

“I really don’t know what happened there,” Montero said. “Whether it was miscommunication (or he was) misunderstood, I don’t know.

“That’s already over. We got to move in a different direction. Whatever happened yesterday, we just want to be on the positive side and move forward.”

Ricketts – who released a statement when the trade became official on Monday afternoon and appeared on the team’s flagship radio station (WSCR-AM 670) on Tuesday morning – declined to comment when approached by reporters on Wednesday during batting practice: “I think we’ve said enough this week.”

At a time when newspapers are diminished and the media business is splintering, there simply aren’t enough Spanish speakers within the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Chapman – an All-Star performer who is 28 years old and has been in the big leagues since 2010 – doesn’t speak much English and grew up within a society that most of us will never understand.

Even for native speakers and proficient translators, there are linguistics variations in Spanish and wide cultural gaps among those born in Cuba (Chapman and Soler), Venezuela (Blanco and Montero) and the Dominican Republic. There are also fundamental personality differences, with Chapman being described as an observer, quiet and withdrawn during his time with the Cincinnati Reds.

While the talkative Montero, 33, didn’t know any English when he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a teenager, he picked up enough of the language to become a translator for teammates by the end of his rookie-ball season in Missoula, Montana.

“I just kept on practicing, asking questions,” Montero said. “I remember people laughing about my accent or whatever. And I never really cared. That’s what a lot of Latin guys get intimidated by, because they don’t want people to make fun of them. That’s why they get intimidated. That’s why they don’t learn.

“That wasn’t my problem. I didn’t care if you laughed. I didn’t care about any of that, because this is not my language, you know? It’s something that I (was) learning and I became fairly good. Good enough.”

That’s why Montero can understand MLB’s directive to hire translators – and still see the limitations.

“It’s OK,” Montero said. “But on the other hand, I feel like it’s important for us to learn the language. Not only as a player, but when your career’s over, you’re bilingual. You can actually use it for different areas (of your life) later on.

“That was my biggest goal. If I didn’t make it to the big leagues, at least I’m going to be bilingual, and I can do something because it’s productive for any other job.”

Chapman has one job between here and October – to win the franchise’s first World Series in more than a century – and that success or failure is how he will ultimately be remembered in Chicago.

Cubs keeping the faith with Jason Heyward despite season-long struggles

Cubs keeping the faith with Jason Heyward despite season-long struggles

The calendar is about to flip into August and the narrative around high-priced outfielder Jason Heyward is still the same.

The Cubs entered play Wednesday night with the best record in baseball despite their $184 million prize of the winter suffering through the worst offensive season of his career.

Among qualified MLB players entering Wednesday night, Heyward had the lowest slugging percentage in the game (.315). His OPS (.630) was the seventh-lowest among qualified hitters.

Those numbers have gotten significantly worse as Heyward has been mired in a major slump over the last two-plus weeks in which he's gone just 4-for-42 (.095 AVG) with only one extra base hit, zero RBI and a .275 OPS. 

Before Wednesday's game at Wrigley Field, Heyward was out on the field working with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee.

"It's pretty much what they've been working on for a while," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Again, like I've said, this guy's hit into some bad luck. Yeah there's been some ground balls, but he's had a lot of well-struck balls that have been caught.

"And with that goes your confidence. But they have a definite plan they're sticking with."

Maddon said the Cubs wanted Heyward to get to see the results of his work out on the field of play instead of just watching baseballs jump off his bat into a netting in the cage.

One of the main things the Cubs are working on with Heyward is making a conscious effort to get the ball in the air. 

They're also focused on his mindset through these struggles, trying to keep his spirits up.

"He's probably struggling a little bit," Maddon admitted. "It's not easy to go through what he's going through right now. But like I said, I'm certain he's going to come out the other side.

"I've seen a lot of good stuff work-wise recently. And I'm telling you, man, the new-fangled defenses have got him on ground balls up the middle a lot. He's been victimized by defense a bit."

Maddon has talked a lot this season about Heyward hitting into some tough luck — whether on line drives or just ground balls directly into the opposition's defensive shifts.

But it's not just luck. Heyward's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .273, which is 26 points below his career mark (.298), but there are 24 other qualified big-league hitter with lower BABIPs, including White Sox slugger Todd Frazier and his .200 mark entering play Wednesday.

Compared to last season — when Heyward hit .293 with a .797 OPS with the St. Louis Cardinals — Heyward's line drive percentage is up slightly and his groundball percentage is down significantly. 

But his soft-hit percentage is way up and his hard-hit percentage is down quite a bit.

All of the fancy stats can make the casual fan's head spin, but the gist is simple: Heyward has not been making enough solid contact. 

And he has not been making enough solid contact for four months now. 

Still, Maddon refuses to let any worry show publicly, even as he penciled Heyward seventh in the Cubs' lineup Wednesday, the lowest the 26-year-old has hit all season.

"I've been through this before with some really good players," Maddon said. "He'll come out the other side because he's good and he's working at it. I really like the plan of attack him and John have going right now.

"I'm very patient. I've done this for a bit. I was a hitting instructor myself. I know what it takes. You don't always get overnight results when you're trying to make some dramatic adjustments and that's exactly what's going on. 

"I know people are going to get less patient with it than I will or he will. But the biggest thing is that Jason doesn't get impatient. With the actual player himself, you never want him to be the guy to give up on what he's doing. If he doesn't, he's gonna break through.

"I have a lot of faith in him."