Cashner believes he's ready to take the next step

Cashner believes he's ready to take the next step

Monday, Feb. 28, 2011
6:48 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. - There may not be another pitcher the Cubs are watching as closely as Andrew Cashner this spring. This is a case study in the question they've faced since selecting him 19th overall in the 2008 draft.

The Cubs hope that the answer is starter. Cashner's potential is the X-factor in any analysis of what the Cubs might do with the two open spots in their rotation.

The comparisons to Kerry Wood are not just a media creation - even Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has acknowledged it.

"Don't do that to him," Wood said. "It happens when you're from Texas and you throw hard. I got compared to Nolan (Ryan) and Roger (Clemens). But he's going to be Cashner and he's going to be fine."

At 24, Cashner feels he's ready to take the next step, that his changeup and breaking ball are right there. The right-hander auditioned during Monday's 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at HoHoKam Park. He gave up two runs in two innings, committed an error on a pick-off attempt and watched as one run scored on a wild pitch.

"We're going to find out," Quade said. "We got people in this organization that watched (him start before). I am not one of them. So I was thrilled to death to see him in the bullpen."

Quade has this job, in part, because of the development of young pitchers like Cashner late last year. From Aug. 23 - the day Quade took over for Lou Piniella - through Oct. 1 Cashner posted a 1.40 ERA in 18 games, holding opponents to a .203 average.

"(But) from the standpoint of the future of this organization," Quade said, "if he can be a top-line starter and we don't find that out, it would probably be a mistake. Maybe he could be a top-end closer, but you weigh one against the other. We just signed a top-end closer for three years (in Carlos Marmol)."

Cashner is confident, but he's also made steady, incremental progress to get to this point, where the Cubs are featuring him in marketing campaigns.

Cashner didn't pitch all that much in high school and learned how to throw a breaking ball in junior college. He finally signed as a closer out of Texas Christian University - after being drafted three different times.

"More than anything else, I see a desire to learn," Wood said. "He's asking the right questions. (He's) got all this power and he's such a strong kid that he's got to be patient. (I) think he wants it to happen right away. He's going to be good. ... He's got the desire to be great."

Cashner is used to starting - only four of his 43 career minor-league appearances came as a reliever. But if this experiment works out, he will be in unchartered territory.

Cashner's never thrown more than 112 innings in a season. He's accounted for 177.1 innings across the past three years in the minors, which is about what the Cubs would expect from their fifth starter in 2011.

The 54.1 innings Cashner threw out of the Cubs bullpen last season might get him to May or June as a starter.

"I feel like if I build up now it shouldn't be an issue," Cashner said. "I've never really had any issues with my arm. (But) relieving is a little bit tougher. You might throw five out of seven games, so you got to really hammer out your arm exercises. (As) a starter you know your routine and you can get after it (on) days off. You know what you have coming up."

As a rookie, Cashner proved to be resilient, both physically and emotionally. The Cubs are trying to find the point where they can balance the need to win now against his untapped potential.

"The time seems right," Quade said. "He got his feet wet last year and had some success in the role we asked. Let's see if he can expand on that with what he's done in the past. (There are) no guarantees, but we think he's got the stuff, the makeup and the willingness (to do it)."

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6-2 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.