Tuesday April 5, 2011Posted: 7:15 PM
By Patrick Mooney
Watching Andrew Cashner slice through the Arizona Diamondbacks lineup, it was hard to remember why there were ever any questions about his place in the rotation.
The debate has rattled around the entire organization starter or reliever? from the moment the Cubs made him the 19th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Cashner lived up to the hype during his first career major-league start and then walked off the mound with shoulder tightness that clouded any plans for his bright future.
Cashner left Wrigley Field on Tuesday and headed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for an examination with Dr. Stephen Gryzlo. By Wednesday morning the Cubs should know more off an expected MRI.
Hopefully its not something serious, manager Mike Quade said. He didnt have any trouble in camp. This caught us off-guard completely. But he was honest with us and hopefully we were able to get him out of there before anything bad happened.
That uncertainty hung over a 6-5 victory in which the 24-year-old flashed the potential to be the high-end starter the Cubs project. After Cashner threw his 72nd and final pitch into the dirt to walk Willie Bloomquist, he appeared to bite his glove.
There was no one warming up in the bullpen in the sixth inning as Quade, athletic trainer Mark ONeal and pitching coach Mark Riggins converged on the mound.
I didnt even realize anything was going on with him, catcher Koyie Hill said. He was doing a really good job of separating each pitch, taking his time, really concentrating. (I) just thought he was getting ready for the (next one and it looked like) something had grabbed him in his shoulder.
That was it kind of a bittersweet ending to what was turning into a really nice first start.
Cashner retired the first six batters he faced, and 11 of 12, the exception being a Ryan Roberts home run. That was Cashners only mistake, as he allowed one run on two hits in 5.1 innings. He was economical with his pitches, walking just one and striking out two.
He looked amazing, outfielder Marlon Byrd said. He was 90 to 100 91, 92 mph sinkers and (then) speeding them up to 97. He pitched like hes been around for a long time and hes going to be fun to watch all year.
Thats all the Cubs can hope for at this point. Their scouting department liked Cashner in part because of his body type (6-foot-6, 200 pounds) and athletic ability. They viewed him as someone who could repeat his delivery and decrease the odds of breaking down.
James Russell is one of Cashners closest friends on the team. The reliever said Cashner doesnt have a history of this and hadnt complained about his shoulder in spring training.
No, no, hes coming in perfectly healthy, Russell said. He was looking to do (exactly) what he did.
As a rookie reliever last season, Cashner proved himself to be resilient both mentally and physically, and that should give the Cubs some encouragement.
It also became clear in the seventh that the Cubs could miss Cashner in the bullpen, especially with Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol unavailable after pitching three consecutive days. Jeff Samardzija and Marcos Mateo walked three batters that led to a three-run inning that tied the game.
Russell blew the save, but got the win by throwing 1.2 scoreless innings and getting the ball to Sean Marshall, who closed out the Diamondbacks in the ninth.
But if Cashners healthy, theres really no turning back. Whether it was Roberts looking at a 97 mph fastball, or Chris Young swinging at an 84 mph slider in the dirt, Cashner showed the arsenal that could make him a frontline pitcher every fifth day.
Whatever the results reveal, the Cubs will have to manage the stress on Cashners right arm, which accounted for 177.1 innings combined across parts of three minor-league seasons before the big promotion last year. All along, the Cubs thought he could handle this.
Hes a smart enough guy to know its not as easy as that, Hill said. Your stuff is going to come and go, (but) the thing you can control is your composure, your preparation and (he) was on top of it.
We got a long ways to go. Im sure theres going to be some downs as much as there are ups during the course of a season. But it was a good first step.
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.