Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

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Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Posted 11:29 a.m. Updated 5:25 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Ryan Dempster represents what the Cubs would like to project.

Hes the player that young pitchers model themselves after. Hes an established figure in the community through his charity work. He also had enough clubhouse juice to feel comfortable publicly lobbying for Mike Quade to get the managers job last year.

Quade joked that he would milk this for as long as possible, but pitching coach Mark Riggins needed to know in order to schedule out the next five-plus weeks. So on Monday morning the manager called Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza into his office at Fitch Park.

Quade earned the respect of his players through direct communication and reasoned explanations. He informed them that Dempster would start Opening Day at Wrigley Field on April 1, followed by Zambrano and Garza against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That was really cool, Dempster said. It would be so easy to talk to us each as individuals. But isnt that what were trying to get away from? I think were trying to be a team and unite as much as possible. I know Z was really happy for me. He told me so himself. That probably meant just as much as Quade telling me.

Theres no doubt Zambrano took pride in making six consecutive Opening Day starts, a franchise record. The last time someone else got the assignment was Kerry Wood in 2004. The numbers 1-2 with a 6.99 ERA seem to suggest what Zambrano has admitted: He got too jacked up for those games.

Quade made the decision in part to line up Zambrano for the seasons third series in Milwaukee, where for his career hes 9-5 with a 3.19 ERA at Miller Park. That includes the 2008 no-hitter he threw there in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.

(Zambrano) said that I deserved it, Dempster said. It takes somebody big to say that too, especially when you started that many Opening Days in a row. I know hes excited for his start.

Garza won an ALCS MVP award with Tampa Bay and has pitched at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. But Quade feels this will give him a chance to absorb Wrigley Field and a new league for a few days.

Zambrano finished his workouts and left the complex to take his family to the airport before the media had a chance to get his reaction. The Cubs are saying its all good. Its also a window into where Quade feels his relationship is at with Zambrano.

Its a pretty good sign of maturity, and its a sign of a guy that is a good teammate, Quade said. It goes to the three of them and their character and it goes to my feel on Z and how hed handle it. (This) let me emphasize that they are a group."

Dempster said he was surprised by the news, but it wasnt hard to see this coming. This was earned. The reliable right-hander made Opening Day starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Florida Marlins. He went 15-12 with a 3.85 ERA last year and led the team in quality starts (23). He has accounted for 30-plus starts and at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Last year the Cubs absorbed their worst loss on Opening Day since 1884, a 16-5 defeat in Atlanta that set the tone for all the wrong reasons. They need a good start. Theres no other pitcher in the room that the Cubs would rather follow.

I dont know that Demps status in the clubhouse could really get any better to be honest with you, Quade said. Thats how much respect they have for him and, I think, all three (pitchers). Performance has a lot to do with that. And I hope theyll feed off each other and theyve got each others back when theres a poor performance: Someone picks the next guy up.

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

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

Kyle Schwarber catching again is a good step for a banged-up Cubs team

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs are so strong up the middle that Javier Baez can star for Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and return to camp as a super-utility guy/late-game defensive replacement. 

But that projection in late March is based on across-the-board health, which never happens in a 162-game season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (stiff neck) hasn't played in a Cactus League game in almost a week. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) became a late scratch to Friday's lineup at Sloan Park.

After trying to make a diving catch in center field, Albert Almora Jr. exited in the third inning of a 4-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians with what the Cubs called "left neck tightness," though he still plans to play in Las Vegas this weekend.  

On the other side of the spring-training complex in Mesa – away from the crowd of 15,473 in a minor-league game against a Colorado Rockies squad – the Cubs did get a positive piece of news on the health front: Kyle Schwarber went four innings behind the plate, going Tony Pena style and trying to reduce the stress on his body.

"I love catching," Schwarber said. "Whenever I played baseball, I was always a catcher. For me to be able to do that today – and feel pretty good about myself walking away from the day – it was a good step."

This is clearly important to Schwarber, an intensely driven personality who doesn't want to hear "no." Otherwise, the Cubs probably would have shut this down already, not wanting to risk it with a franchise player, someone who might blast 35 homers at the top of their lineup.

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But the medical staff cleared Schwarber when pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona – 10 months after he underwent surgery on his left knee to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL – and it could become a valuable skill again. 

"The most difficult part I would probably say was setup-wise," Schwarber said, "trying to find that timing of your moves and everything like that. Sometimes I felt like I was a little late getting my setup. But that all came. It's been a year since I got behind there, so overall everything went really well."

The Cubs already have one of the best young catchers in the game (Willson Contreras) and a two-time All-Star making $14 million this season backing him up (Miguel Montero). Schwarber doesn't want to put a number on how many starts he might make behind the plate, though the Cubs have framed it as in case of emergency, an extra late-inning option for manager Joe Maddon or maybe something that makes sense with a particular matchup. 

"As of right now, it's still the third-catcher role," Schwarber said. "I'm down for whatever, but I know the majority of the time is going to be out there in left."

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

Joe Maddon offers up Cubs strength coach to be Madonna's trainer

MESA, Ariz. — Think the stir-crazy Cubs have been in Arizona long enough? Near the end of a camp that has been relatively tame — at least compared to last year's parade of mimes, zoo animals and karaoke jams — manager Joe Maddon heard about Madonna's contest to find a new dance trainer and immediately thought of the man behind those gonzo stunts.

Because that's what a three-time Manager of the Year does. So the organization's content arm put together a one-minute clip nominating strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss, releasing it to 1.7 million followers on Friday through the @Cubs Twitter account.

"We're hoping that Madonna has an opportunity to check that out," Maddon said at the Sloan Park complex. "We're willing to send even more information — whatever she possibly needs — to see that our guy's the best."

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Set to synthesized 1980s-style music, the aerobics video is rated more PG than the actual "Bussy" experience. The Cubs didn't show Buss leading the team stretch in a Speedo and a Lucha Libre mask. A slow-motion part of the montage does feature Buss standing alone in the clubhouse, dousing himself in beer during a clinching celebration.

"We could have made it more edgy," Maddon said. "There were so many more ways to go with it. I was kind of pleased with it. I thought it presented his abilities very well. His physique was presented in a manner that she could be duly impressed with the fact that our strength and conditioning coach fashions that form."

What if Madonna steals Buss from the Cubs?

"We could share somehow," Maddon said. "She'll fire him after a couple weeks anyway."