Chicago Cubs

Mooney: Kerry Wood's back where he belongs

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Mooney: Kerry Wood's back where he belongs

Monday, Feb. 28, 2011
Posted 8:35 p.m. Updated 10:16 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Kerry Wood has spent almost half his life in the public eye. The fans have watched him drag his body off the disabled list 14 times, and push the Cubs to within one game of the World Series. They think they know him more than most.

That Wood isnt out for every last dollar, and appreciates the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field, has only deepened those feelings.

There were only 5,405 fans at HoHoKam Park, but a noticeable section stood to give Wood an ovation. It was probably as loud as you could expect on a Monday afternoon, in the sixth inning of a game where the hitters wore Nos. 74, 75, 76 and 77.

Its better than getting booed off the field when you come back, Wood said after a 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

The initial wave of spring-training interviews has passed. Yes, he took less money, a one-year deal worth 1.5 million, because he wanted to come home and raise his children in Chicago.

With all the attention that decision brought, it gets harder to find a new angle. For so long this pitcher had been at the center of everything the Cubs were trying to accomplish. Yet hes almost flown under the radar this month.

I love it. Ive been practicing for 10 years, Wood said. I know when they let (media) in (the clubhouse) and I know when you have to get out.

Wood allowed two runs in one inning on Monday, but felt like his breaking balls were moving well, and that his command has been particularly sharp this spring. Thats important because the Cubs need more than intangibles.

The Cubs bullpen ranked second-to-last in the majors with a 4.72 ERA last season and that was with Sean Marshall emerging as one of the games best left-handed setup men and Carlos Marmol getting 38 saves in 43 chances.

Everybody appreciates who (Wood) is and how loyal he has been, manager Mike Quade said. Ive said from Day 1 how happy I am to have him. But Id like to see that breaking ball show up all year. (Its) nice to have (him) back, but its going to be a lot more than that if he pitches well and helps us get the ball to Marmol.

Wood is willing to be a mentor, and a calming influence in the bullpen, but hes being paid to get outs. James Russells father pitched 14 seasons in the big leagues, but growing up in Texas there were two names that stood out: Nolan Ryan and Wood.

The way people talk about him, its like hes at the end of the road almost, but hes 33, Russell said. Hes still got plenty of time to pitch. When you look at the way he throws, hes still throwing 95, 96 mph, and bumping it up there.

But performance isnt the only thing Wood will be remembered for in Chicago.

This is where I grew up, Wood said. This is where I feel like I belong.

Etc.

The Brewers put the defensive shift on Carlos Pena, who got that all the time in Tampa Bay and wasnt surprised to see it, even in spring training. The Cubs have committed six errors combined in their first two Cactus League games. We got work to do, Quade said. Period. Randy Wells, who threw two scoreless innings Monday, is thrilled with the idea of a rotation competition: Whatever, happy to be here. I have a job. It could be a lot worse." Fernando Perez, who had surgery on his left wrist almost two years ago, survived making a great diving catch in center: I just took a tumble that I didnt really enjoy that much. Ill be fine. Quades open to the idea of using Carlos Zambrano as a pinch-hitter. Interesting pitching matchup Tuesday in Scottsdale: Ryan Dempster vs. San Franciscos Tim Lincecum (2:05 p.m., Cubs.com audio broadcast).

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

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

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USA TODAY

Mike Montgomery will gladly aid Cubs as spot starter, but could this be a mini audition for 2018 rotation?

Jon Lester isn’t expected to be on the disabled list for long, which of course is great news for the Cubs.

But while he’s there, it’s once again time for Mike Montgomery to audition for a spot in the team’s 2018 starting rotation.

The Cubs are facing the possibility of losing two members of that starting staff this offseason, when both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey will be free agents. Montgomery seems like a logical replacement, but he’ll need to be better than he’s been as a starter this season. He’s put up a 5.13 ERA in eight starts.

He’ll get another opportunity to show his stuff over the next week or so, as he makes one or two spot starts with Lester on the shelf resting up his left lat tightness and general shoulder fatigue.

“I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially our ace. But it’s a challenge. I’m looking forward to going out there and helping the team win,” Montgomery said over the weekend. “I’m going to go out there and prepare and be ready to help this team get to the playoffs.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to worry about instilling confidence in his bosses. Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein both lauded Montgomery’s efforts since he was acquired about a year ago, in the middle of the 2016 team’s march to that curse-smashing World Series win. It was Montgomery who earned the save in Game 7.

And again this season Montgomery has given plenty of reason for those guys to have confidence in him. He’s turned in a strong 2.57 ERA in 27 relief appearances, one of the more reliable arms out of what is becoming an increasingly shaky bullpen. This past Thursday, he relieved the early-to-depart Lester, pitching 4.1 shutout innings and allowing just three hits and a walk against the Cincinnati Reds.

Throw in the versatility of being able to effectively switch between starting and relieving, and that’s a recipe for sticking on a big league roster.

“He’s good about bouncing back and forth,” Maddon said. “He’s been invaluable to us the last couple years. He’s still learning his craft. Every time I talk to him it’s kind of like the little lightbulb constantly goes off for him regarding his stuff and how to utilize it. That’s what I’ve been talking about with him the last couple years. This guy’s got all kinds of tools in the toolbox but he doesn’t really know how to utilize them all, and I think he’s finally understanding the cutter, the curve, the changeup to go with the fastball. He’s one of those guys that he should never get wild with his fastball because his pitches are so good and he can throw them for a strike.”

Montgomery’s reliability has been enough that Epstein said there’s no plan for the Cubs to add another starting pitcher before this month’s waiver trade deadline. Of course, the fact that Lester’s injury isn’t as bad as initially feared and the July acquisition of Jose Quintana factors into that, as well.

“We’ve expended a lot of prospect capital trying to make this team better. We think it’s just a start or two (that Lester will miss), and Mike Montgomery is more than capable of filling in,” Epstein said. “He’s thrown the ball really well, like what we saw from him (Thursday). So we’re going to fill that vacancy internally with Mike and go from there.”

While every start made by any pitcher this season seems important — the Cubs entered Monday’s day off with just a two-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings, with a playoff spot hardly guaranteed — Montgomery’s efforts could have just as great an effect on next season. If Arrieta and Lackey both end up departing via free agency, the Cubs will need some replacements. Montgomery figures to be among the first options, especially if this midseason audition goes well.

Of course, Montgomery is happy to do whatever he needs to to help his team. He’s not complaining about a bullpen role or one that has him shuttling between the relief corps and the rotation. But he admitted that starting is his goal, meaning the importance of this moment likely hasn't been lost on him.

“Yeah, absolutely, I wanted to start. But also I wanted to be a guy who could fill another role and hopes that makes our team better,” he said. “If me starting makes us better in their mind, then that’s what I want ideally. But I’ve realized I can’t always control that, I can go out there and pitch well. If I pitch well, they’re probably going to give me more opportunities, which is probably going to lead to starting.

“I think it’s because I spent five years in Triple-A from the time I was 21 and I had a bigger ego. And then you realize that you just want to be in the big leagues and that Triple-A kind of stinks. I think it’s just how I’ve gotten to this point. And coming here last year from a team that was trying to get in the playoffs to a team that was clearly going to win the division, you realize that your role isn’t to come here and start making demands, it’s to come here and just do your job.”

Right now, the Cubs need Montgomery to fill the void while Lester rests up. And if he can make his starts look a little more like his bullpen outings, he’ll do just that. And if that’s what happens, maybe they’ll call on him next season to do a whole lot more.

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

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USA TODAY

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now: Cubs' first baseman named NL Player of the Week

That Anthony Rizzo is so hot right now.

And Major League Baseball noticed.

Rizzo was announced as the National League Player of the Week on Monday after a terrific performance last week.

The Cubs' first baseman collected 12 hits, drove in 13 runs and slashed a ridiculous .429/.484/.750.

The Cubs had a pretty good week as a team, too, winning five of their seven games against the visiting Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays.

They take their three-game winning streak to Ohio to start a three-game set with the Reds on Tuesday.