Chicago Cubs

Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads

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Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads

Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011Posted: 3:05 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija might get more media opportunities than anyone else on the fringes of a major-league roster. There is the football back story, and the probability that you either love or hate Notre Dame.

Samardzija, who has a goatee and long hair that goes to the back of his neck, is also a pretty approachable dude. So reporters will ask him about his preference: Starter or reliever? They will wonder how it felt to watch the Cubs bring up a pitcher from Triple-A Iowa 14 different times between his demotion last April and his September call-up.

Yet Samardzija has never really popped off about the way hes been handled by the organization.

Bury it, he said. Thats kind of just my personality. Im not gonna sit and (complain) about things that happened in the past. Thats not what I do. Its not our jobs here to worry about that. Im really not worried about any of that stuff.

Of course, you could also argue that the 26-year-old right-hander has nothing to complain about. The Cubs, after all, gave him a five-year, 10 million major-league contract to prevent him from jumping to the NFL. That will expire at seasons end, though the Cubs have club options for 2012 and 2013.

Samardzija, who is out of minor-league options, appears ticketed for the bullpen. He went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 35 games 15 starts at Iowa in 2010, another supposed pivotal year for him. He could become the long man.

All I can do is be ready to pitch (and) see where the pieces fall, he said. A lot of things (can) change day-to-day in baseball, not to mention a month, a month-and-a-half. I feel great and just ready to go.

In one week, the Cubs will play their first exhibition game at HoHoKam Park and the rotation will start to spin. Forget the debate about who starts Opening Day Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are booked for April 1-3.

The real intrigue is who emerges as the fourth and fifth starters. They started throwing live batting practice for the first time on Sunday at Fitch Park, in the middle of a driving rainstorm. It felt as chilly as an early-season game at Wrigley Field.

Carlos Silva is already on record saying that he thinks he deserves one spot. Randy Wells has made 59 starts for the Cubs across the past two seasons. The organization has great faith in Andrew Cashner and his ability to develop into a front-line starter.

Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer have long resumes that detail more than 17 years of major-league service time combined. But they are working on minor-league deals.

James Russell and Casey Coleman are two pitchers drafted and developed by the organization. They, like Samardzija across the past three years, could be stuck between Chicago and Iowa, for reasons beyond their control.

Russell is being stretched out because the Cubs do not have any other left-handed options for the rotation. At 25, he wants to start, and says he has no worries about leaving the relief role he grew into last year. What if hes ready, but theres no room?

Youre not only talking about the ballclub, but his future, manager Mike Quade said. (Do) you scrap it? Its just an important decision, both for the organization and for the kids mindset. Russell will do whatever we ask. Thats just the way he is. And thats why you feel OK doing this.

Russell could still be in play for a bullpen spot.

I want to start in the big leagues, Russell said. I just figured that was my calling. But if they want to keep me in the bullpen, I have no problem with it. I will be the long man. Ill come out, eat innings up and do whatever. I want to be playing for the Cubs.

Coleman won Quades first game as a big-league manager and went 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight starts for the Cubs last season. The 23-year-old walked into the room more certain of himself, while trying not to make any waves.

Youre a lot more comfortable, but not to the point where youre trying to act like youre established, Coleman said. It does a lot for your confidence. But at the same time you still have to work hard and treat it like: Im going to keep my mouth shut and be here on time and thats it.

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

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”