Series preview: Cubs at Rockies

Series preview: Cubs at Rockies

Friday, April 15, 2011Posted: 2 PM

Cubs (6-6) at Rockies (10-2)

Series schedule

Friday, 7:40 p.m. on WCIU
Saturday, 7:10 p.m. on WGN
Sunday, 2:10 p.m. on WGN
Starting pitchers

Friday: Matt Garza (0-1, 5.68) vs. Jhoulys Chacin (2-0, 2.77)
Saturday: Casey Coleman (0-0, 7.20) vs. Jason Hammel (1-0, 4.91)
Sunday: Ryan Dempster (1-2, 6.30) vs. TBA

Previous games

The Cubs took two of three against Houston this week, capped by Wednesday's 9-5 victory in which Alfonso Soriano hit a three-run homer and Starlin Castro and Aramis Ramirez finished with three hits apiece.

The Rockies swept the Mets in a four-game series, including a double-header sweep on Thursday. Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki went 10-for-16 with eight RBIs in the series, homering in each of the four games.

Head-to-head

The Cubs went 2-3 against the Rockies last season, suffering a three-game sweep at Coors Field that included a 17-2 pounding in the series opener.

Who's hot?
Castro went 8-for-15 with four runs scored against the Astros. Darwin Barney has multi-hit efforts in three of his last four games. Lefty reliever Sean Marshall already has five holds on the young season.

Storylines
Can Garza, who has allowed 20 hits in 12 23 innings this season, get his act together? Marlon Byrd is just a .219 career hitter against Colorado, with one home run in 73 career at-bats. On the other hand, Soriano is a career .359 hitter at Coors Field.

Sound off
How concerned are you about the Cubs' starting pitchers, given that their ERA is 5.80 ERA two weeks into the season?

Brewers jump on John Lackey early as Cubs fall in Milwaukee

Brewers jump on John Lackey early as Cubs fall in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans took over Miller Park again on Saturday night, booing Ryan Braun when he stepped into the batter’s box, wearing Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant and Darwin Barney jerseys and chanting “Let’s go, Cubbies!” over and over again.

Big Boy Game? Eh, not so much for John Lackey, the two-time World Series champion the Cubs imported to anchor their playoff rotation and give the clubhouse some much-needed edge. Not when it’s late July and the Milwaukee Brewers are near the ground floor of a full-scale rebuild.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

But the Brewers haven’t sold off All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy yet, the rush from Dexter Fowler’s return to the top of the lineup wore off and Lackey made enough mistakes during a 6-1 loss in front of another sellout crowd (44,643) this weekend.

Lucroy hammered Lackey’s 93-mph fastball off a second-deck advertisement in left-center field for a two-out, two-run homer in the first inning. Kirk Nieuwenhuis homered leading off the fourth inning and the Cubs didn’t put any real pressure on the Brewers, even with Lackey’s first quality start since June 30.

[RELATED: Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?]  

Cubs fans started heading toward the exits in the eighth inning after Mike Montgomery – the high-upside lefty Theo Epstein’s front office acquired in advance of the Aug. 1 trade deadline – gave up a three-run homer to Nieuwenhuis that made it a 6-1 beat-the-traffic game.

The Cubs will try to win their third consecutive series coming out of the All-Star break on Sunday afternoon, when Jon Lester (10-4, 2.89 ERA) will start opposite Junior Guerra (6-2, 3.06 ERA).

Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?

Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?

MILWAUKEE – It takes some imagination to picture the Cubs surviving three playoff rounds and winning a World Series Game 7 with this bullpen.  

Starting pitcher Jason Hammel looks at rookie right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. and says: “He’s definitely not afraid. He weighs probably 140 pounds and he can attack a ton worth of weight.”

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein trades for lefty Mike Montgomery and looks back on how Andrew Miller reinvented himself with the Boston Red Sox, transforming into an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees.  

Now the Cubs are banking on a 41-year-old dude who hasn’t pitched in The Show in almost 16 months, trying to make a comeback from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow.  

The Cubs will activate Joe Nathan off the 60-day disabled list before Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, adding a six-time All-Star closer who ranks eighth all-time with 377 career saves.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

“I do like the names,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Is it enough? I think it is. But you have to consider that with both Edwards and Joe, you would not really push, push, push, either. 

“So you talk about consecutive appearances – or three-out-of-fours – that would be kind of tough to do with these guys. There are different little caveats attached that I have to be careful with (and) not push them too hard.  

“I don’t know if there is enough yet – just based on the ability to use guys based on where they’re coming from physically.”

Epstein made it clear that the Cubs didn’t cut themselves off from bigger deals leading up to the Aug. 1 deadline by packaging two lower-profile minor-league prospects (first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn) in the Montgomery deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Epstein has also pointed out that the Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year while rebuilding their bullpen on the fly, relying on guys like Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill (who’s rehabbing a knee injury at Triple-A Iowa).

And that you don’t really need an eight-man bullpen for October, because Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester should be pitching deep into games, leaving the high-leverage situations for Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and whoever else emerges across the next two-plus months.

[RELATED: The next Andrew Miller? Mike Montgomery wants to show what he can do for Cubs bullpen]

Maddon sees the potential for Edwards – who has a 1.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts against four walks through 14 innings – to grow into an even bigger role out of the bullpen. Maybe the Cubs find another grab-bag surprise or two (Brian Matusz, Jack Leathersich) from a minor-league system that lacks premium pitching talent.

“You just don’t know,” Maddon said. “It looks good on paper, but you got to get them out there and play it. From my perspective, for them to be good, I think you can’t push their button too often. You got to hold back.”

Whether or not the Cubs have the trade chips and the appetite to deal with the Yankees or trade for another high-octane reliever, they need to find out what they have in Nathan, who made 11 appearances combined with Iowa and Double-A Tennessee. 

“It sounds like he’s ready to rock and roll,” Maddon said. “We have to see what he looks like, first of all. You hear different things. But I would bet that whatever he’s been throwing, it’s going to be even a little bit more once he gets here with the adrenaline pumping back in the big leagues.”
 

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

Game changer: Dexter Fowler’s return fuels Cubs in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans, Dexter Fowler feels your pain: “It sucks being on the couch and watching your team struggle.”

It only took five pitches on Friday night at Miller Park before Fowler answered the questions about how much this lineup missed his presence and how long it would take him to get back into a rhythm.

“You go, we go” is what manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler, and a sellout crowd of 42,243 roared when the All-Star leadoff guy hammered a 94-mph Jimmy Nelson fastball off the black batter’s eye in center field, setting the first-inning tone in a 5-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I was just happy to be back around the boys,” Fowler said after going 3-for-4 with a walk, three RBI and two runs scored in his return. “It’s like being back home.”

Fowler’s strained right hamstring alone doesn’t begin to explain all this, because he had been hitting .207 in June, the rotation cooled off, the bullpen became unreliable and a 24-games-in-24-days stretch wore this team out before the All-Star break. But the Cubs were 27 games over .500 and had a 12.5-game lead in the division on June 19, the night Fowler went on the disabled list with what sounded like a minor injury.

If panic didn’t completely set in around a first-place team, underlying issues kept bubbling to the surface, the Cubs losing 15 of their last 21 games before that summer vacation.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

But the second-half Cubs (58-37) now look energized, beating the American League’s best first-half team (Texas Rangers) and the defending National League champs (New York Mets) at Wrigley Field before rolling up Interstate 94 for a virtual home game.

Now here comes Fowler, who jumpstarted the offense again with the bases loaded in the second inning, lining a two-run double down the left-field line and saying postgame that he felt no lingering issues with the hamstring.

“He’s an asset at the top of the lineup,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Tough at-bat. And he can get you. It was nice to see him run around out there again.”

Yes, Hammel (9-5, 3.35 ERA) ate a handful of potato chips to help prevent cramping in the 86-degree heat, lasting five innings before five relievers combined to hold the Brewers (40-54) scoreless the rest of the night. For all the buzz about Theo Epstein’s front office upgrading the bullpen by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Maddon may already have a shiny new toy in Carl Edwards Jr.

The skinny right-hander entered the game in the sixth inning, with a runner on second, and cut through the heart of Milwaukee’s order, forcing Ryan Braun to ground out and striking out Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter on six pitches combined.    

Just like that, the Cubs are getting answers from within, after all the outside noise screamed: Do something! The fans chanted “Let’s go, Cubbies!” before closer Hector Rondon got the final out and his 17th save. This is again looking like the team Fowler envisioned when he turned down the Baltimore Orioles for a one-year, $13 million guarantee, shocking the industry by showing up in Arizona in late February.     

“It’s really apparent how important he is to us,” Maddon said. “It just looked right.”