Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

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Time running out in Cubs rotation battle

Saturday, March 12, 2011Posted: 4:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Randy Wells didnt need a media-training seminar to know this: Pitch well and all the critics will back off. Everyone will start writing nice things about you again.

No one expected Wells to win 12 games as a rookie in 2009. Everyone had an opinion on what went wrong last year, when he lost 14 games, a number that overshadowed his 32 starts and 194.1 innings.

At 28, Wells has a perspective and a sense of humor about the way it works. On Thursday morning, he sat through a session on dealing with reporters and social media run by a Major League Baseball representative. He then went out and limited the Indians to one hit in four scoreless innings.

Afterward, Wells was asked if he had the inside track to a spot in the rotation, which is what the image-makers call a vulnerable question. He smiled and went into full-clich mode.

Its all up to Q, Wells said. Im just one man.

Manager Mike Quade isnt prepared to publicly announce his fourth and fifth starters just yet. But its hard to ignore what Wells has done, stringing together nine scoreless innings through his first three games.

Just keep it rolling, Quade said.
Decision time
At a certain point, every day seems exactly the same in spring training. You lose sight of how quickly time is slipping away. There is the illusion that Opening Day is still almost three weeks away.

But decision time is fast approaching, which is what makes every inning so critical for Carlos Silva.

Another wave of cuts is expected around St. Patricks Day. For the group of pitchers trying to make the rotation, there might only be one or two more chances to make an impression and thats if front-office opinions havent already hardened.

By now its clear that the Cubs are not backing off at all from the Andrew Cashner experiment. Any doubts they may have had about moving the 24-year-old into the rotation were gone once they signed Kerry Wood and imported Matt Garza.

This isnt robbing the bullpen, because Wood will be the right-handed power arm in front of closer Carlos Marmol. And Cashner wont have to immediately be a frontline starter though the organization thinks thats what he can eventually become because Garza is there to take away some pressure.

Cashner remembers sitting on his parents couch back home in Texas and watching Wood hit a homer in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. He looks up to Wood and Ryan Dempster, two pitchers who have made 30-plus starts and saved 30-plus games in a season. They are always willing to help.

There may not be a more ideal time than now to fully commit to Cashner as a starter.

Hes got a lot of different folks around him that have (been successful), Quade said. He can really draw from (them) and he does listen (well). I get the biggest kick out of Cash, because he is a country guy, but he pays attention and sees stuff.

This is a really good environment for him to attempt to make this transition and for him to be able to attack it the best he can. I think these guys would be the first to tell him groundball to short on one pitch beats the heck out of a six-pitch or seven-pitch strikeout.

Image makeover

Cashner has improved steadily each outing and the Cubs feel his changeup is close to becoming a real weapon. He can throw the ball close to 100 mph, but hes really learning how to pitch, set up hitters and hold runners on at first base.

Eventually, Cashner will reach the crossroads where people stop looking at his potential and start focusing on what he isnt doing yet. In a down year, Wells went from being the converted catcher, the 38th-round pick, the feel-good story, to a disappointment.

Wells can be funny my britches fit just fine and brutally honest. He seems to have learned from the experience, and by watching his 2010 starts.

A lot of it is just staying calm and not panicking when you get a guy in scoring position (or) walk the leadoff guy, Wells said. (Its) trying to keep your wits about you. (If) a guy gets a hit and scores a run, its not the end of the world.

When things got bad, I tried to force things instead of now just taking a deep breath, relaxing, evaluating the situation and making a good pitch.

Its not as easy as flipping a switch, but Wells and Cashner have shown enough growth that it wouldnt be surprising to see them starting April 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field.

(Sometimes) you almost pitch like you dont want to go down rather than stay, Wells said. (When) you pitch aggressive, (like) this is your job and this is your livelihood and nobodys going to take it from you rather than pitching to not get sent down (that mentality makes people successful.)"

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

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

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Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”