Villanueva, Cubs not hanging heads after 'strange' start to 2014

Villanueva, Cubs not hanging heads after 'strange' start to 2014
April 20, 2014, 6:15 pm
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Tony Andracki

This isn't how the Cubs wanted to start the 2014 season.

Through Sunday's 8-2 loss at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field, the Cubs were tied with the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks for the fewest wins in the majors (5) and held a -18 run differential in the first 17 games.

Carlos Villanueva, who excelled in a swingman role last year, struggled for his second straight start, allowing five runs on nine hits in 4.2 innings to fall to 1-4 on the year. His ERA currently sits at 10.93 and despite walking just one batter so far, Villanueva has allowed 29 hits in 14 innings.

"It's been strange going so far. For me, and the team," he said after Sunday's loss. "But it's April 20, too. It does us no good hanging our heads or being negative. The numbers are there and the standings are there, but it's April 20.

"We've played [17 games] of 162. We gotta work on some things and come out and put a good stretch in and that's about it. You can't really think too much about it. The more you think about it, the more adjustments you make when you don't really have to.

"We're going through a rough patch; just have to keep working. The guys know what they can do. I know what I can do. As long as I feel good and healthy, I'll find a way to help."

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Manager Rick Renteria said the rest of the team feels the same way. Facing an 8-0 deficit, the Cubs rallied to score a pair of runs in the seventh inning and put two guys in scoring position in the ninth. They reached base 18 times on 11 hits, six walks and a hit by pitch.

"As lopsided as that score might have been ... it wasn't like they quit," Renteria said. "I thought we played a game that was getting away from us, but we just kept playing. We never stopped doing our work, trying to put ourselves in a postion to come back.

"We kept pushing. We don't want anybody to be comfortable in the end. We're pushing everybody to be able to have to do whatever they have to to close it out against us, because we're not quitting."

Until prospects like Javier Baez - who went 0-for-4 and struck out three times Sunday in his return from the disabled list in Triple-A Iowa - are ready for Wrigley Field, the Cubs don't have much in the way of reinforcements.

One guy that can help - Jake Arrieta - could rejoin the team later this week. Arrieta, projected to be a part of the Opening Day rotation, has been sidelined since early spring with a shoulder issue. He is making a rehab start Monday with Advanced Class-A Daytona and could be ready to come off the DL after that.

Arrieta has already made three rehab starts with Double-A Tennesee, tossing 12.1 innings and looking sharp. He said the plan is to dial it up an extra notch Monday and hopefully approach 100 pitches.

"I need to kind of fine-tune and refine some things and then hopefully that will be the last stop," Arrieta said. "I'm just one step away from being really locked in and it feels good."

He said his velocity has been in the low-to-mid-90s, but still has some more left in the tank.

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The 28-year-old righty pitched well in nine starts for the Cubs at the end of last season, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

Renteria wasn't ready to just hand Arrieta a rotation spot after Sunday's game, even with Villanueva's early-season struggles. But he didn't rule it out, either.

"We'll deal with it once we actually cross that bridge," Renteria said. "We'll make our adjustments accordingly."

Villanueva knows his role. He made 15 starts for the team last year, but mostly pitched out of the bullpen, appearing in 32 games as a reliever. If Arrieta is, indeed, ready to return soon, Villanueva understands he will likely be ticketed to the bullpen.

"When [Arrieta] comes in, I'm sure he'll help," Villanueva said. "We all know what the plan is. It's no major secret. If I have to go down to the bullpen, I'll keep working my butt off and try to help out there ... I'm sure [Arrieta] will make us a better team."

At 5-12, the Cubs will take all the help they can get.