Cubs notes: Samardzija turns a corner with Opening Day approaching

Cubs notes: Samardzija turns a corner with Opening Day approaching
March 11, 2013, 6:30 pm
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Three weeks before he takes the mound on Opening Day in Pittsburgh, Jeff Samardzija moved closer to being ready for the Cubs' first game that counts.

While Samardzija's line -- 4 2/3 innings, 4 earned runs, 4 hits, 2 walks and 2 home runs allowed -- wasn't what he'll look for in 21 days, he was nevertheless encouraged by how he felt after ramping up the intensity for the first time this spring.

"I really thought today was a big turn for me, just how I felt, my pitch execution -- if I missed, I didn't miss by much," Samardzija said. "The adjustments I need to make are pretty simple, I feel like."

[WATCH: Samardzija feels great after start]

Samardzija hit about a 400-foot home run in the fifth inning off Arizona's Eury De La Rosa, driving the left-hander's offering just to the left of the batter's eye at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

"Close your eyes and you run into some things some times," Samardzija grinned.

With three or four starts left until Opening Day, Samardzija will pitch more in "game mode," as manager Dale Sveum put it, for the next few outings. Whereas last spring Samardzija was fighting for a spot in the Cubs' rotation, the last few weeks have been about preparing for his first Opening Day start.

"It just means all the hard work's paying off in everything you want to do, and it says a lot about what your team thinks of you and what your coaches think of you," Samardzija said of earning the Opening Day nod. "You don't want to disrespect it, you want to go out and do your work and really make them feel like they made the right decision."

[Related: Cubs: Jackson's turnaround began on the South Side]

Cubs cut six from major league camp

The Cubs reduced the size of their spring roster from 59 to 53 Monday, sending six players to minor league camp.

Infielder Logan Watkins, the organization's minor league position player of the year in 2012, was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, along with pitchers Alberto Cabrera, Trey McNutt and Brooks Raley. The Cubs' 2012 minor league pitcher of the year, Nick Struck, was assigned to minor league camp after joining major league camp as a non-roster invitee.

Right-hander Rob Whitenack, making his first appearance in big-league camp, was optioned to Double-A Tennessee.

Manager Dale Sveum said over the weekend he expects to send more young players -- including shortstop Javier Baez and outfielder Jorge Soler -- to minor league camp as this week wears on. After the team's trip to Las Vegas this weekend, Sveum said he'll start getting his major leaguers more regular and longer work.

Stewart makes progress, could play Thursday

Third baseman Ian Stewart ran the bases Monday and experienced no setbacks, and Sveum said he's on track to play as early as Thursday. Yesterday, Stewart still was still experiencing some stiffness in his leg after running, and it was thought he may not make his Cactus League debut until the weekend.

On Sunday, Stewart said he feels the Cubs' third base job is his so long as he's healthy. Sveum tempered that a bit Monday, as Stewart's "cram session" is nearing its beginning.

"He came in knowing that it was a job that he was going to have to just play well and produce and we'll be where we're at," Sveum said. "But it's still 16, 17 possible games left starting Thursday. You're looking at hopefully cram 30 at-bats into that and some minor league at-bats too, go down and hit leadoff, get 8 at-bats, 7 at-bats in a day. There's plenty of time to evaluate it."

As for what Sveum wants to see out of Stewart, the manager grinned: "Production."

"Hitting the ball hard, the numbers aren't going to dictate anything," he elaborated. "It's about having good at-bats."

Castro to start Wednesday, Garza throws

Starlin Castro's first Cactus League game since late February will come Wednesday, when the shortstop will start for the Cubs. Brent Lillibridge, who's been out with a groin issue, will sub in for Castro during Wednesday's game. Sveum said the plan is to get both players four or five innings of work and two at-bats apiece.

Matt Garza threw 25 times from 40 feet -- nothing strenuous -- and will do so again Wednesday. If everything checks out, the Cubs will hash out a plan for Garza's return.

In the field

The Cubs topped Arizona 7-5, collecting double-digit hits for the second consecutive game. Samardzija and Welington Castillo homered, while Darwin Barney drove in a two with a seventh-inning double. Barney also made a pair of excellent defensive plays at second base, serving as a reminder as to why he won the Gold Glove at that position in 2012.

Jorge Soler went 1-3 with an RBI and two strikeouts while Javier Baez was 0-4 with a strikeout.