Follow the game plan: Villanueva steps up in Cubs rotation

Follow the game plan: Villanueva steps up in Cubs rotation

April 18, 2013, 3:30 pm
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Carlos Villanueva simply views himself as an employee. He thinks he should be good for 200 innings and stay in the rotation from April through September. But he also knows those decisions are up to the bosses.

After seven years as a swingman with the Milwaukee Brewers and Toronto Blue Jays, Villanueva has learned it’s pointless to complain to the media or make waves in the clubhouse.

The Cubs gave Villanueva a two-year, $10 million contract because of his versatility and ability to pitch to game plans designed by a coaching staff filled with film rats and number crunchers.

If injuries hadn’t hit the rotation in spring training, Villanueva might have been killing time in the bullpen, and who knows where the Cubs (5-9) would be right now. Instead, he has emerged as a bright spot through these wet, dreary April days at Wrigley Field.

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Villanueva shut down the Texas Rangers as Thursday’s 6-2 win followed the ideal blueprint the Cubs created this winter.

The Cubs got seven strong innings from Villanueva (1-0, 1.29 ERA) before James Russell and Carlos Marmol closed it out, part of manager Dale Sveum’s new mix-and-match endgame strategy. They also generated power from the middle of their order, with Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano hitting back-to-back homers in the third inning.

Rizzo’s two-run shot traveled an estimated 475 feet and slammed against the back of the right-center field bleachers, the longest home run in the majors this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Soriano’s first homer this season ricocheted out of the mostly empty left-field bleachers and back onto the field.

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“It’s just how you draw it up,” Villanueva said.

Except for the part about squeezing a game in on a day where Gov. Pat Quinn declared a state of emergency and the Chicago area dealt with massive flooding. With stretches of highways shut down, there was no way an announced crowd of 26,083 actually showed up at the ballpark. But they somehow found a window outside the heavy winds and rains.

“It was ugly,” Villanueva said. “I tried to stay with my guard up just in case. You never want to drop your guard and then all of a sudden have to go: ‘Hey, in 20 minutes the game’s starting’ and I’m sitting in my locker not thinking about the game.

“I kept hearing it’s going to come at 1:35, it’s going to come in the fourth (inning), it’s going to come in the fifth. I just said: ‘You know what, just don’t tell me.’”

[WATCH -- Villanueva: It turned out to be a good day for a game]

Clearly, Villanueva is adaptable. He has now made three quality starts, putting up 15 strikeouts against only four walks through 21 innings. That’s exactly what the Cubs needed before beginning a road trip through Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Miami.

The Cubs have a strong belief in their scouting system, their ability to pick up tendencies and exploit weaknesses. Ignoring that might be the fastest way to get into Sveum’s doghouse. Embracing it last season took Paul Maholm’s career to another level.  

“I don’t throw 98 mph,” Villanueva said. “I have to have an advantage somehow. (But) I can throw four pitches for strikes. And I can make those four pitches look like eight pitches because I can vary speeds. Most of my countrymen from the Dominican are blessed with a power arm. I’m not, so I got to find a way to get it done.

“We have the resources (here). I spend hours in that video room just trying to get an advantage. (But) it doesn’t really matter what you write down if you don’t execute. That’s been the difference for me.”

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