Cubs

Cubs notes: Zambrano starts strong

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Cubs notes: Zambrano starts strong

Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011
Posted 7:10 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. This was quiet, boring, efficient exactly the way Carlos Zambrano wants it to be this year. Hes not here to talk about the past, or make predictions or call himself the ace.

Zambranos already been bumped from what would have been his seventh consecutive Opening Day start. Hes handled the news well so far, and got through the first Cactus League game by throwing two scoreless innings in a 15-7 loss to the Oakland As at HoHoKam Park.

It was good to see him attack that strike zone, first baseman Carlos Pena said. It looked like he had a lot of confidence going. You cant say too much about the first game of spring training, (but) its always nice to see good things happen.

Thats where the Cubs are at with Zambrano, cautiously optimistic that he can again be a front-line starter. He struck out the first two As swinging and faced the minimum six batters. He says the addition of Matt Garza hasnt changed the equation for him.

I have to go about my business, Zambrano said. I have to pitch my game and go out there every fifth day and compete, give the best that I have to win that game. . Hopefully we can all stay healthy and do some damage.

The Cubs havent always been certain that theyll get that from Zambrano. Theyll take any small step in the right direction.

It was fun to watch him, manager Mike Quade said. I dont know what his velocities were, but it looked like he was throwing the ball as well as Id seen, (which isnt surprising), because when hes got adrenaline going, look out.

Piniellas shadow

Before his first game as a major-league manager last August, Quade referenced John Wooden, and how the legendary UCLA basketball coach would always talk about the process. That player-development idea guided his 37-game audition, and ultimately won him the job. It will be the same in the Cactus League, where Lou Piniella would take losses harder than most.

I care a little bit, (but) Im more interested in performance and progress, Quade said. If we come out here and execute and play well and somebody beats us, (then) thats ok. But Lou didnt like to lose at anything and he was incredibly competitive. You pick up on that very quickly, as does the club.

The players have picked up a different vibe under Quade, who didnt attach much significance to managing his first spring-training game, or leading his own club against an As organization that once let him go. He concedes that he diverges from Piniella in style, but not substance.

Were running the same fundamentals, Quade said. There may be some really subtle differences, but if you look at the schedule every day, you see its pretty much the same. And then its just about how a veteran manager goes about his day, versus how a young guy who wants to be a veteran manager someday goes about his. Our personalities are different, but theres no question that our goals are the same.

Coming up

Monday vs. Milwaukee Brewers in Mesa: RHP Randy Wells vs. RHP Tim Dillard, 2:05 p.m., WGN-AM 720. Cubs pitchers Andrew Cashner, Kerry Wood and Sean Marshall are also scheduled to throw. Tuesday at San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale: RHP Ryan Dempster vs. TBA, 2:05 p.m., Cubs.com audio broadcast. Quade plans to play Tyler Colvin at first base this week, perhaps as early as Thursday.

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

Cubs feel Yu Darvish is 'on a mission' to return and provide boost in pennant race

Cubs feel Yu Darvish is 'on a mission' to return and provide boost in pennant race

Yu Darvish cursed and snapped his head in frustration.

He had just spiked a fastball in the dirt to Cubs backup catcher Victor Caratini as Tuesday morning's sim game was winding down.

A couple moments later, Darvish fluttered one of his patented eephus pitches way up and out to Caratini and again let an expletive slip out.

Darvish threw about 55 pitches in three "innings" worth of a simulated game (meaning he sat down and rested for a few moments in between each "inning") while facing Caratini and David Bote with a host of onlookers including a gaggle of Chicago media, Joe Maddon and his maroon Levi's and Van's kicks, Theo Epstein and a group of Cubs coaches.

"It was good," Epstein said minutes after Darvish wrapped it up. "He was competing well out there, spinning the ball really well. Maybe his best spin of the year. That was good to see.

"We'll see how he feels tomorrow, but seems like he's just about ready for the next step, which should be rehab games."

Nobody knows how many rehab outings Darvish may need at this point and there's still no timetable for when the Cubs will get him back in the rotation. 

Epstein acknowledged that at this point in the season — with less than seven weeks left until playoffs begin — the Cubs have just one shot to make this work with Darvish. Any setback now is essentially the dagger in any hopes of a comeback.

You can get giddy about the spin rate all you want, but the real telling sign to the Cubs was Darvish's attitude. Instead of worrying about his arm or any lingering pain out there, he was getting pissed at himself for missing spots as he started to tire in the sim game.

It was a sign to both Epstein and Maddon that Darvish is getting back in the right head space to return to a big-league field in the middle of a tight pennant race.

"I think he wants it," Epstein said. "The guys that are around him every day feel like he's really eager to get out there and compete. Even in the sim game today, when Vic had a good swing on the fastball, he came back on the next one a little bit harder and was mixing all his pitches.

"He's going about his business like someone who's on a mission to come back and help this team."

Maddon concurred.

"Totally engaged, looked really good, was not holding back," the Cubs skipper said. "...We were all very impressed."

All that being said, the Cubs still aren't in a place where they feel confident enough to just plug Darvish back into the rotation for the final few weeks of September and into October (assuming they make it there). 

Darvish has said himself he feels like he turned a corner a couple weeks ago and is back in a good place physically.

Still, his journey back has already experienced several hiccups and there's no telling everything will be perfect from here.

At the end of the day, Maddon and his staff have no choice but to try to win ballgames with the guys who are on their active roster and can't worry about what "might be" with Darvish, Kris Bryant, Brandon Morrow or even Drew Smyly.

Of course, getting those guys back healthy would be a heck of a boon to this Cubs team, but it's not something they can count on.

"I don't think you ever get to that point," Epstein said. "... Anytime a player's injured, there's a certain probability that he returns and on a certain timetable and there's a spectrum of outcomes when he comes back. From being significantly better than he was before he went down to performing the same to not being effective.

"None of us can predict exactly what the outcome is gonna be, so you have to be prepared for all the possible outcomes. You never want the performance of any one player to be the linchpin of the success of the club. Because if you are, you're being irresponsible and setting yourself up to fail.

"At the same time, you're never gonna be as good as you might be if one of your most talented players returns and returns in really good form. We're hopeful and we're trying to do everything we can to put him in a position to succeed and right now, there've been a lot of good signs, which is certainly better than where we were six weeks ago."

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

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USA TODAY

Brewers' faltering bullpen not doing them favors in NL Central race

At a time when the Cubs are missing their closer and continuing to hold their lead on the division anyway, the Brewers are in a very different place. 

Coming in to a short but weighty series at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee has dropped two games via bullpen meltdown in their last four. Corey Knebel, who saved 39 games for the Brewers in 2017 with a 1.93 ERA, has seen much more limited time in the closer's role this year. But getting him right will probably make the difference for Milwaukee down the stretch.

"It’s important that we get him going," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters before Tuesday's game. "Getting Corey on track is probably the bigger equation in this that kind of normalizes the bullpen."

Last Thursday, Knebel loaded the bases in the 9th when Milwaukee was leading, 4-2, and eventually left for Joakim Soria after allowing a run on a single. This set the stage for Hunter Renfroe's grand slam that cost the Brewers the game. In his next appearance, Knebel pitched in the 5th inning against the Braves and gave up a run in Milwaukee's eventual 8-7 loss.

Without a reliable Knebel, the Brewers have had to play mix and match with their bullpen, a recipe that doesn't usually work. It's been successful so far for the Cubs in the absence of Morrow, but that hasn't been the case for Milwaukee lately. 

The Brewers acquired Joakim Soria from the White Sox on July 26 in hopes of shoring up their bullpen, but after giving up the grand slam to Renfroe last week, Soria hit the DL with a right quadriceps strain. Counsell said that it isn't likely for Soria to return very soon, however.

"We’re not going to be at 10 days, I’ll tell you that," Counsell said, adding that Soria is still only doing stationary bike work at this point.

But help might be on the way. Taylor Williams, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list on August 3, is eligible to return. For now, the Brewers opted to keep outfielder Keon Broxton on the roster, but Williams could prove to be a boon for the Milwaukee reliever corps. Before being shelved, he was averaging more than a strikeout per inning. 

Otherwise, the Brewers have Matt Albers rehabbing in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they plan to let him appear in at least a couple games before activating him.

Milwaukee has a chance to cut the division lead to a single game these next two days, but without a reliable bullpen, that could prove especially difficult.