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Nick Cafardo | Baseball notes

Cubs are past all the talk

Piniella has team focused on present

LOU PINIELLA Talented roster LOU PINIELLA Talented roster
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

If the Chicago Cubs win it all, maybe the world would be turned upside down. Maybe the charm would be lost; the lovable team from the North Side would have its first championship in the last 100 years.

Of course, that was a popular sentiment expressed about the Red Sox and their 86-year curse, but after their Series triumph in 2004, it got even wilder and more intense in Red Sox Nation.

The last Cubs manager to win a World Series was Frank Chance, who delivered back-to-back titles in 1907 and '08.

"We're going to have to answer that," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the 100-year question. "But I told these guys, 'Let's let this team stand on its own merits this year. Don't put any added pressure on yourself. Don't burden yourself with what's happened here in the past.' We've got a decent ball club, we really do. We have to stay healthy because we're a little thin. It's a team very capable of repeating, winning the division, and going on to the postseason."

As much as Red Sox players were sick of hearing about 86 years, they seemed to use it as motivation to win in '04. Piniella's not buying into that factor.

"You'd have to ask the players that," he said. "It doesn't motivate me any. We're going to do the best we can. We'd love to win, obviously, but so would a lot of other teams."

Young Rich Hill from Milton has been too busy trying to solve his delivery to think about the drought. All he heard growing up was how the Red Sox could never win. As fate would have it, the former Michigan Wolverine joined the Cubs and has had to hear all about the "The Curse of the Billy Goat."

"We heard about 99 years last year and we're going to hear about 100 years this year," Hill said. "Maybe we can just stop it right now. I think that's everyone's goal - to win a championship."

The Cubs have a chance. They won 85 games a year ago and went on a late-season run to take the National League Central over Milwaukee. They were beaten in the first round of the playoffs by Arizona. Piniella has been buoyed by a rejuvenated Kerry Wood, who will be the closer, a pretty good starting rotation led by Carlos Zambrano, and a lineup with thump - Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome.

"Every team has concerns, and we have ours," said Piniella. Wood (12 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings with no walks in spring training) holding up for an entire season would have to be concern No. 1.

"Whoever emerged as the closer, I would have been real pleased with, and I thought all three would do a really nice job," Piniella said. "We decided on Kerry Wood. He's thrown the ball exceedingly well all spring. He's got experience, and he's earned it."

Piniella reasons that with Bobby Howry and Carlos Marmol, he won't have to overload Wood.

The Cubs would still love to get their hands on Coco Crisp, but for now, youngster Felix Pie is their man in center. Sox assistant to the general manager Allard Baird spent a lot of time in Arizona last week scouting the Cubs, among others. While the long-proposed Brian Roberts deal now appears on hold, it could be revived if the Orioles fall so far out of contention that it makes no financial sense to keep him.

The Cubs will have some extra starters with Jason Marquis landing the fifth job and Jon Lieber, ironically the Cubs' last 20-game winner (20-6 in 2001), starting the season in the bullpen.

"We're glad to have him," said Piniella of Lieber, figuring he'll need more than five starters. "He can get loose in a hurry and give us innings out of the pen. He took it like a real pro. I spoke to him, and I think he's genuinely thrilled he's back here."

The Cubs added a good player in left fielder Reed Johnson, surprisingly released by Toronto. He'll likely make it tough for former Red Sox farmhand Matt Murton (a career .296 hitter) to make the team.

Piniella is going to be restless with his lineup. He's taking Soriano out of the leadoff spot, which makes sense considering his .337 on-base percentage. He'll experiment with alternatives. Ryan Theriot will start there and Fukudome could hit leadoff against lefthanders.

Piniella doesn't have it all figured out, but he knows he carries no burden of 100 years on his shoulders.

"This is my second year," said Piniella. "I don't know why they didn't win the previous 98."

Passing thoughts from Bard

A few questions for Padres catcher Josh Bard, who committed 10 passed balls in seven games while catching Tim Wakefield in 2006:

Ever think about the Boston experience?

JB: "Yeah, I think about it a lot. I've said from the get-go, that Theo [Epstein] and Tito [Francona] were ultraprofessional to me. The fans were great. I was out there to do a job and that was to catch a knuckleball, and I didn't do it. Ultimately, I'm grateful for the opportunity to come over here. I still have friends over there and wish those guys well."

What makes you think of Boston?

JB: "I go out every day and play catch with the knuckleball mitt just to remind myself that it can get a lot worse. It's just a little reminder that sometimes there are some blessings and some hard times. I can't say enough about Wake and his professionalism, the way that he handled it. He and [Jason] Varitek are about as good a teammates as I've ever had. I'll always look fondly on those guys and wish them well."

Do you think the Red Sox regret their decision to trade you?

JB: "Well, like I said, I was called in there to catch the knuckleball. I wasn't called in to take Tek's job. I have so much respect for the things Tek does. He's more than advertised. He's as good as they come."

What did you learn from Varitek?

JB: "We both take great pride in calling games. I learned a lot from him in how to approach a pitching staff. I was saying to guys the other day that I watched the World Series and I don't think he could have called a better series than he did. I'm not taking anything away from [Josh] Beckett and the pitchers, but Jason had an idea of what he needed to do. He literally disarmed a Colorado team that was one of the hottest teams in the last 50 years."

Have you caught a knuckleball since?

JB: "No, no. My buddies might throw them at me every now and then just as a joke and I don't even catch them. I let them go by. I'm all through with that."

Like no other, baseball is a numbers game

Hot off the Stats Inc. presses:
  • The leader in one-run saves in 2007 was Jose Valverde, who converted 19 of 25 such opportunities for the Diamondbacks. Next were Francisco Cordero with 18 for Milwaukee, and Detroit's Todd Jones with 16. The only closer with more than three one-run save chances to convert every one was Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, who was 15 for 15.

  • Rookies Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were key postseason contributors for the Red Sox in 2007. Pedroia scored 12 runs in 14 playoff games to tie Derek Jeter (1996 Yankees) for the most runs by a rookie in a postseason, and his six postseason doubles were the most ever by a first-year player. Ellsbury, who batted .360 and scored eight runs in 11 postseason games, stroked four doubles. Among rookies, only Pedroia, Chipper Jones (five doubles for the 1995 Braves), and Trot Nixon (five doubles for the 1999 Red Sox) have recorded more postseason two-baggers as a rookie than Ellsbury.

  • Brian Roberts of the Orioles led the majors with 19 steals of third base last season, and was caught only once. He was 12 for 12 swiping third in 2006, giving him 31 such steals over the last two seasons. His two-year total is the major league high, and his 96.9 percent success rate (31 for 32) ranks first among all players with at least 15 steals of third over the last two years.

  • Scoring early was huge for three 2007 division winners. The Red Sox, Angels, and Cubs each scored 41 more runs than they allowed in the first inning to lead all teams in first-inning run differential. The Cardinals and Rangers tied for last in the majors with a minus-46 first-inning differential.

  • Soft-throwing Paul Byrd doesn't overwhelm hitters, but the Indians righthander got ahead of hitters en route to 15 victories in 2007. The veteran led the majors by throwing 69.5 percent of his first pitches for strikes. Following Byrd were San Diego's Greg Maddux (68.1 percent), Roy Oswalt of the Astros (66.9), and Cincinnati's Aaron Harang (65.7).

  • The active players with the most four-hit games: Ivan Rodriguez 37, Alex Rodriguez 35, Ichiro Suzuki 34, Todd Helton 33, and Johnny Damon 30.

    Etc.

    Touching the bases
    Apropos of nothing: 1. Erik Bedard needs a personality transplant; 2. Shocking news: Byung-Hyun Kim was released by the Pirates; 3. The team that could really use Barry Bonds? The Giants; 4. Greg Maddux and Tim Wakefield have to be the career leaders in crossword puzzles solved; 5. Boy, is Barry Zito disappointing.

    Looking ahead
    Postseason award predictions: AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez; NL MVP: David Wright; AL Cy Young: Roy Halladay; NL Cy Young: Jake Peavy; AL Rookie of the Year: Jacoby Ellsbury; NL Rookie of the Year: Kosuke Fukudome; AL Manager of the Year: Jim Leyland; NL Manager of the Year: Joe Torre.

  • The bad and the good
    The Mariners were concerned about 23-year-old Brandon Morrow's poor spring training and accompanying shoulder ailment. Said one senior Mariners official: "He's a young kid who needs to go down and work on it. He's going to be a good pitcher, but why rush it when you don't have to?" Seattle will likely use Mark Lowe to set up J.J. Putz, and wait for Morrow, who has the potential to be pretty special in that role. Lowe has been throwing 95-96 miles per hour, showing signs of regaining his arm strength after spending the last 18 months coming back from elbow issues . . . Seattle manager John McLaren believes his team has the confidence and ability to be a champion. "From Day 1, I loved the energy the staff and players brought to the practice field every day," he said. "We believe we can be winners. We have a good team here. There are a couple of offensive concerns that we have to get straightened out." Such as whether Richie Sexson's big-time power will overshadow his underwhelming average.

    Chasing some runs
    The Padres know they don't have anything close to a potent lineup (it was fun watching Peavy go yard against Texas righthander Vicente Padilla Wednesday), so, according to Tony Clark, "We've got to come up with timely hitting. That's the key to any offense. If you don't produce when it counts and you can't score runs, that's a problem. I think this team has the potential to hit in the clutch." The potential lack of runs was one reason some scratched their heads when general manager Kevin Towers sent Chase Headley back to the minors. Headley hit four homers this spring, but Towers wants him to continue his conversion from third base to the outfield in Triple A.

    Major disappointment
    Tampa Bay players were miffed when third baseman Evan Longoria was sent to Triple A. While Rays management said it had nothing to do with saving arbitration time, they will certainly be accused of that. Said one AL scout: "He's one of the most fluid, natural-looking ballplayers I've seen in 20 years. I have no idea what their concern is with letting him start at the major league level, but it's just hard to justify based on what you see day in and day out with this kid."

    Out of his control
    The Tigers' Dontrelle Willis walked 14 over 11 2/3 innings in spring training. Jason Varitek recalled catching him in the World Baseball Classic and said, "I would think he eventually finds his rhythm and control as time goes on. His delivery has so many movements to it, I'm sure it takes time to get it all together. But he's had great success in the league and I'm sure he'll find it."

    Not a good sign
    Mark Hendrickson will be the Marlins' Opening Day starter, a sign of how bad this team could be. Hendrickson is probably the worst Opening Day starter the Marlins have ever had. The rest: Charlie Hough (1993-94), John Burkett (1995), Kevin Brown (1996-97), Livan Hernandez (1998), Alex Fernandez (1999-2000), Ryan Dempster (2001-02), Josh Beckett (2003-05), and Willis (2006-07).

    Stretching limits of credibility
    One high-ranking baseball official said this about Jose Canseco's new book, "Vindicated": "It's a little suspicious when he comes out and makes allegations against Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez and waits for a second book to do so. These are big names. If he had this stuff, wouldn't he just have named them in the first book? The A-Rod stuff is circumstantial. The Ordonez stuff has more meat to it, about injecting him in 2001. But after it came out Jose might have been shaking Magglio down for money, how can you believe it?"

    Extra bases
    The sentiment in San Francisco is the season will likely be a disaster, so why not go with younger players? That bodes well for Fred Lewis, who will likely start in left field over Dave Roberts, who is nursing sore knees, on Opening Day. Lewis has shown he can be an exciting but undisciplined player. He hit one of the longest home runs in spring training, and had four triples, two doubles, and 12 RBIs . . . This smacks of Major League Baseball strong-arming an American institution - the Cape Cod League - where several hundred of the biggest names in the big leagues played in their youth. Jay Higgins of dugoutcentral.com reported that the Cape League's Hyannis team has dropped Mets as its nickname. Hyannis is one of the six Cape teams that have fallen victim to MLB's insistence that those teams that use major league nicknames must buy uniforms and merchandise only from MLB vendors or MLB would terminate its $100,000 annual grant to the league. The Mets decided to change their name and will let the fans pick a new one . . . Happy 30th birthday, Josh Bard.

    Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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