February 2014

2/28 Bryant hits 1st spring homer

It was one inning in the Cubs’ second Cactus League game, but Friday’s seventh was a sign of things to come. Kris Bryant belted a two-run homer in his first spring at-bat, driving in Albert Almora, but it wasn’t nearly enough as the Cubs lost, 15-3, to the Angels.

All of the so-called core four of Almora, Bryant, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez had at-bats in the seventh. Arismendy Alcantara, another highly touted prospect, popped up to lead off the inning, and Almora, the Cubs’ No. 1 pick in 2012, then doubled. Soler struck out and Bryant followed with a lengthy at-bat that resulted in a 420-foot shot just left of the batter’s eye off a 3-2 slider from the Angels’ Jarrett Grube.

Brett Jackson, another Cubs’ No. 1 pick, walked and Baez, a first-round selection in 2011, lined out sharply to third base to end the inning.

“It was kind of cool — Albert got on with a double, Jorge, he had some good swings, and then I drove in Albert,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, we can do that a lot in the future.”

The Cubs certainly hope so.

Bryant’s career has been on the fast track since the third baseman was selected second overall in last June’s First-Year Player Draft. After he signed with the Cubs, Bryant played two games with the Rookie League team, then was bumped up to short-season Boise for 18 games. His debut there wasn’t nearly as impressive as he struck out in all five at-bats. But Bryant batted .354 and was promoted to high Class A Daytona, where he hit .333 in 16 games with five home runs and five doubles plus 14 RBIs.

And he wasn’t done. The winner of the Golden Spikes award as the top college baseball player of the year, Bryant, 22, played in the Arizona Fall League, and batted .364 with six more home runs, eight doubles and 17 RBIs.

He may be familiar with playing in the desert but this is his first big league camp, and the seventh inning was his first at-bat.

“I felt good up there, I was not nervous at all, and saw a lot of pitches, which was good,” Bryant said. “Home runs don’t mean anything if you don’t win the game, so that’s a little disappointing. For myself, it was a good performance.”

Cubs fans will see a lot of Bryant, Almora, Soler and Baez this spring as new manager Rick Renteria takes advantage of the Cactus League games to gauge the talent in the system. All are projected to open the season in the Minor Leagues. All have seemed very much at home in big league camp.

“It was a good first at-bat, and all the nerves are gone now,” Bryant said.

How can he be so calm?

“It’s just a game,” he said. “You’ve got to go out there and have fun and don’t put pressure on yourself and put a smile on your face and good things usually come from that.”

It worked at San Diego, where he led the nation with 31 home runs.

“I’ve just been blessed with power,” Bryant said. “I’m putting it to use. Hopefully, I can go out there tomorrow and give it all I’ve got and hopefully get a win.”

– Carrie Muskat

2/28 Extra bases

* Darwin Barney has been working a lot with Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller and on Friday, the second baseman went 2-for-2 in his first spring game, hitting a solo home run in the fourth.

“I feel I can repeat what I’m doing up there and that’s the goal,” said Barney, who batted .208 last season. “It’s Day One and it’s a long spring ahead and a lot of work to be done.”

Barney isn’t being counted on to hit home runs — he matched his career high last season with seven.

“I’m trying to stay short and hit line drives,” he said. “My swing allowed me to do that and I’m happy about that. It’s early, it’s just one pitch. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

* Mike Olt, slowed this spring because of tenderness in his right shoulder, has yet to play third base and Cubs manager Rick Renteria said the team is taking a precautionary approach.

“He’s throwing fine and he’s been working at all the positions getting himself ready,” Renteria said Friday of Olt, who has been limited to designated hitter so far.

Olt, who battled vision problems last season, was scheduled to start at DH on Saturday night against the Diamondbacks.

* After more than 50 days without rain in the Phoenix area, Saturday’s forecast calls for showers. The Cubs’ contingency plan is to use the batting cages at their complex to get work done.

“We’ll deal with it as it comes,” Renteria said.

* Jake Arrieta continues to throw off flat ground and is making progress. Arrieta has been slowed this spring by tightness in his right shoulder, which he felt in the offseason before reporting to Arizona.

* Cubs fans eager to see top prospects Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant might want to go to Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks in Scottsdale. Both are scheduled to start. Bryant hit his first spring homer in his first at-bat on Friday.

– Carrie Muskat

2/28 Here are the socks …

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Aaron Cunningham models his “Strideline” socks with the Chicago skyline.

– Carrie Muskat

2/28 Finding the right fit

All Aaron Cunningham has to do is open his suitcase in the Cubs clubhouse, and the players come for his socks.

Cunningham is a non-roster invitee on the Cubs, but the outfielder is also a market manager for Strideline, which makes colorful and apparently very comfortable crew socks.

It all started a couple years ago when Cunningham saw the socks for sale during the holidays. He bought several pairs for family members, and decided to take it another step.

“I sent them an email, and said, ‘Hey, I like the product, I’m a professional athlete, I can help you spread the word with all the ballplayers,'” Cunningham said Friday. “They approved it and made me a market manager, and I started giving them out to guys and they started getting me involved, and now it’s a new company.”

What makes the socks unique is not that they were created by two college students but how good they feel and look. They designs include city skylines, such as Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. There’s also are pairs featuring the state of Texas and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Cunningham, 27, has a patriotic red, white, and blue pair in his locker. Cubs pitcher Blake Parker likes a blue and white plaid that he wore Thursday in the first Cactus League game so much that he plans on wearing them every outing. That’s because Parker retired all three batters he faced.

On Friday, lefty Zac Rosscup purchased two pairs with the Chicago skyline as soon as Cunningham opened his suitcase with merchandise. They’re in Cubs colors, but fans most likely won’t see them because players wear their pants long and cover them up. However, there are some green, yellow and blue camouflage designs that guys could be wearing with street clothes which you might sneak a peek at.

“I’ll come in here with 100 socks and they’ll be gone in one day,” Cunningham said.

The positive feedback is helping sales. Cunningham, who has worked with Strideline at AAU baseball tournaments, selling 300 pairs in a weekend, has sent sample pairs to other Major League teams in hopes that they’ll be interested. Cubs clubhouse manager Tom Hellmann plans on stocking up on them. Who knows? Cunningham’s first goal is to make the Cubs. Someday, he may be doing more than just distributing pairs in the Cubs clubhouse.

“Baseball doesn’t last forever,” Cunningham said.

– Carrie Muskat

2/28 Looking ahead …

Saturday’s forecast calls for rain in the Valley of the Sun, which may mess up the Cubs’ day-night split squad games. Right now, the Cubs are scheduled to play at home against the Giants and at night in Scottsdale against the Diamondbacks. Here are Saturday’s lineups:

Vs. Giants, Mesa, AZ, 1:05 p.m. MT
Alcantara 2B
Valbuena 3B
Rizzo 1B
Ruggiano CF
Castillo C
Valaika SS
Kottaras DH
McDonald LF
Cunningham RF
T. Wood P

Vs. Diamondbacks, Scottsdale, AZ, 7:05 p.m. MT
Bonifacio 2B
Lake CF
Castro SS
Roberts 1B
Bryant 3B
Soler RF
Olt DH
Coghlan LF
Whiteside C
Jackson P

– Carrie Muskat

2/28 Cubs lineup

The Cubs will face Albert Pujols and the Angels on Friday in Tempe. Chris Rusin gets the start, his first this spring. James McDonald is scheduled to pitch, which will be big for the right-hander. He struggled with shoulder problems last season. Plus, fans can see top prospect Javy Baez. He’s scheduled to start at short. If you aren’t going to the game, you can listen on WGN Radio to Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer, or tune in to a webcast on Cubs.com. Here’s the Cubs’ lineup:

Coghlan DH
Barney 2B
Sweeney CF
Schierholtz RF
Murphy 3B
Wells LF
Baez SS
Kottaras C
Valaika 1B

Rusin P

2/27 Extra bases

* Eric Chavez hit the first home run at Cubs Park, a two-run shot in the fifth, and Paul Goldschmidt added a two-run single in the sixth to lift the Diamondbacks to a 5-2 win Thursday over the Cubs and spoil their Cactus League opener at their new stadium. The game drew a Cactus League record crowd of 14,486, breaking the old mark of 13,721 set last March 23 between the Dodgers and White Sox in Glendale.

This was not only the first game at Cubs Park, but Rick Renteria’s first as a Major League manager.

“It feels just like another game,” the Cubs’ new skipper said. “We’re getting ready for the season and today’s the first day of basically a test to see how everybody’s doing. We’re going to use [Spring Training] to see what aspects of the game we need to improve on and basically see where everybody’s at.”

So no butterflies?

“No,” Renteria said, smiling.

* Blake Parker, coming off a season in which he appeared in a career-high 49 games, was the only Cubs pitcher to retire all three batters he faced in his one inning on Thursday in the Cactus League opener. The right-hander came into camp knowing he’s starting fresh.

“Every year you’ve got something to prove,” Parker said. “If you’re getting paid or not, you want to show them you worked hard in the offseason to be ready to pitch at any time.”

Renteria is sorting out the options for the bullpen. Parker knows that.

“You want to show these guys that you’re ready to play, whether it’s these guys or somebody else watching in the stands,” Parker said. “It’s just imperative to get ready for the season.”

* Emilio Bonifacio did exactly what the Cubs want from a leadoff man in his first at-bat when he tripled in the first. Renteria said he considers Bonifacio to be similar to Chone Figgins, who can play second, third, short and the outfield.

“He’s a guy who puts it on the ground and if he gets it through someplace, he’s got a chance to go like he did there, all the way to third base,” Renteria said of Bonifacio. “Those are some of the things he brings to the table.”

Renteria said Darwin Barney is the starting second baseman but expect to see Bonifacio get some playing time there.

* Kyuji Fujikawa, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last June, threw 25 pitches off the mound for the second time this spring on Thursday, and is continuing to make progress. The Cubs hope the right-hander can pitch sometime this season.

* Catcher John Baker livened up Thursday’s team meeting by playing a song on his guitar that was a variation on Eddie Vedder’s “(Someday We’ll Go) All the Way.”

“I wrote a song about what it means to be a Cub,” said Baker, who got an assist on the lyrics from Barney, Kyle Hendricks, Eric Jokisch, Brett Jackson and strength coach Tim Buss.

“Ricky likes to have people do things that make it a little more fun,” Baker said of Renteria.

The lyrics were tweaked so that they were from a player’s perspective, and ended with “This year, we’ll go all the way.”

* Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo will host his second “Cook-Off for Cancer” on May 16 in Chicago. The event, which features celebrity chefs, will be held at Revel Downtown.

* Up next: Lefty Chris Rusin, who is competing for a spot in the rotation, faces the Angels and Jered Weaver in Tempe in the Cubs’ first road game this spring. Rusin was 2-6 in 13 starts last season with a 3.93 ERA. James McDonald is scheduled to follow Rusin in his first game action since Sept. 1. McDonald appeared in 16 games last season, six with the Pirates, as he struggled with shoulder problems. Top prospect Javier Baez will start at shortstop for Chicago. The game will be broadcast on WGN Radio and on Cubs.com.

– Carrie Muskat

2/27 Samardzija’s spring debut

Jeff Samardzija’s goal this season is to be more efficient, so walking the leadoff batter wasn’t a good start.

“It must have been the fireworks or something,” Samardzija said, laughing. “I think it was the first time the Cubbies ever had fireworks.”

Samardzija started in the Cactus League opener and first game ever at new Cubs Park on Thursday, and survived that first inning glitch and the fireworks. The right-hander has been a hot topic in offseason trade rumors. There were plenty of scouts at Thursday’s game, and not just for the commemorative pin celebrating the stadium’s debut.

“You’re not really worried about too much,” Samardzija said of the scouts. “You assume they’re there every game. I want to put on a good show for them.”

The Blue Jays and Diamondbacks were among the teams believed to be interested in adding the right-hander to their rotation. Did he even think about pitching for Arizona?

“No, I’ve only played for the Cubbies so I only know one team to play for and that’s here,” he said. “I don’t worry about that too much.”

The rumors haven’t been a distraction.

“If anything [the rumors] just put a chip on your shoulder and make you want to go out and prove even more,” Samardzija said. “That’s the thing about this game is that you’re constantly going out to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter what your contact situation is or anyting like that. The only thing that matters is proving yourself that day against the team you’re playing against.

“It’s a tough game, so when you do do well, it feels good personally and you build on that for your next time out and the time after that,” he said. “If you’re not your own hardest critic and not checking yourself harder than anyone else, then you have a problem. I’m my hardest critic and I’ll always be that way.”

All the talk is not going to go away, and Samardzija knows that. The Cubs have discussed a long-term deal but the two sides obviously haven’t agreed on terms. The right-hander said he’d be surprised if he was dealt before the season began.

“From what it sounds like right now, we’re going head over heels for the season with this team,” Samardzija said of the Cubs. “Rick’s made it very clear we’re here to win, which I love. I love to hear him talk about his excitement for winning. Not development — development is part of it, but Rick’s No. 1 goal is winning, and me and him are 100 percent on the same page when it comes to that. we want to win, we want to win here and we want to win now.”

– Carrie Muskat

2/27 Sing along

The Cubs began Thursday’s team meeting with a song, performed by catcher John Baker.

“I wrote a song about what it means to be a Cub,” said Baker, who got help from Darwin Barney, Eric Jokisch, Kyle Hendricks, Brett Jackson and strength coach Tim Buss. “Ricky [Renteria] likes to have people do things that make it a little more fun.”

Baker has only been playing the guitar a few years. He wasn’t sure the lyrics would be printable, but we’ll see.

– Carrie Muskat

2/27 Looking ahead …

If you’re going to Tempe on Friday to see the Cubs face the Angels, here’s the lineup:

Coghlan DH
Barney 2B
Sweeney CF
Schierholtz RF
Murphy 3B
Wells LF
Baez SS
Kottaras C
Valaika 1B

Rusin P

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