March 2014

3/31 Kane County roster

Class A Kane County announced it’s preliminary Opening Day roster. The 26 players will be reduced to a Midwest League-mandated squad of 25 before Thursday’s season opener against Quad Cities. The Cougars’ roster includes pitchers Paul Blackburn, Tyler Skulina, Nathan Dorris, and 19-year-old Jen-Ho Tseng, who will make his U.S. professional debut this year. Outfielder Shawon Dunston, Jr, son of the former Cub shortstop, also will be on the roster along with Jake Hannemann and Trey Martin.

* Among the 26 players heading to Kane County, eight spent all or a portion of the 2013 season with the Cougars. … Two of the 13 pitchers listed are left-handers (Dorris, Gerardo Conception). … Six players were part of the Cubs’ 2013 draft class.

3/31 Game 1: Pirates 1, Cubs 0

Neil Walker spoiled Rick Renteria’s managerial debut. Walker smacked a walkoff home run in the 10th inning Monday to lift the Pirates to a 1-0 victory over the Cubs on a sun-splashed day at PNC Park. Walker connected on a 3-2 pitch from Carlos Villanueva, who won the fifth spot in the rotation, but was not scheduled to start until Sunday. It was Walker’s first career walkoff hit.

The Cubs had chances, stranding eight batters in the game, and went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

Renteria made his managerial debut in front of 39,833, the largest regular season crowd in PNC Park history. He also was the first to use expanded instant replay in the history of Major League Baseball when he challenged a play at first base in the fifth inning.

This was Jeff Samardzija’s second straight Opening Day start, and second in a row at PNC Park. One year ago, he gave up two hits over eight shutout innings in the Cubs’ win. On Monday, he threw seven shutout innings.

“You can only control what you can control,” Samardzija said about the lack of offense. “[Pitchers] have a bat, too. We have a say in how it turns out. We need to take advantage of every opportunity we get. Ultimately, we’re out there pitching and that’s our job. We’re not here to speculate, we’re not here to say this or that. We’re pitchers and we’re out there to pitch. These guys are working hard and we have their back 100 percent. The quicker we can get them in the dugout, the better chance we have to score some runs.”

Renteria, 52, has come full circle. He made his big league debut at Three Rivers Stadium with the Pirates on Sept. 14, 1986, against the Cubs.

The Cubs batted .218 last year with RISP, worst in the National League. Anthony Rizzo doesn’t expect a repeat of that.

“We’re a very confident group,” Rizzo said. “It’s a good thing. There’s a lot of good energy in the dugout and the clubhouse before the game. It’s a tough loss, obviously, but it’s one game. No one’s going home yet. It’s nice to have the energy in here. Runs will be scored.”

— Carrie Muskat

3/31 Cubs test instant replay

Cubs manager Rick Renteria made history as the first to test baseball’s new expanded instant replay rule in the fifth inning Monday.

The Cubs had runners at first and second with nobody out when pitcher Jeff Samardzija bunted toward third base side. Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano fielded the ball, and threw to third baseman Pedro Alverez to get the runner, and he then fired to second baseman Neil Walker, who was covering at first.

Samardzija signaled safe as he crossed the bag but first base umpire Bob Davidson called the pitcher out. Renteria went out to talk to Davidson, and challenged the call. Davidson and home plate umpire John Hirschbeck went to the headsets and reviewed the play, and the call was confirmed.

The replay was shown on the video scoreboard at PNC Park.

The Cubs have video coordinator Naoto Masamoto and quality assurance coach Jose Castro as the eyes in the clubhouse, watching replays of the plays.

“I think like all of us, it’s going to be something that’s ongoing, correcting ourselves, setting up a system to communicate with each other,” Renteria said before the game. “I’m sure we’ll muff some and get some right. The process will be developed and perfected over time. It’s new to everybody and we’re all cognizant of that and we’ll keep trying to do the best we can with that.”

How will Renteria know when to challenge a call?

“First of all, your eyes tell you what’s going on,” he said. “Then, as soon as that happens, obviously, I talk to my bench coach [Brandon Hyde] and we’re on the horn communicating with the people who are going to be reviewing the play and then I’ll try to set it up and look in and get a feel for a signal and we’ll go from there.”

— Carrie Muskat

3/31 Theo: Future is bright

Theo Epstein had to face some tough questions at the Cubs Convention. He knows fans are impatient, and losing 197 games over the last two seasons hasn’t helped the mood.

“I think most [fans] are [on board] and some aren’t, and the ones who aren’t, I don’t hold it against them,” Epstein said Monday. “Baseball is best enjoyed that day and watching the team in front of you play, and we haven’t been good enough, judging by that standard.

“The only standard that matters is wins and losses and we just haen’t been good enough,” he said. “I’m right there with them. I understand it. It’s my job to take a little broader view and make sure we grow this into a very healthy organization that can go out and have success year in and year out.”

Which is why the Cubs have worked so hard to develop the Minor League system.

“I think our fans as a whole have been incredibly supportive,” Epstein said. “I really look forward to doing some things this season to make them proud and hopefully we can go out and surprise some people. In the long haul we want to award them with October baseball.”

— Carrie Muskat

3/31 Extra bases

* Starlin Castro may have only played three Cactus League games, but that was enough to convince Cubs manager Rick Renteria to insert the shortstop into the No. 3 spot in the Opening Day lineup.

“Wherever he puts me, I’ll try to do my job,” said Castro, who missed time because of a right hamstring strain suffered March 2.

Renteria wanted speed at the top of the lineup and went with Emilio Bonifacio and Junior Lake ahead of Castro, who also could lead off in games.

“I think I have some flexibility with the guys,” Renteria said.

* Justin Ruggiano did not start Monday against the Pirates’ Francisco Liriano because of a tender left ankle.

“He had a sore ankle at end of spring and we’re just trying to make sure we give him one more day and then we have a day off [Tuesday] and he’ll be ready to go the following day,” Renteria said.

* Top prospects Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler will open the season at Double-A Tennessee. Soler, however, will be slowed because of a sore hamstring. Arodys Vizcaino, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, was assigned to Class A Daytona to take advantage of the warm weather. Vizcaino will be on a structured program for the first month.

— Carrie Muskat

3/31 Opening Day

Here’s today’s Opening Day lineup:

Bonifacio CF
Lake LF
Castro SS
Rizzo 1B
Olt 3B
Castillo C
Schierholtz RF
Barney 2B
Samardzija P

3/30 Cubs Opening Day roster

Here is the Cubs’ Opening Day roster:

PITCHERS (12 + 3 DL)
11-Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP (15-Day DL)
29-Jeff Samardzija, RHP
33-Carlos Villanueva, RHP
36-Edwin Jackson, RHP
37-Travis Wood, LHP
39-Jason Hammel, RHP
40-James Russell, LHP
41-Jose Veras, RHP
46-Pedro Strop, RHP
49-Jake Arrieta, RHP (15-Day DL)
52-Justin Grimm, RHP
53-Wesley Wright, LHP
55-James McDonald, RHP (60-Day DL)
56-Hector Rondon, RHP
63-Brian Schlitter, RHP

12-John Baker
53-Welington Castillo

13-Starlin Castro
15-Darwin Barney
24-Luis Valbuena
30-Mike Olt
44-Anthony Rizzo
64-Emilio Bonifacio

6-Ryan Sweeney
19-Nate Schierholtz
20-Justin Ruggiano
21-Junior Lake
51-Ryan Kalish

3/30 Opening Day eve …

On Monday, the games count. It was snowing and sleeting in Pittsburgh Saturday night when the Cubs arrived from Phoenix. They’ll kick off the 2014 season on Monday at PNC Park, and the forecast calls for lots of sunshine and temperatures in the upper 50s. There is zero chance of precipitation. First pitch is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. CT.

* The Cubs are 75-61-2 all-time on Opening Day, including a 46-38 record on the road. They are looking to win consecutive Opening Day games for the first time since winning four straight from 2003-06.

* Last year, the Cubs had three new pitchers in the rotation in Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva. This year, four of the five pitchers in the Cubs’ season-opening starting rotation are returnees: Jeff Samardzija, Jackson, Travis Wood and Villanueva. Jason Hammel is the lone new starting pitcher.

* Luis Valbuena finished tied for the Major League lead (with the Reds’ Chris Heisey) with six home spring home runs. Javier Baez and Mike Olt were tied for third with five homers apiece.

* Ryan Kalish’s six stolen bases were tied for fifth in the Cactus League with the D-backs’ Tony Campana. Emilio Bonifacio’s four triples were tied for third in the Cactus League. Alberto Cabrera’s three saves were tied for second.

* The Cubs smacked 36 home runs this spring, most in the Majors, but the team’s .237 batting average was the lowest among Cactus League clubs.

* Cubs pitchers posted 10 saves, tied for the Cactus League lead with the Giants.

* The 2014 season marks manager Rick Renteria’s 16th year as a manager or coach following a 13-year playing career (1980-89, 1991-94). He spent the previous six seasons on the Padres coaching staff, including the last three as the club’s bench coach (2011-13).

3/29 Reach for the stars

Rick Renteria closed his first spring as Cubs manager Saturday with a 9-8 comeback win over the Diamondbacks. He told reporters in Phoenix that he was not concerned about the low external expectations for his team this year.

“I’ve always expected to do things with success in mind,” he said. “I’m not changing my approach or my attitude. That’s my expectations of my club. I think they have expectations of themselves. Quite frankly, if you don’t set goals for yourself there’s nothing to shoot for.

“It’s kind of hard to drive yourself. You need to have expectations and I think we should reach for the stars.”

When asked what “reaching for the stars” meant, Renteria said: “I want to win the World Series, absolutely. Why not?’

The Cubs haven’t done that since 1908. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and haven’t had a winning season since 2009. They are coming off a 66-96 season and Renteria is the club’s fourth manager since Mike Quade replaced Lou Piniella with 37 games to go in the 2010 season.

The former Padres bench coach said he felt comfortable in his first spring as a big-league manager.

“I thought it went great,” Renteria said. “I had a lot of good people around me. They really made it easy for me. The transition was actually very nice. Everybody worked very hard. Thankfully, there weren’t a whole lot of complications.”

3/29 Bullpen is set

The Cubs finalized the bullpen on Saturday by adding right-hander Brian Schlitter and designating for assignment right-hander Alberto Cabrera. The moves will be done procedurally on Sunday and are effective for Monday’s season opener at Pittsburgh.

Schlitter was 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA this spring, allowing 10 hits and two earned runs while walking only one and striking out nine in 8 2/3 innings and eight appearances. Cabrera looked sharp early. But in his last two outings, he’s struggled, including a game against the Angels on Tuesday when he gave up five runs on four hits over a third of an inning. Cabrera was 0-1 with 6.97 ERA in 10 1/3 innings covering 10 appearances and is out of options.

Schlitter joins a bullpen that includes closer Jose Veras, James Russell, Pedro Strop, Wesley Wright, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm.