Cubs reliever James Russell, slowed because of a tired arm, threw off the mound on Saturday and the lefty said he felt fine and should be ready for Cactus League games next week.
Russell didn’t have any problems this offseason except with the winter weather.
“I got a little tired once I got out here,” Russell said. “The weather was so bad in Texas and I couldn’t get out there every day. [I was throwing] every other day and then coming out here and throwing every day kind of snuck up on me a little bit.”
Russell, who has appeared in more than 70 games each of the last two seasons, said he needed one more side session and should be ready for games.
“It was only four days,” he said of the time he was sidelined. “I was cranked up, ready to go. All the long tossing went well and I feel strong.”
— Carrie Muskat
When James Russell was a rookie reliever in Cubs camp, his locker was one of the wobbly extras in the middle of the room near the showers at Fitch Park. Ryan Dempster was a starter then for Chicago.
“I was terrified,” Russell said about being in his first big league camp. “The first person who actually came up to say something to me was ‘Demp.’ He said, ‘Hey, man, there’s an open locker next to me. Why don’t you get out of that rollaway locker and come put your stuff in here?’ I wasn’t going to do it.
“The next day I come in, and all my stuff’s right next to him,” Russell said. “The stuff he does for young guys and the team is amazing.”
On Sunday, Dempster announced that he is not going to pitch in 2014 because of health reasons. One of the most popular players in the game, the right-hander, who played for the Cubs from 2004-12, will be missed.
“He’s one of the more standup guys in baseball,” Russell said. “Him and [Alfonso] Soriano were two of the coolest personalities you could ever meet.”
The Cubs players learned of Dempster’s early retirement during their morning stretch.
“Me and Jeff [Samardzija] were really, really surprised,” Russell said. “Just to even think of him not taking the ball [is tough]. He’s one of the guys who no matter what, if he’s hurting, he’s out there grinding and trying to do what he can do to help the team.”
If this is the end of his career, Dempster finished on a high note, winning the World Series with the Red Sox. The last time Russell communicated with Dempster was in October when he sent a congratulatory text.
In nine seasons with the Cubs, Dempster was 67-66 with a 3.74 ERA and 87 saves. He signed after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and took over as closer from 2005-07 before returning to the rotation. In ’06, he led the National League in games finished.
But it was Dempster’s sense of humor and personality that endeared him. He’d always invite players to his house, even if it was just to play video games. Dempster organized a Cubs’ “American Idol” competition one spring, which Russell took part in.
After one season, he took Russell and Andrew Cashner to the United Center in Chicago to watch the Blackhawks practice. Then they got a tour of the locker room and were allowed to suit up and skate.
“They let us go out and raise hell on the ice,” Russell said. “I’m sure Ryan is the only one who could get that worked out.”
Whether Dempster, 36, returns is up to him.
“You know he’s doing it for the best interests of his career,” Russell said of the early retirement. “I’d love to see him come back and play. He’s still got plenty of years on his arm. It’s sad to see that happen to a guy who is so well respected around baseball, and especially as well respected as he is in the city of Chicago and the guys in the locker room.”
— Carrie Muskat
MESA, Ariz. — There’s still some finishing touches to be done at the Cubs’ new Spring Training facility in west Mesa, which will be officially opened on Wednesday with a ribbon cutting ceremony. The front entrance to the team offices is waiting for a new desk and the walls to be finished, and there’s scaffolding under the stairs. Boxes are stacked in various rooms, waiting to be emptied. Some of the early bird players were wandering the halls, trying to find shortcuts from the meal room to the locker room.
Fans who want to watch workouts can enter on Cubs Way off of Rio Salado Parkway on the far west side of the facility. A security guard said fans should be able to park there, watch the workouts, then walk along the west side of the facility and get to the stadium without having to move their cars. That is subject to change, of course.
It was cloudy and cool on Thursday but there were several players in camp, including Travis Wood, Darwin Barney, Logan Watkins, Donnie Murphy, Nate Schierholtz, James Russell, Blake Parker, Edwin Jackson, Josh Vitters, Matt Szczur and Chris Rusin. There also were a few non-roster invitees, including Ryan Kalish.
Pitchers and catchers report in one week, Feb. 13, with the first workout the next day. The first game is Feb. 27 vs. the Diamondbacks.
— Carrie Muskat
The Cubs have reportedly avoided arbitration with reliever James Russell, and reached a contract agreement. According to reports, Russell signed a $1.775 million deal with the Cubs.
The Cubs were apparently unable to reach agreements with Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Darwin Barney, Pedro Strop, and Justin Ruggiano by Friday’s deadline, and the two sides will exchange salary figures. Players and the team will continue to negotiate. Arbitration hearings are scheduled for Feb. 1-21 if no settlement is reached before then.
— Carrie Muskat
The Cubs now have a bonafide closer. On Friday, the Cubs announced they have signed right-hander Jose Veras to a one-year, $3.85 million contract with a club option for 2015. There is a $150,000 buyout for 2015.
The Cubs did not chose to keep free agent Kevin Gregg after he saved 33 games last season, taking over for Carlos Marmol, who was traded to the Dodgers, and Kyuji Fujikawa, who needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Veras, 33, combined to go 0-5 with 21 saves and a 3.02 ERA in 67 relief appearances between the Astros and Tigers last season. He struck out 60 and walked 22 over 62 2/3 innings, and compiled a .199 opponents batting average against. The right-hander began the season with Houston and posted a 2.93 ERA and 19 saves in 42 outings before he was traded to Detroit, where he made nine appearances and helped the Tigers reach the postseason.
In 2011, Veras ranked fifth in the National League with 27 holds in a career-high 79 appearances. He also was a member of the 2013 World Baseball Classic Dominican Republic club. Since the start of the 2011 season, he is tied for fifth in the Major Leagues with 218 appearances.
His contract with the Cubs includes incentives for an additional $750,000 based on games finished.
The Cubs’ bullpen is definitely stronger with Veras at the end. He joins lefty relievers James Russell, Wesley Wright and Zac Rosscup and right-handers Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Blake Parker, and Arodys Vizcaino.
— Carrie Muskat
The Cubs added another left-handed reliever to the bullpen mix on Wednesday, signing free agent Wesley Wright to a one-year deal. Wright, 28, was non-tendered by the Rays on Monday. He posted a combined 3.69 ERA in 70 games for the Rays and Astros this past season, striking out 55 over 53 2/3 innings pitched.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported the deal was believed to be $1.425 million for Wright. Major League sources confirmed the signing.
In his career, Wright has held left-handed hitters to a .231 average compared to .266 by right-handed batters.
Wright announced the signing himself by changing his Twitter profile @realweswright to say he’s now a relief pitcher for the Cubs.
Wright picked up his first career win on April 4, 2008, pitching in relief at Wrigley for the Astros. He entered the game with a man on first and two outs in the seventh, and the two teams tied at 2. He got Felix Pie to ground out and end the inning, and the Astros scored two in the eighth. Wright was the pitcher of record and picked up the win.
According to a story from that game, he planned on giving the game ball to his parents, who were expected in Houston for the home opener that year. It was special to get the first win at Wrigley Field. Growing up in Gosham, Ala., he watched Major League games on cable television. His father was a Braves fan but his brother, Derrick, watched the Cubs.
“You do what your older brother does,” Wright said at the time. “I was a big fan of Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Sammy Sosa … all the guys that played here in the past.”
Needless to say, the young lefty, who was 23 at the time and pitching in his second career big league game, was excited.
“It was surreal for me to be out there on the mound and 30-some thousand people at Wrigley,” he said. “It was crazy. I wish my brother could have been here to share it with me because I know it would mean just as much to him.”
The Cubs were looking for bullpen help, and especially another left-hander to help southpaw James Russell, who ranked 10th in the National League in games (74). Chicago is still shopping for a closer to replace Kevin Gregg, who is a free agent.
— Carrie Muskat
* James Russell is tied for first for the most appearances in the Major Leagues by a reliever, pitching in 73 games this season. On Saturday, he served up a game-winning home run to the Pirates’ Marlon Byrd in the seventh, and has given up four hits and two walks over three innings in his last four games.
“The ball’s up,” Dale Sveum said of the lefty. “Even the out he got on [Pedro] Alvarez [on Saturday], every pitch he threw was up in the strike zone. It’s a matter of keeping the ball down. He’s having a real difficult time getting the ball down.”
Could Russell be tired?
“For whatever reason, mechanical or tired or whatever — he’s had quite a bit of rest the last few weeks,” Sveum said. “We’ve tried not to use him unless we’re tied or teams we’re playing are in the pennant race to give him a break. He has thrown a lot of pitches and innings the last couple years but he says he feels as good as he ever has.”
* Scott Baker will get one more start on Friday at Wrigley Field when the Cubs play host to the Braves, and then the right-hander will be shut down. Sveum said there has been no talk about having Baker make another start. In two starts, Baker, coming back from Tommy John surgery in April 2012, has given up one run on five hits and one walk over 11 innings.
* The Cubs played the Pirates on Opening Day, but the roster that faced them in this four-game series has undergone several changes. Only 12 of the 25 players on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster are still with the team. The 13 players no longer present have either been traded, outrighted off the 40-man roster, or granted their unconditional release. Nate Schierholtz is the lone outfielder remaining from Opening Day, and James Russell and Hector Rondon are the only remaining relievers. Overall, 33 players have made their debut for the Cubs this season, a franchise record that tops the 30 who did so in 1902.
— Carrie Muskat
Welington Castillo smacked a two-run double and Anthony Rizzo added a RBI double to back Jake Arrieta and lead the Cubs to a 7-1 victory over the Phillies and take the series at Wrigley Field. After a dismal 8-20 August, the Cubs were happy to turn the calendar. They have now won back to back games at home for the first time since winning three straight, July 6-9. Arrieta gave up three hits over 6 2/3 innings in his fifth start for Chicago.
The Cubs added three players Sunday when Major League rosters could expand, including Ryan Sweeney and Luis Valbuena, who were activated from the disabled list. Sweeney delivered in his first-bat, hitting a RBI single with two outs in the first off Kyle Kendrick, who needed 31 pitches to get through the inning. Anthony Rizzo hit a RBI double in the third, his 34th. and Castillo connected in the fourth.
James Russell pitched in relief, his 70th appearance this year. He’s the fifth Cubs lefty to record multiple 70-game seasons for the Cubs.
The Cubs won their first home series since July 5-7.
— Carrie Muskat
Dale Sveum was ejected in the seventh inning Sunday for arguing a checked swing third strike call with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.
With two on and none out in the seventh and the Cubs trailing, 6-1, against the Cardinals and Adam Wainwright, Donnie Murphy was called out after he thought he’d checked his swing. Sveum apparently said something from the dugout that Cuzzi didn’t like, and was tossed.
Reliever James Russell apparently said something from the Cubs dugout that third base umpire Tom Hallion didn’t like, and also was ejected.
It’s the fifth time this season Sveum has been ejected.
— Carrie Muskat
It did not take long for Milwaukee’s John Axford to vent his anger at former teammate Carlos Villanueva. Unfortunately for the Cubs pitcher, the Brewers had the last laugh. Villanueva singled off Axford, one of four consecutive RBI hits by the Cubs in the fifth, but the Brewers rallied with four runs in the seventh to post a 6-5 win Tuesday in Game 1 of a day-night doubleheader. Jean Segura hit a solo home run and a tie-breaking RBI double, and Khris Davis belted a game-tying three-run homer for the win.
“It’s heart breaking, it’s a heart breaking loss today,” Villanueva said of the defeat, which dropped the Cubs’ record to 15-22 in one-run games, and 15-30 against the National League Central.
“To say it’s frustrating — it’s baseball,” Villanueva said. “We all go out there and try to do our jobs and sometimes it doesn’t happen the way we want it to. When it happens more than once, more than twice — obviously, it’s difficult the day of. Maybe in five days, we’ll have a little better luck.”
In the first four innings, the Cubs couldn’t deliver a run-scoring hit, stranding seven baserunners and going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. They loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth against Yovani Gallardo, but he had to leave with a 1-2 count against Darwin Barney because of tightness in his left hamstring.
Barney greeted Axford with a two-run single to center to tie the game. Castillo, Villanueva and David DeJesus each followed with RBI singles to open a 5-2 lead. Villanueva’s hit resulted in the 24th RBI by a Cubs pitcher, the most in the National League, and that’s what prompted the angry message from Axford.
“I have no idea how I hit that ball,” Villanueva said. “He threw me the first fastball, and I saw 98 [mph] out there. I swung at the second one, and I didn’t even see it. I got a little short [on my grip].
“I already got a text from Axford — he yelled at me and called me a jerk,” Villanueva said of the good-natured message. “I deserve it. I’d probably do the same thing if it was the other way around. It was a fun inning. I wish we could’ve made it stand.”
But they couldn’t. Villanueva exited with one out in the seventh and two runners on. Davis launched the first pitch from James Russell into the right-field bleachers to tie the game at 5. Why Russell vs. Davis? For one, the Cubs’ bullpen was a little short-handed at the back end. The Brewers slugger was batting .214 against lefties, and in the Minor Leagues, had hit 11 of his 13 home runs off right-handers.
“We had the bullpen set up the way we wanted it today with some guys down, and obviously just couldn’t get it done,” said Sveum, who was a little short-handed at the back end of the ‘pen.
Said Milwaukee’s Ron Roenicke: “You’re in a situation in a doubleheader that you do things you’re not usually accustomed to doing. So Dale, when he brings in his left hander, there’s a good reason for doing what he did. I don’t know what it is, but [Russell] is a guy he obviously trusts and likes.”
Segura added a RBI double off Russell, who had not given up a run over his last 12 appearances. It was the 21st blown save by the Cubs’ bullpen, most in the NL.
— Carrie Muskat