Notes: Lee searching for power stroke
First baseman limited to six homers in first 81 games
PITTSBURGH -- Maybe watching the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game will help Derrek Lee get going, power-wise, in the second half.
Lee entered Sunday's game with six home runs in 81 games for the Cubs, and has not hit any on the road. In 2005, the year he won the National League batting title, Lee had 27 homers by the break and finished with 46. He's hit at least 30 from 2003-05, and belted eight in 50 games last year, which was shortened because of his wrist injury.
And, no, he wasn't invited to participate in Monday's Home Run Derby.
"It's been a different year," said Lee, one of the Cubs' two All-Star representatives. "I've been playing like a second baseman maybe. I need to be better in the second half. I don't want to sound like I'm disappointed. I feel like I've played OK, but I feel like I can play better."
That's not a knock against second basemen. Mike Fontenot, who started at second on Sunday, has three homers. It's tough to criticize when Lee is batting .331, among the top five in the NL, with 26 doubles.
"For some odd reason, I haven't hit the ball in the air consistently," Lee said. "I've created some bad habits lately that I need to get out of. Balls have been hit hard, just not in the air.
"Baseball's a crazy game," he said. "Who knows -- I could hit 25 homers in the second half. I didn't have good power numbers in the first half, and that's all it was."
Lee had to scramble to get enough All-Star tickets for family and friends, who want to make the drive from nearby Sacramento to Tuesday's game in San Francisco.
However, there could be an awkward moment in the clubhouse. Lee will be teammates for two days with San Diego's Chris Young. On June 16, Young hit Lee with a pitch, Lee was upset at something the pitcher said as he headed to first base, and the two exchanged swings, sparking a bench-clearing mess.
Both were issued five-game suspensions, and Young opted to drop his appeal and is serving his suspension now. Because of the timing, he won't miss a regular season start -- but will be able to pitch on Tuesday. Is that OK with Lee?
"It's an exhibition game," Lee said of the All-Star Game.
The two likely won't talk.
"I think it's a non-issue, it's over," Lee said.
Step by step: Wade Miller had a good bullpen session on Sunday, and will likely make a Minor League rehab start July 15 for Class A Peoria. And catcher Henry Blanco could join him.
"It's the best he's thrown the ball," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of Miller, who is sidelined with shoulder problems. "That's good news. He's finally on the right path."
It was very encouraging for Miller, who has been on the disabled list since April 23.
"I'm not here to take up locker space," Miller said. "I'm here to try to get better and help the team the best I can."
In early June, Miller admits he thought his career was over. He'd hit a wall.
"I wasn't feeling too good about it," he said.
But after seeing the doctor who performed the arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in 2005, and working with a physical therapist, Miller said he's close to being ready.
"Everything seems to be going in the right direction," Miller said.
Blanco, out since May 31 with a herniated disk, tested his arm by throwing as if he were throwing to second base on Sunday, and said he was feeling good.
"It feels a lot better," Blanco said. "I'm happy with that."
He also was worried his career might be over.
"At some point, I was," Blanco said. "I had confidence I would come back. [The athletic trainers] did a great job to avoid surgery."
Heroes: The unsung heroes for the Cubs in the last two weeks have been the relievers. Since Ryan Dempster went on the disabled list June 23, the 'pen has converted six of seven save opportunities, and compiled a 3.18 ERA while limiting opponents to a .212 average.
Bob Howry has four of those saves, and Will Ohman and Carlos Marmol have one each.
"Everybody is pitching well down there," said reliever Michael Wuertz. "Marmol is pitching well, Bob's pitching well, Will's been doing good. Scotty [Eyre] has put together a couple good innings, and everything's built off of that. It's been fun down there."
"There's no doubt we're getting used at the right spots," Wuertz said. "Honestly, we're not getting over-used by any extent. [Piniella] has done well managing us. I had four days off after throwing quite a bit, and it was nice to get that breather before the All-Star break and pitch a few games, and get the All-Star break as well.
"Guys have been bearing down and making quality pitches," Wuertz said. "I think that's what it comes down to -- we're executing better. We're making good pitches when we need to. It's been fun every day coming to the ballpark winning games, and knowing you have a chance to pitch in a game we're going to win."
The Cubs are likely to open the second half with 11 pitchers, but it won't be long before they'll add a 12th arm. Rookie Billy Petrick impressed the Cubs in his brief stay.
Numbers game: The Cubs return from the All-Star break on Friday, and will open with a 10-game homestand against Houston, San Francisco and Arizona.
They are 10-4 in their last 14 games at Wrigley Field, which is good. But there are some players who need to feel more comfortable at Wrigley Field for the second half. Alfonso Soriano is batting .255 at home compared to .357 on the road. Cesar Izturis was hitting .149 at home, and .294 on the road.
Carlos Zambrano is 3-5 with a 5.14 ERA at Wrigley Field, while Dempster has a 1.89 ERA at home and six saves in seven opportunities.
Mark DeRosa doesn't seem to care if he's home or on the road. He was batting .287 at Wrigley, and .289 in road grays.
"I like to have the same game plan, depending on who's pitching, and try to come up with a game plan and how I'm going to attack them in certain situations," DeRosa said. "I try not to concern myself with being at home or being on the road. I do wish the wind would start blowing out at Wrigley a little more."
Wrigley Field has surprised DeRosa, who had just 13 at-bats there before this season began.
"I've never played baseball for such a period of time where the elements were that much of a factor on the game, whether it's taking home runs away, or balls getting knocked down, or balls not getting into the gap," he said. "It was a tricky first two months. It's nice that the weather has started to heat up. You try not to do more than the situation calls for."
Extra bases: The Cubs will open the second half with the same team. "We'll take 'em one at a time," Piniella said about future roster moves. ... Dempster left Sunday to join his wife for an All-Star vacation in Niagara Falls. ... Looking ahead to the start of the second half, Zambrano will start Friday, followed by Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill and Sean Marshall. ... The Cubs will work out Thursday before the second half resumes.
Minor matters: Eric Patterson hit a game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth during an attempted intentional walk to lift Iowa to a 3-2 victory over New Orleans on Saturday. ... Donnie Veal gave up five runs, four earned, on five hits over three innings in Tennessee's 7-1 loss to Huntsville on Saturday. Tyler Colvin hit a solo homer and Jake Fox hit his 20th double. ... Mitch Atkins gave up five runs, four earned, on four hits over five innings Saturday in Daytona's 7-0 loss to Vero Beach. ... Jacob Renshaw gave up one unearned run on five hits over six innings in Peoria's 3-1 win over Cedar Rapids on Saturday. ... Chris Huseby gave up three runs, two earned, on four hits over six innings and struck out seven Saturday in Boise's 6-5 loss to Tri-City. ... Angel Guzman made a rehab start for Mesa, striking out one over one inning in an 8-3 loss to the Giants on Saturday.
On deck: Zambrano closed the first half on Sunday, and will open the second half of the season on Friday vs. Houston at Wrigley Field. First pitch is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on Comcast Sports Net.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.