SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Ian Stewart began his comeback shortly after he was traded to the Cubs in early December. That was when he called Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.
On Thursday, all the extra swings, all the time in the cage, which began with a mini camp in January, paid off as Stewart hit his first spring homer. He didn't hit any in 48 games last season with the Rockies.
"It's satisfying because I haven't hit a ball like that in a big league game -- even though it's Spring Training -- in a while," said Stewart, whose leadoff blast in the sixth was one of four homers by the Cubs in an 11-4 win over the Rangers.
"It felt good to get that out of the way," Stewart said. "I just felt really good at the plate. All the work that I've put in with Rudy has started to pay off and show and it's giving me confidence going into the game and defensively as well. I just feel good."
He showed his glove work in the Rangers' sixth when he threw out speedster Craig Gentry for the final out.
"[Cubs coach Pat] Listach told me before the game that [Gentry] was in [Las Vegas] on that trip and he'd beat out a couple balls in the infield," Stewart said. "[Listach] said, 'Hey, be ready for a bunt and if you get it, get rid of it.' That's what I as thinking on that play was get it out as quick as I could and luckily I got enough air under it to get it there."
Stewart has been hitting early every day with Jaramillo. All the third baseman wants is to stay healthy. He hit 25 homers in 2009. It's possible.
"I feel if I'm healthy, then I expect to play almost every day and get 400, 500 at-bats," Stewart said. "If I get that, I think the numbers will take care of themselves. I'm just trying to stay healthy and get the at-bats and then everything will happen."
Stewart said he sees similarities between the Cubs and the 2007 Rockies, who won the National League pennant but lost in the World Series to the Red Sox. Colorado surged into the postseason with a 20-8 September.
"The expectations are not real high, but there is a lot of optimism there because we have a lot of good young players," Stewart said of the Cubs. "We have good pitching, good defense and some guys are swinging it real well. If we can take that into the season and continue to play the way we have been the last week or so in Spring Training, you never know.
"The extra Wild Card -- all it takes is just getting in, like in 2007 for the Rockies when we made that run," he said. "If we can stay in it by August, early September, we'll be right there and it'll be an exciting time and I look forward to it."
Garza not worried about Opening Day choice
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Cubs manager Dale Sveum will end the suspense Friday when he names his Opening Day starter.
Sveum was expected to chose between Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza for the assignment on April 5 against the Nationals. Washington has picked Stephen Strasburg as its starter for the season opener. Did that influence Sveum's decision?
"Maybe," Sveum said.
Garza started Thursday against the Rangers and gave up three runs, all unearned, on two hits and three walks over five innings. What if Sveum picks him for the opener?
"I'm just excited to go play," Garza said. "If it's 'Demp,' me, [Jeff Samardzija], [Chris Volstad], [Rodrigo Lopez], [Trey] McNutt even, it doesn't bother me. Crazy stuff can happen. I'm not bashing anyone, but it doesn't bother me. As long as I'm one of the five and I get the ball in Wrigey, I'm not too concerned about it."
The right-hander said he feels a little ahead of schedule at this point, especially with his breaking ball. This will be Garza's second season with the Cubs and his goal remains the same.
"October -- that's it," he said. "We get to October then all the personal stuff will come with it. To me, team accolades are way more important. Getting us to a place where we need to be, where we should be. Getting back to October and fighting for the pennant."
Maine working on new ways to retire lefties
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One matter still to be resolved in the final two weeks of spring camp is finalizing the Cubs' bullpen. Scott Maine is eager to see what happens.
Maine is one of three left-handed relievers in camp along with James Russell and Trever Miller. So far, it's been a good spring for Maine.
"Numbers-wise, yes," Maine said. "If you look beyond the numbers, no, but it's Spring Training. I'm not going to come in here and hit my spots. It takes some time for me to do that. As far as throwing strikes and getting outs early in the counts, I'm doing that well. I just need to get my feel for my offspeed stuff better and I'll be fine."
Is the problem Arizona? A lot of pitchers say the dry air makes it tough for them to get breaking pitches to break.
"I don't make excuses," Maine said. "I've played all over the country. I can throw my same curve that I throw in Florida. You have to concentrate more on what you're doing. You really have to get on top of the curve here for it to work. If you're somewhere else, you can be on the side of it, and it'll still curve."
Cubs manager Dale Sveum has said he wants a left-hander who can get right-handers out. So far, Maine has done that. In six Cactus League games, he's held right-handed hitters to a .182 average while lefties are batting .429. But that's not really enough of a sample size. Maine has faced seven or eight lefties.
"They say lefties would have trouble against me, but they focus on that first- or second-pitch fastball and let it rip," Maine said. "I've just got to figure out a different game plan for a lefty. A righty, I have three pitches to work with and with a lefty, I only have two. And if I can't throw my curve over the plate, what do you think they look for? In the Dominican this year, I didn't give up a hit to a lefty."
Maine appeared in seven games for the Cubs last season, and held lefties to one hit in eight at-bats, while right-handers were 10-for-24. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Iowa, and there, held right-handers to a .197 average (23-for-117) and lefties to .214 (15-for-70).
He'll throw a fastball, slider and change to right-handers and just his fastball and slider to left-handers.
"When I throw the change to lefties, it gets hit pretty hard," he said.
Cubs option righty Sonnanstine to Triple-A
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Right-handed pitcher Andy Sonnanstine was assigned outright to the Cubs' Triple-A Iowa roster on Thursday.
Sonnanstine, 29, had appeared in four Cactus League games, giving up eight runs on 13 hits and three walks over five innings. He struck out three. Last season, the right-hander was 0-2 with a 5.55 ERA in 15 games (four starts) with the Rays.
With the move, Sonnanstine was taken off the Cubs' 40-man roster, which is now at 39. The spring camp roster is 47 and consists of of 21 pitchers (five non-roster invitees), five catchers (two non-roster invitees), 12 infielders (five non-roster invitees) and nine outfielders (three non-roster invitees).
Reliever Marcos Mateo was pulled from Thursday's game with discomfort in his right arm. He was sent back to Mesa, Ariz., to be examined. The Cubs' medical staff was looking at Mateo's right elbow when he was lifted. He walked the first batter he faced, then threw two more pitches before he was pulled.
Ron Villone, 42, a veteran of 15 Major League seasons, will take over as Class A Peoria's pitching coach this year. Villone replaces Tom Pratt, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and has begun chemotherapy in Arizona. This will be Villone's first coaching position. In his MLB career, Villone posted a 61-65 record and 4.73 ERA while pitching for 12 franchises.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.