03/29/08 9:30 PM ET
Cubs head home healthy, ready
Piniella optimistic team can get off to faster start than '07
By Owen Perkins / Special to MLB.com
"We need to pick it up offensively a little bit," Piniella said after a 4-2 victory over the Mariners, only the second game in the past eight that the club has been held to fewer than seven runs. "We've had a few spurts where we have [shown signs of clicking offensively], but on a consistency basis, we're going to have to improve that, there's no question in my mind. We're capable of it, too."
That confidence in the Cubs' capabilities at the plate, along with a solid spring in the other aspects of the game, gives Piniella reason to be optimistic about coming out of the gate strong.
"It's important that we get off to a good start here," Piniella stressed, reluctant to revisit last season's slow start, when the club was nine games under .500 on June 2 and 8 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central on June 23. "We know the team better. We know our system. We're going to have to pitch well and play well defensively. Those are important issues for us. We're healthy pitching-wise. For the most part, position-player-wise, everybody's ready to go. So no excuses. Just tee it up on Monday and go get 'em."
The good health of the team at the end of Spring Training is one of the best signs the Cubs have flashed in recent years, with only one player, lefty reliever Scott Eyre (sore left elbow), set to start the season on the disabled list. General manager Jim Hendry was optimistic after hearing an update on Eyre from the team's head trainer.
"Mark O'Neil feels that Scotty won't be out too long," Hendry said Friday. "He's eligible to come off [the DL] April 7th or 8th. If rehab goes well, he'll miss seven or eight days."
Eyre will rehab in Arizona at extended Spring Training.
The only other blip on the health screen is Daryle Ward's ankle, which he had X-rayed Friday after knocking a foul ball off it Thursday. He should be fine to start the season.
"It's sore, but it's manageable," Ward said before Saturday's spring finale. "I don't think I'll play today."
Some of the best news of the spring has been a series of transitions by seasoned players taking on new challenges:
Ryan Dempster came out of the closer's role to win a spot in the starting rotation. He pitched four innings of one-run ball on Saturday, showing his readiness to take the ball every fifth day consistently for the first time since coming to the Cubs in 2004.
"I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish this spring," Dempster said after Saturday's win over the Mariners. "I felt good about the way I've been throwing the ball all spring. Everything's starting to get more and more familiar. It's kind of like riding a bike. It's not like I did it for one year. I know what I'm getting myself into."
On the flip side of that transition, former staff ace Kerry Wood won the closer's job with a 2.84 ERA in 12 games totaling 12 2/3 innings. He struck out 13 and didn't walk a batter in the exhibition season until the ninth inning on Saturday. He earned his second spring save in the finale, after never saving a game in his professional career, barehanding a comebacker to the mound to turn a double play with two men on and a two-run lead.
"What a nice athletic play," Piniella said. "I think [pitching coach] Larry [Rothschild] is going to talk to him about using his glove. But a really athletic play, and he made it look like an easy double play.
"Woody's had an exceptional spring," Piniella added. "Let's hope it springboards into a great season for him."
Finally, there was the transition of Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome into the Cubs everyday right fielder. After struggling at the plate early in the spring, Fukudome finished strong to raise his average to .270 and give Piniella the flexibility to use him anywhere from second to fifth in the lineup.
"He did fine," Piniella said of his rookie right fielder. "I thought it would take him some time to get used to baseball here in The States, and it has. The more experience he gets of playing ball here the better. He's had a very respectable spring. He's had a chance to see a lot of pitching. He's leading everybody in Spring Training in walks, so he's seen a lot of pitches, which is good."
Ultimately, Piniella was eager to get to Chicago and answer the bell.
"We're healthy, and we're ready to go," Piniella said. "This is going to be no picnic for us, I can tell you that. We're going to have to go out and play. We like our team, and we feel good about our team. But believe me, we're going to have to go out and play."
That's what Chicago has been waiting for. The Opening Day weather report confirms Piniella's "no picnic" forecast, with wet weather in the 40s set to greet the Cubs. But the club's eye is set on October, when the fall climate just begs for baseball.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.