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04/28/09 9:20 PM ET

Bradley returns with Lee not far behind

Cubs outfielder starts; first baseman available to pinch-hit

PHOENIX -- The healing process has begun for key injuries which, according to manager Lou Piniella, have bumped the Cubs to the dirt road of the early National League Central race.

Milton Bradley was back in right field, and in the No. 5 spot in the batting order, for Tuesday night's meeting with the D-backs. But the Cubs' walking wounded have yet to turn the "corners" in their recuperation.

Although first baseman Derrek Lee (neck spasms) declared himself well and was eager to also return to the lineup, Piniella chose to rest the first baseman one more day. The prognosis was worse for third baseman Aramis Ramirez (calf), who may have a stint on the disabled list in his near future.

So, with struggling catcher Geovany Soto giving way to Koyie Hill, the Cubs lineup was still down three regulars for the middle game of this series.

"Ramirez was out here early to run, but he couldn't accelerate at all," Piniella detailed. "The plan is for him to try it again Thursday, and if it isn't better, we'll have to weigh all our options."

After doing some early hitting in the indoor batting cage, Lee said he "felt good" and if he passed a further test in the regular pregame batting practice expected Piniella to redo his lineup, the early version of which had Micah Hoffpauir at first.

But Piniella, while conceding Lee was "a whole lot better," chose to delay his return.

"The recommendation of [trainer Mark] O'Neal was that we wait till tomorrow. I know he'd like to play tonight," Piniella said, "but we want to wait and see how he runs the bases. But Lee will be available to pinch-hit."

That role was the precursor to the return of Bradley, who looked at only three pitches in striking out in the eighth inning of Monday night's 7-2 loss. That left him 0-for-14 since his only hit of the season, a home run on April 10.

"We not only need him in the lineup, we need him productively in the lineup. He was our big acquisition over the winter," Piniella said of Bradley, who was signed as a free agent to a two-year, $20 million deal and hit .460, with four homers during Spring Training. "And he had such a good spring. We hope he gets hot with the bat, and that we can keep him out there on a consistent basis for a long period of time."

That, and the eventual returns of Ramirez and Lee, would go a long way toward accelerating a Cubs team that began Tuesday residing in fourth place, four games behind division-leading St. Louis.

"I said over the weekend that, right now, St. Louis is a better team than us," Piniella said. "And maybe they aren't alone. We've been riding a dirt road, and it's been a little bumpy.

"Once we get back on the pavement, we'll be OK. The question is, how long will it take us to get back on the pavement? But we've got to improve. Right now, our job is to stay close.

"Look, take [Albert] Pujols, [Ryan] Ludwick and someone else out of the Cardinals' lineup, and it's a different team. Or Manny Ramirez and two others out of Los Angeles' lineup, and it would make a big difference."

The biggest tranquilizer for the Cubs could be the fact that the calendar on the wall still reads "April."

"We're in good shape, if you ask me," said Lee, whose rehab has consisted of heat and ultrasound treatments. "It's early, and I think when we get guys back, we'll start hitting our stride."

Hitting the ball with authority would be just as important.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.