05/03/12 12:40 PM ET
Winter leagues help LaHair stay focused
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
LaHair played in the Dominican Republic before the 2011 season, when he hit 38 homers at Triple-A Iowa to be named Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Coast League. He didn't go to the Dominican until December, which is after the season had begun.
"Down there, they throw the ball so hard, hard sliders," LaHair said. "Your bat speed is probably 85 [mph], and their pitch speed is 95 [mph]. It's way off."
But the Cubs' first baseman did well, batting around .300, which helped his confidence. He didn't hit for power, so the Dominican team sent him home.
"I was about 48 at-bats in and didn't have a home run," LaHair said. "I started feeling myself fouling balls back and hitting hard ground balls and thought, 'It's coming.' A lot of times, in winter ball, they don't get it. If you don't come in and do it right away, you've got no chance. Who knows? In my next 40-50 at-bats, I might have hit five or six home runs. This year in Venezuela, I went the whole month of November without a hit it seemed like, and they stuck with me."
LaHair followed his stellar season at Iowa last year with a trip to Venezuela, and he hit 15 home runs there. What the winter leagues did was re-enforce that he's not going to get any fastballs down the middle, so he had to make adjustments.
He also was motivated last year to do well.
"I just knew I had to go above and beyond," LaHair said. "I knew I had to stay locked in and have a good year. I felt it could've been my last year."
After all, LaHair had turned 29 in November 2011. He'd played nine seasons in the Minor Leagues. When would he get his chance?
"I felt I couldn't do any more, I couldn't work any harder," LaHair said. "That's a bad combination to have. You can't work any harder or work any more, and you're not getting a big league opportunity, then why am I playing and stressing my brain out every day over this game? Luckily, I have a good wife, good family, good support, and they kept pushing me."
It paid off, and he's now the everyday first baseman for the Cubs, leading the team in home runs and RBIs. Will he play winter ball this year?
"It's almost like I want to go for a month," LaHair said. "It gets me off the couch, keeps my weight down. Instead of five or six months [off], it's three months. That's a big thing."
Wood, Dempster return from disabled list
CINCINNATI -- The Cubs realigned their pitching and activated both Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood from the disabled list on Thursday, while optioning Scott Maine and Randy Wells to Triple-A Iowa.
Dempster started against the Reds on Thursday on his 35th birthday. He had been sidelined with a strained right quad, last pitching on April 17 against the Marlins. Wood, 34, has not pitched since April 13 because of right shoulder fatigue. He was 0-1 with an 11.57 ERA in four relief appearances this season.
Maine, 27, posted a 1.59 ERA in five relief appearances after he was recalled April 20. His departure leaves the Cubs with one lefty, James Russell, in the bullpen.
"[Maine] did a good job while he was here, a really good job, and it's very nice to have those two lefties in the bullpen," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.
Wells, 29, went 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in two starts following his recall April 22. He was not happy with the demotion. He walked nine and gave up nine hits over 8 2/3 innings.
"It is what it is," Wells said. "I didn't pitch well. There's no one really to blame but yourself. You obviously want to pitch well and put yourself in a good position, but the numbers don't stack up."
"He's got a future here," Sveum said, "but we can't sit here and promise anything. Right now, that's the role he's in -- the swing man, coming up when we need starts."
The Phillies scored four runs off Wells in the fourth inning on Saturday. Wells, who will be inserted into Iowa's rotation, was upset at the high number of walks in his two starts.
"The walks are the only thing that spoils this," the right-hander said. "I thought I pitched pretty good against the Reds [on April 22]. Five walks [stinks]. The fourth inning in Philly, things unraveled. It's no different than what I've been the last three years -- it's one bad inning. Chalk it up as a bad day and get back to work."
Wood will be eased into games and used in less stressful situations, such as the sixth and seventh innings, Sveum said.
One pitcher in the Cubs' bullpen who hasn't seen much action is Rule 5 Draft pick Lendy Castillo, who has not pitched since April 20.
"When you deal with a Rule 5 guy, you do the best you can," Sveum said. "It's been a luxury to where everything has worked out in a lot of games. We're a month into the season and we haven't had to use him in any stressful situations, and the starters have gone deep enough to give everybody days off, and we've had days off at the right time."
Castillo has appeared in five games so far, and he did see more action when Wood was on the active roster. Wood is the only reliever who won't be expected to go two innings if needed.
Cubs ready for challenge against Dodgers
CINCINNATI -- Cubs manager Dale Sveum likes to study video and spray charts. The Cubs face the Dodgers and Matt Kemp starting Friday at Wrigley Field. Does Kemp have any holes in his swing to exploit?
"Make sure you don't throw any lefties [against him]," Sveum said of Kemp, who is hitting .533 off left-handers. "The guy, for a month now, has been about as good as you can be for a right-handed hitter, especially the power numbers he's putting up in that ballpark. They're phenomenal. You do your best to keep the ball in the ballpark."
Lefty Paul Maholm will have to deal with Kemp on Friday in the series opener. The Dodgers' center fielder is 4-for-12 off Maholm, with one double. Kemp leads the Major Leagues with 12 home runs and has 25 RBIs in 25 games. His teammate Andre Ethier also is off to a good start, with six homers and 27 RBIs.
"They're obviously one of the hottest teams in baseball," Sveum said. "When you have a one-two punch like Ethier and Kemp carrying them each and every night, it leads to a lot of wins, as well as a nice starting staff. Fifty RBIs coming out of two guys after a month is a lot. You're going to win a lot of games. Good teams have that 3-4-5 punch, that's tough to beat."
When Cubs infielder Blake DeWitt was on the Dodgers, he saw how good Kemp was up close.
"He's always had the tools and has always been a good player," DeWitt said Thursday. "He's put those tools together and he's making the most of his ability. It's definitely not surprising. He can do everything on the field -- there's nothing he can't do. I think everybody is seeing that now."
Kemp was named the National League Player of the Month for April. Some have joked that he's already wrapped up the NL MVP Award, too.
"He deserves the recognition he's gotten," DeWitt said. "As a player, it's fun to watch and see what he's doing that night. We all know how hard this game is, and when you're putting up numbers like that and making plays like that, it's fun. It's impressive."
The Cubs get a little break in that they won't have to deal with 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who is not starting in this series.
"It's nice whenever you can miss one of the top five pitchers in the game," Sveum said. "You've got to keep those two guys [Kemp and Ethier] from doing the big damage, and it's easier said than done."
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.