03/15/2013 8:03 PM ET
Stewart feels 'really good' after Minors scrimmage
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- It was only a Minor League game, and Ian Stewart didn't play in the field, but he couldn't believe how good he felt at the plate. That could be great news for the Cubs.
Stewart got his first in-game at-bats since Feb. 21 when he led off every inning Thursday for both teams in a Minor League game at Fitch Park.
"By my count, I was 2-for-5, maybe 1-for-5," he said. "I maybe gave myself one [hit]."
That didn't matter. What did was that Stewart's wrist passed all tests. He was limited to 55 games last season before undergoing surgery on his left wrist. He spent the offseason rehabbing and hitting with Hall of Famer Rod Carew, and this spring, Stewart doubled in his first at-bat in an intrasquad game on Feb. 21. But he felt tightness in his left quad as he ran to first, and had not played since.
If he's healthy and can provide the Cubs with the offense he put together in 2009 with the Rockies, they could have a 20-plus home run hitter who can drive in 70 RBIs.
"I still think I will be [that guy], and I think I will be this year," Stewart said. "It's just been such a relief for me knowing that the surgery that I had worked and I have no lingering issues in my wrist, and my bat speed feels back.
"The toughest part for me last year was I could hit [batting practice] all day because they were throwing it down the middle and you could control everything," he said. "Once the game came, and pitches were moving and breaking, and I just couldn't adjust because the wrist was holding me back. Now there's none of that.
"My confidence is really sky high right now, as far as my hitting and everything goes. I was really surprised at how I was able to feel in the box [Thursday] and tracking pitches and some swings I put on the baseball."
Stewart felt some soreness in his leg on Friday, and the next step will be another Minor League game. He still hasn't run full speed.
"I had a couple ground-ball outs and I wanted to make sure I didn't have a setback or reinjure it," he said. "I took my time to get down the line. I've been saying the running part is the last hurdle for me."
The Cubs signed Stewart to a $2 million non-guaranteed contract, but the only other option at third base is Luis Valbuena, who batted .219 last season. Valbuena did bat .306 in Venezuela in winter ball. Stewart said he feels he has enough time to prepare for the regular season.
"There's 17, 16 days until Opening Day," he said. "Typically, that's not what you want, but I think you can make the most of it by being able to go down to the Minor League games and get eight at-bats. It definitely helps just to see actual live pitching, to see some break on some balls and some spin and some speed of the pitches as well. It's very useful, and I'm just going to have to do that if I want to be ready for the season."
The best news for Stewart and the Cubs is how good he felt in the batter's box.
"I was a little nervous, actually, going down there," Stewart said. "My timing felt great, I felt like I was taking good pitches that were close, laying off some breaking balls and some changeups that were in the dirt, and it just felt really good. It was nice to square a couple balls up knowing I hadn't faced any live pitching since that scrimmage."
Baez predicted walk-off homer vs. Japan
MESA, Ariz. -- As Javier Baez was headed to the plate in the ninth inning Friday with the Cubs tied at 5 against Team Japan, he told Welington Castillo, who was on deck, to relax.
"I said, 'You're not hitting,'" Baez said.
Castillo didn't have to. Baez hit a walk-off two-run homer, his second blast of the game, to lift the split-squad Cubs to a 7-5 victory over Japan in an exhibition game in front of 2,915 at HoHoKam Stadium.
Baez also hit a solo shot in the seventh, which closed the gap to 5-4, and the Cubs tied the game in the eighth on Dan Vogelbach's RBI single.
The Japanese team may have been a little jet-lagged. They arrived in Arizona late Tuesday, and played the Giants on Thursday. The next stop is San Francisco for the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic.
"It was a real baseball game -- it wasn't really a Spring Training baseball game," Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk said of the close contest.
Baez, the Cubs' No. 1 Draft pick in 2011 and the club's No. 1 prospect, said the last walk-off home run he could remember came in high school.
"[The first homer,] I was just sitting on a fastball, and he threw me two, and I missed them, and then he threw me a fastball inside," Baez said. "I was patient at the plate. [In the ninth], with a man on second, I knew he'd throw a slider or a curveball, and he threw me a slider and I hit it hard and hit it over the fence."
This was Baez's third spring home run, although the statistics from the exhibition game won't count in the Cactus League stats.
Vitters happy to get game action under way
MESA, Ariz. -- Josh Vitters finally got in a game for the first time since Feb. 21, and it didn't take long for him to get tested.
Vitters, 23, sidelined with a sore left quad, subbed in the Cubs' game in Glendale against the Dodgers on Thursday.
"I got to test [my leg] on the first ball I hit, I hit a grounder to shortstop," Vitters said. "It's kind of good that I had a couple ground balls and got to test it out. I didn't push it quite to 100 percent, but I picked it up pretty close."
It's been a frustrating spring for Vitters, the Cubs' No. 1 Draft pick in 2007 and the club's No. 14 prospect. The Cubs project him to start at Triple-A Iowa this season, but Vitters wanted to show he was better than the .121 he put together in 36 games with the big league team at the end of last season.
"I learned that the big leagues is hard, it's hard for a reason," Vitters said of his experience last year. "Obviously, the competition is really good and it's something you have to learn how to mentally prepare for and physically prepare for, and that's what I did over the offseason. Going into this year, I feel a lot more confident than I did last season."
Vitters hit .304 at Iowa last year before he was called up Aug. 5. He was frustrated when he was sidelined after the first intrasquad game this spring.
"It's terrible, it's awful, it really is," he said. "I had to work through it, and I'm just happy to be here every day, and really happy to be back on the field now."
Vitters started at third base for the Cubs in Friday's exhibition game against Team Japan.
Prospect Almora to miss three to four weeks
MESA, Ariz. -- Albert Almora, the Cubs' No. 1 Draft pick in 2012, broke the hamate bone in his left hand during a swing Thursday in a game at the Minor League camp, and he is expected to be out until mid May.
The injury was not believed to be a serious, and Cubs officials said Almora, the Cubs' No. 2 prospect, will have the bone removed. He was expected to resume baseball activities in three to four weeks.
"It's not a career problem, more a pain-in-the-butt-type thing that happens to quite a few hitters over the history of the game," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "It's a little bone that doesn't mean anything, that you don't need, [and it won't] cost him eight weeks before he gets in a game.
"The good thing is it's one of those things you take out and are done with it," Sveum said. "If you leave it in and have surgery, then [you] possibly [miss] the whole season. It's a nice injury to be done with."
The outfielder batted .321 last season for the Cubs' Arizona Rookie League and Class A Boise teams.
• Cubs outfielder Brett Jackson was scratched from Friday's lineup against Team Japan because of lingering soreness in his right shoulder. His status was day to day. Jackson, projected to open at Iowa, was batting .313 in 13 games this spring.
"It's a little more than that [tightness, stiffness] to take himself out of the lineup," Sveum said. "It doesn't bother him hitting, just pinches when he throws."
• Starling Peralta, who was selected by the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 Draft, was returned to the Cubs on Friday. Peralta was 5-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 20 games (17 starts) last season for Class A Peoria, striking out 86 over 99 1/3 innings. That included a 14-strikeout game Aug. 7 against Clinton.
• Anthony Rizzo, who was playing for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, was expected to rejoin the Cubs in time to play Saturday when the team faces the Royals at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. Rizzo and Italy were eliminated Wednesday in Miami by the Dominican Republic.
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.