Castro settling in with glove for Cubs
Prospect starting to get his footing as defense looks to improve
CHICAGO -- The Cubs entered the season believing they had a strong group of position players. So far, that group has not only collectively disappointed with the bat, but they haven't been any better in the field. That begs the question: If you're not hitting or fielding, what else is there?
"When you're not scoring runs, what's your best offense? A good defense," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "That's it. We haven't [play well defensively]. That's one area where, if you want to win consistently, we've got to improve.
"[Defense] has a direct bearing on how many runs the other teams scores and how hard you make it for your pitchers. It needs to get a whole lot better, and relatively quick."
Entering Saturday's game, the Cubs ranked 15th in the National League in fielding percentage, just ahead of Arizona. However, it's not just the routine plays on which the Cubs have fallen short. Chicago ranks 13th in the NL in defensive efficiency, a stats which measures the percentage of balls in play a team converts into outs -- an excellent measure of a team's range.
"We've made some silly errors, some errors you wouldn't expect," said Piniella. "We've got to get more consistent. I'm confident we will."
A positive sign on the defensive front is the play the last two games from rookie shortstop Starlin Castro, who was promoted from the Minors to increase the range at the most important defensive position on the field. Castro struggled with routine plays in his first few games, committing five errors in his first five games, but has looked smooth and, more importantly, reliable in his last two outings.
Castro committed three errors in Monday's game against Florida and in doing so, he became the first Cubs shortstop since Shawon Dunston in 1985 to pull off the undesirable hat trick. He followed that up with another error on Tuesday, and nearly had another when an infield chopper he was unable to come up with was changed from an error to an infield single. Then, on Wednesday, he missed a grounder to his left off the bat of Florida's Chris Coghlan, the first hitter of the game. However, Castro started a double play on the next hitter, Gaby Sanchez, then ranged far to his right to run down a soft liner from Hanley Ramirez. The play may have been a spark for Castro because, since then, he's been flawless.
"This kid, we just have to be patient with him and let him play," said Piniella. "He's going to be just fine.
Intentional or not, pitchers pile up K's
CHICAGO -- Cubs starter Tom Gorzelanny struggled with his command on Friday, but still was in position to win the game when he departed in part because of his ability to get strikeouts in key situations.
Gorzelanny whiffed seven batters in his five innings against the Pirates, and now has struck out 83 batters in 78 1/3 innings for Chicago since being acquired from Pittsburgh last season, a rate of 9.5 batters per nine innings. In four seasons for the Pirates, he whiffed 5.9 batters per nine.
Do the Cubs preach a different approach?
"There probably is the same emphasis anywhere you go," said Gorzelanny. "It's the same mentality for every pitcher, you pitch to contact and try to get quick outs. I think for us, we've been fortunate to have guys on the staff with great stuff.
Despite the high K-rate, Gorzelanny does not consider himself to be a strikeout pitcher.
"We preach getting guys to make contact," Gorzelanny said, "and trying to get guys to make contact early, but there are just times you get two strikes and are able to finish guys off."
The Cubs entered Saturday's game with 288 strikeouts, the most in the Major Leagues. This is nothing new. Chicago led the National League in strikeouts in eight of the previous nine seasons. Yet, starter Randy Wells agrees that there is no particular organizational emphasis on striking batters out.
"As far as starters go, you want to try to get as deep into the game as you can and get as many quick outs as you can," Wells said. "Strikeouts are just accidents. I know for me they are, I'm not a power pitcher at all. For us, you [do] have guys like [Carlos] Marmol and [Carlos] Zambrano that can pile up a lot of strikeouts in a hurry."
Besides the power arms the Cubs have accumulated over the years, Wrigley Field itself may be a factor in the annual high ranking in strikeouts. During the decade in which the Cubs have lorded over the league strikeout standings, their pitchers have averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings at home, versus 7.8 on the road.
"The wind, when it blows out, it pushes in pitchers' faces and makes the ball dance a little more," said Wells. "It's a Catch-22, when the ball is flying out, it kind of [stinks], but for sinkerballers and changeup guys, it helps. Then, obviously, when the wind is blowing in, pitchers have a big advantage."
Wells also thinks the cozy dimensions of Wrigley Field play a role in encouraging hitters to over-swing.
"The short porch leads to longer swings," Wells said.
Nady in lineup for second consecutive day
Shortly before manager Lou Piniella addressed the media Saturday, he made a minor lineup tweak with possibly bigger implications.
The scorecard posted in the Cubs' clubhouse prior to the game featured Tyler Colvin batting eighth and playing right field, but it was in fact Xavier Nady who started in right, batting seventh. It marked the first time Nady has started on back-to-back days this season, significant because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right throwing arm. Nady doubled in his first at-bat.
"I didn't know if he would be available to play two days in a row, but he says he's ready to go, so we'll put him out in right field," Piniella said.
Piniella said before Friday's game that Nady's elbow wasn't quite 100 percent and he would be ready to play every day by June 1. Despite Nady's second straight start, his status remains the same.
"I just had a talk with our trainer and nothing has really changed. We're still going about it the same way," Piniella said. "We need to get him on the field more often. It's according to his availability. And we've got to swing the bats a little bit."
Nady is a career .300 hitter against left-handed pitchers and the Pirates started southpaw Paul Maholm in the second game of the series.
With the lineup change, Starlin Castro moved to eighth in the order. Piniella added that Colvin was fine and he would not hesitate to use him against lefties in the future.
In another lineup move, Piniella slotted Geovany Soto in the five-hole for the second time this season. Soto went 1-for-3 with a walk behind the cleanup hitter against the Marlins on Wednesday.
"What does it do for us? It'll put a catcher hitting fifth in our lineup," Piniella said jokingly. "He's been swinging the bat. We've been hitting Soto seventh, so what we did was flip-flop Nady and Soto."
The 27-year-old backstop has registered 53 at-bats from the eight-hole and 27 at-bats in the seven spot this season. During his 2008 Rookie of the Year campaign, Soto had roughly the same number of at-bats at fifth (133), sixth (158) and seventh (159), but he hit just .226 when batting fifth, compared to .278 when batting sixth and .302 when batting seventh.
Piniella said he doesn't put much into the lineup change.
"I think too much is made of those things," Piniella said, echoing a one of his familiar refrains. "They're very subtle, little things."
Regardless, the move might be a reflection of Soto's production. Though he hasn't had enough at-bats to qualify, Soto would rank second in the National League in on-base percentage with a .459 mark.
Lou sees evolution of players' stances
CHICAGO -- Baseball has changed a lot since Lou Piniella retired as a player in 1984. One evolution not often discussed is hitters' collective approach with two strikes.
"The game has changed," Piniella said. "When I played, when there were two strikes, I would choke up and try to bring in the men on base. You don't see many teams, not just us, doing those sort of things."
Power is more a part of the game than it was in Piniella's days, though speed and defense seems to be regaining some traction across baseball. Still, hitters are more prone to be pull-heavy.
"When I played, hitters were in more of a closed stance," Piniella said. "Now, you see hitters in more of an open stance."
Approaches at the plate may have changed over the years, but the end goal remains the same.
"Regardless of how [hitters] change, you have to score runs," Piniella said.
CHICAGO -- The Cubs announced a couple of starting time adjustments to their schedule to accommodate television during Interleague Play. On June 13, the game against the White Sox will begin at 7:05 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on ESPN. The following week, the game against the Angels will begin at 1:20 p.m. and will be shown on WGN. Both games are at Wrigley Field. ... Len Kasper and Bob Brenly, the Cubs' television announcing team, will call Sunday's game from the bleachers. The duo will set up in left-center field, adjacent to the batter's eye. ... Chad Tracy remains hot for the Iowa Cubs. He went 3-for-6 with three RBIs on Friday, and is now 13-of-24 (.542) since being sent to Triple-A last week. ... The Cubs entered Saturday's game with a .291 team average this season at Wrigley Field, the third-best home average in baseball. ... The Cubs are 1-16 this season when scoring fewer than four runs.
Bradford Doolittle is a contributor to MLB.com. Matt Forman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.