Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cubs, Bucs hope 2011 puts end to waiting

Be it a 102-year wait for a World Series title or an 18-year wait for a winning record, they've certainly been pushed to the extreme.
Perhaps 2011 serves as the end of these respective -- and, you could say, ridiculous -- waits. If that's the case, then consider Friday's Opening Day matchup at Wrigley Field the beginning of the end.

Of course, for that to be true, plenty has to go right for both of these clubs. The Cubs need bounce-back years from several high-paid players, while the Pirates need an inspired effort from their up-and-comers.
Clearly, of these two National League Central clubs, the Cubs are more equipped to contend with the likes of the Reds, Brewers and Cardinals this season. And Mike Quade, brought back after a strong stint as the interim manager in the last two months of the 2010 season, has no interest in seeing this club's supposed curse continue.
"I'm aware of everything," Quade said. "I can count to 102."
Quade's Cubs went 24-13 after he took over for Lou Piniella and followed up that optimistic finish with an opportunistic offseason, shipping a package of prospects to the Rays to bring in right-hander Matt Garza, signing first baseman Carlos Pena to a one-year, low-risk deal and getting Kerry Wood as a setup man at a steep discount.
The Cubs need Pena, coming off a down year with the Rays, to live up to his potential, and they need third baseman Aramis Ramirez and outfielder Alfonso Soriano to live up to the size of their contracts. They need Garza to make a seamless transition to the National League (and Wrigley Field, where his fly-ball tendencies will be tested), and they need right-hander Carlos Zambrano to keep his cool.
From a pitching standpoint, though, Game 1 belongs to righty Ryan Dempster, who will be making his third career Opening Day start and first with the Cubs. He earned the nod not with dazzling stuff or results but with consistency, having logged 43 wins and more than 600 innings over the past three years in the rotation.
"It's a tremendous honor," Dempster said of the assignment. "There's probably more leading up to it, but once that first pitch is thrown, it's just like any other game. I'm sure I'll be a little excited."
The excitement in the other dugout centers around the Pirates' emerging youth and a new leader in Clint Hurdle.
"These guys are ready to win -- they're ready to win," Hurdle said. "And I think one of the biggest areas where I can make a difference is just the direction of what we do daily. They have all the want-to in the world. I'm trying to help them with the how-to."
The Pirates' future is largely tied to third baseman Pedro Alvarez and left fielder Jose Tabata, both of whom showed promise in their 2010 debuts and will be experiencing their first Opening Day in the big leagues. Pair them with center fielder Andrew McCutchen, one of the game's top young stars, and you have a nucleus around which to build.
But if the Pirates are going to end their seemingly endless string of losing seasons, they'll need their starting rotation to exceed expectations. That begins with the newly signed Kevin Correia, who gets the Opening Day nod despite a not-so-dazzling 10-10 record and 5.40 ERA last year. Remember, though, that those numbers were compiled for a Padres team that nobody expected to be a factor in the NL West but ended up winning 90 games.
"I think we can do that here," Correia said.
That's the kind of attitude Hurdle is trying to inspire in his players.
"We're not going to erase anything that has been done in the past overnight," Hurdle said. "You can't fight cynicism. You can't fight criticism other than with tangible evidence of getting better. I want them to be aware of history, but not a slave to it."
Sounds like a theme for both of these teams.
Cubs: Pena at the plate
The winds of Wrigley could help Pena become a threat to once again hit 40-plus homers. Even in a down year in 2010 -- in which he batted just .196 -- Pena smacked 28 homers and drove in 84 runs, so his run-production value is still there. And on Opening Day, Cubs fans will get their first look at what he can do in his new, friendly confines.
"I feel great, and I feel like I'm making the right kind of progress," Pena said. "I'm working every single day, diligently and consistently. [Hitting coach] Rudy [Jaramillo] has been so helpful and reminding me to keep it basic."
What's not so basic is the infield shift Pena often faces. That was a big part of his paltry batting average last year, which is why he'll probably face it against the Pirates and others.
"It's not just a defensive strategy but a mental strategy that can really hinder me if I give into it," Pena said. "If I'm making the right kind of contact, there shouldn't be that many balls rolled over into that shift."

1 comment:

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