Digging For Diamonds in the Cubs' Rough Start

There is nothing like a beautiful, balmy day in early May, with the contending Chicago Cubs playing the archrival St. Louis Cardinals in a key early-season matchup at Wrigley.

O.K., let's be honest, Friday afternoon's game between the Cubs and Cards truly was nothing like that. It was played under steel-grey skies on a raw, windy day that felt much more like March than May. The Cubs, with most of their vaunted hopes for the future still working out the kinks in the minor leagues, finished April in last place in the National League Central with a record of 9 wins and 17 losses.

The Cards, though they've stumbled to a .500 start over the first month, won the NL pennant two of the past three years and are much more likely again to contend for the playoffs than the Cubs.

Yet, the Cubs, for at least a day, got the better of the vaunted St. Louis team, winning an entertaining game by a 6-5 score, and punishing Cardinals' pitching ace Adam Wainwright for six runs on 10 hits in just five innings.

Not that the game wasn't an adventure. The Cubs took a 6-3 lead into the top of the eighth, and brought in reliever Justin Grimm, who had been throwing well. Today, he didn't, giving up a walk, a two-run homer and a single, getting his only out on a long fly to the wall that centerfielder Ryan Sweeney managed to catch even though he injured himself chasing it down (with what looked to be a pulled hamstring muscle). Fortunately, Ryan Schlitter, who relieved Grimm, snuffed the Cardinals' rally and preserved the Cubs' chance to win.

Nonetheless, what Cubs' fans have to look for in what's developing as yet another rebuilding season are the players who will be the building blocks of a future winner -- if the bevy of minor league prospects the team keeps talking about turn out to be all that. And some of the positive signs that defy the team's now 10-17 record were on display today.

Anthony Rizzo, the young first baseman who fell short of his promise during 2013's 96-loss season, appears to have hit his stride. He hit a solo homer and a two-run single and also walked in four plate appearances Friday, and now has five homers, 15 rbi, a .295 batting average and sterling .413 on-base percentage.

Starlin Castro, the 24-year-old shortstop, went one-for-four and scored a run. Coming off a poor 2013 season like Rizzo, Castro has opened this year with four homers, 14 rbi and a .306 batting average. He still has a space-cadet problem in the field and skipped a throw past Rizzo that allowed the Cards to score an unearned run in the 4th, but his hitting has clearly improved.

Catcher Wellington Castillo, more highly regarded for his defense than offense when he came up to the majors for good in 2012, is showing signs that he has hitting chops as well. Friday, he had three doubles in four at-bats with two rbi, raising his season batting average to .300.

Emilio Bonafacio is a journeyman who already has played for seven different major league teams. But he seems to have found himself in Chicago, going 2-for-4 Friday to raise his season average to . 343. His ability to play a variety of positions could make him a valuable role player if the Cubs shock the world and start winning sooner rather than later: He shifted from second base to centerfield after Sweeney came up limping in the 8th inning.

Winning pitcher Travis Wood is following up well on his solid first season with the Cubs last year. He went seven innings Friday and gave up two earned runs, six hits and no walks while striking out six. His season record now is 2 wins and 3 losses with a 3.35 ERA.

And Hector Rondon earned his second save by shutting the Cards down with a one-two-three 9th. Rondon was an April bright spot with his strong set-up relief, and he has been given a shot at closer after Jose Veras and Pedro Strop stumbled in that role. Friday's performance certainly earned him another shot at keeping the job. In 13 appearances this season, Rondon has an ERA of 0.63, he's allowing less than one baserunner per inning and is averaging more than one strikeout per inning.

Lest I be accused of being driven mad by my rose-colored glasses, that 10-17 record says the Cubs have a long way to go before they will be able to satisfy their fans' increasingly urgent demands for a winner. The lineup still has way too many born pinch-hitters playing starting roles. You still never know what you're going to get from the middle relief corps.

But what's also true is that there finally appears to be a cadre of promising players at the Friendly Confines of Wrigley who make it worth coming out to catch a game. It's a bit of a small favor for now, but it's more than fans have had to hang their Cubs hats on for a long time.

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