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I had a nice chat before Jeff Samardzija's return engagement in Des Moines Saturday night with I-Cub pitching coach Mike Mason. We talked about Jose Ascanio's pitch counts, Samardzija's repertoire, the organization's pitcher pecking order and the effect, if any, of yo-yoing between the bullpen in Chicago and the rotation in Des Moines on young arms and minds.

Ascanio was the first order of business. It took him until his 6th start to record a win, despite a 1.01 ERA, because his pitch count leash was still so short. After a high-water mark of 81 two starts ago, he'd been pulled after 76 last time out even though he fanned the side in the 4th and 5th, his last two innings of work. Why wasn't he allowed to come out for the 6th?

"He was still closing in winter ball," Mason noted. "When the decision was made in camp to start him this year, the plan was to give him a couple starts at each pitch count level - 60, 70, 80 - as he went along and see how he handled it. The other day we figured why trot him out for the 6th just to pull him after half a dozen more pitches."

Mason had lots more to say about Ascanio before Chad Fox's elbow came undone again later that same night in Milwaukee. I asked him if the organization saw Jose as a pleasant surprise at this point.

"Pleasant is a huge understatement. He's done way better than expected," he grinned. "All along the thought was that the [Chicago] Cubs' 6th starter would come from the organization, but nobody thought 'Hosie' was the guy. Well, he's the 6th starter now. He's passed Atkins."

What about Samardzija? Passed him too?

"Ascanio is a four pitch guy. He throws a curve, a slider and a change-up that's his best offspeed pitch," Mason said. "Jeff and I are talking about him working to develop a curveball to go with his fastball and split." Apparently Samardzija's change-up isn't the complement yet to his high-nineties heat that Ascanio's is to his.

"'Hosie' used to start with Atlanta through Double A," Mason recounted. "Then he went to relief, but he's been throwing multiple pitches longer than Jeff. Jeff's attitude coming back here is great and he understands what he's got to work on."

Later that night of course, Mason's ranking of the trio of proteges in his care was borne out when Ascanio was summoned to the big leagues in the wake of Fox's latest, and maybe last, breakdown.

Yesterday Atkins responded to his snub with probably his best start of the year in pitching the team to a 9-2 win over Memphis. After a rocky start he settled down to last seven innings, the last six of them scoreless.

I asked Mason about Jeff Stevens, who appears to be the best early dividend of the DeRosa trade, although he won't be filling in at 3rd for Aramis Ramirez as DeRosa could capably have done. Stevens still has a non-existent ERA, having allowed only four hits in 14 innings. Batters are 4-45 against him for a BAA of .088, 3rd best right now in professional baseball among pitchers who've thrown at least 10 innings.

"Jeff's been very good, but he's young and he knows he wouldn't get by in the big leagues with essentially one pitch like he is here right now," said Mason. "Down the line if the bullpen keeps struggling in Chicago, I suppose they might give him a shot, but right now there's probably guys ahead of him." Mason named Kevin Hart as one of those, despite his uneven pattern so far this spring.

What about guys like Ascanio and Samardzija ping-ponging between short relief and starting?

"That's a bigger issue in terms of mental preparation than physical." according to Mason. "And even the physical part might be more with the legs than the arm because you just don't run as much if you're in the pen as you do if you're starting every five days. You have to have a different approach with your legs and your head as much as your arm if you know you might pitch any day you come to the ballpark."

I asked Mason if he mostly carries out orders from above or if he has latitude in how he works with his pitchers at the Triple A level.

"I talk with Larry [Rothschild] all the time, and he might say, like with Jeff [Samardzija], 'he's gotta develop secondary pitches,' but it's up to me what pitches we work on. That's why Jeff and I are talkin' about maybe workin' on a curveball for him. They give me assignments, but it's up to me how I work on them." he explained.

Given the ongoing bullpen turmoil in Chicago it doesn't appear Mason's workload will let up any time soon.

OTHERWISE: Greg Reinhard will start in today's noon matinee in the wake of Ascanio's call-up. In 18 innings out of the bullpen he's compiled a 0.49 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only five BB's...the PCL American North is a nice parallel to the NL Central with Iowa [16-13], Memphis [17-11] and Nashville [17-14] jockeying in the standings like their counterparts in Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee...Jake Fox has been day-to-day since catching some broken bat shrapnel on Friday night and taking a few stitches to close a leg wound. He's expected back in the lineup today...catcher Chris Robinson is not only hitting .394, he's also swiped five bases! For what it's worth, he's only nabbed 2/15 stealing against him...couldn't help but notice that the redhead is till red hot. Matt Murton is hitting .411 at Colorado Springs. Sometimes we take our stats with a grain of salt in the PCL...MW

Jose Ascanio was brilliant this afternoon at Principal Park but he remains a pitcher in limbo.

 Ascanio tossed five scoreless innings at the Nashville Sounds on a drizzly day at the ballpark to lower his ERA to a minuscule 1.01. He didn't walk a batter and fanned nine, including the side in each of his last two frames. All of which begs a question as to why he was yanked after throwing 76 pitches, 51 of them strikes. His high water pitch count in six starts this year is 81 in his previous start, which was the only other time he lasted as many as five innings. He left the game leading 6-0.

Looks like the Cubs are grooming a helluva long man...

ALSO: Ascanio's opponent was the Nashville Sounds, Triple A affiliate of Milwaukee, managed by long-time Brewer 3B Don Money [great name]. Money showed he's still cat-quick at the hot corner when he made a slick barehanded grab in the 3B coaching box in the bottom of the first...the sacrificial southpaw the Sounds trotted out actually took the mound leading the PCL in walks with a BAA vs. lefties in excess of .500! I-Cub skipper Bobby Dickerson stacked his lineup accordingly which meant,among other things, that Jake Fox got the day off. Why then, if Dickerson wanted as many LH's as possible to hit, did switch-hitting SS Andres Blanco bat from the right side?...before striking out the side in the 4th and 5th, Ascanio whiffed somebody by the name of Tony Gwynn on a 12 pitch marathon AB in the 3rd...last night the I-Cubs finally got their first pinch-hit of the season in their 19th try...Jeff Stevens, obtained in the Mark DeRosa trade, entered the day's play unscored upon in nine appearances spanning 11 innings. He's permitted only three hits while striking out 12...in the wake of Randy Wells' call-up to start in place of Carlos Zambrano on Friday, reliever Greg Reinhard is slated to start on Saturday against Memphis. Reinhard has a 0.55 ERA in 16+ innings and 24 strikeouts versus a mere five walks...MW

Is there anything Carlos Zambrano can't do on a baseball field [other than keep cool]? What is he, an ace or an ass?

Dave van Dyck speculates in this morning's Chicago Tribune that if Zombie [call him Big Z if you like; I call him Zombie - it will make a good stage name when he becomes a pro wrestler] misses his Friday start in Milwaukee one of three Iowa Cubs will take his place: Randy Wells, Mitch Atkins or Jose Ascanio.

Atkins' first two starts were poor and as a result he still carries a bloated and somewhat misleading ERA of 6.99. The last three have been better.

Wells has been solid from the outset in compiling an ERA of 3.13.

Both Atkins and Wells have K/BB ratios of 3:1 and are big, imposing righthanders.

Ascanio has made five starts and sports a sparkling ERA of 1.25 but only in his last outing did he go five innings. His pitch count that night was 81, the first time he's been that high as he transitions from relief to the rotation. Of the three candidates van Dyck names, Ascanio seems the least likely from here.

This morning's Des Moines Register says Wells will start the opener of the I-Cub homestand tonight versus Nashville. The team's website tabs Atkins. A complicating factor might also be that the team's last two games over the weekend in Memphis were rained out.

Atkins' last appearance was on April 30, Wells' was April 27 and Ascanio was May 1.

There's always Samardzija...MW

Ordinarily I have little to say while the I-Cubs are on the road. My commentary usually takes the form of eyewitness accounts. But one big club is wandering the desert [both literally and otherwise] which means a long day's journey into gametime and another big club is in Nashville laying waste to PCL pitching staffs. I thought we might kill some time with a closer look at the latter.

After last night's two-homer game Jake Fox has a pile of stats like the stack of chips in front of the big winner at a poker game.

In 18 games he's hit 11 trotters and knocked in 29 runs! 19 of his league-leading 31 hits have been for extra bases. He's batting .443 with an OPS of 1.549. He already has amassed 73 total bases, just over four per game! True, he's fanned 20 times against only eight walks, but he's also played errorlessly so far at 1B.

For the sake of some perspective it might be useful to note that Big Jake's competition at the top of some of the PCL's hitting categories is none other than Matt Murton. Murton's off to a .411 start with Colorado Springs but 20 of his 30 hits have been singles. His OPS is 1.133 but he has, get this, swiped five bases without being caught. Fox is 1-1 in that category, he being more of a distance runner than a sprinter.

Last year Micah Hoffpauir totaled 100 RBI in just 70 games with Iowa. Will Fox be here long enough to find out if he can equal or surpass that remarkable rate of run production?

IN OTHER NEWS:

Jason Waddell, the bullpen lefty, is pure no more. He gave up his first three runs of the season and took the loss in Saturday's road trip opener...Is Jose Ascanio being stretched out or just exiled? Last year's sometimes I-Cub closer has had four starts and leads the league with a somewhat misleading ERA of 0.54. But his innings pitched have been four, four, four and two thirds and four. The corresponding pitch counts were 55, 54, 74 and 68. Are they extending him to be a long reliever? Mission accomplished...Bobby Scales has played 3B in all three games since Aramis Ramirez was hurt on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis...MW

An in-game thunderstorm preempted the traditional Friday night fireworks show and Jason Dubois [pronounced Doo-Bwah' in this organization] launched the finale with a game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth as the Iowa Cubs dropped the curtain on their first homestand of the season by stealing one from Albuquerque.

Jake Fox clubbed his league-leading eighth homer of the year and added two singles to again pace the I-Cub attack. Bobby Scales tripled,singled and scored twice to boost his average to .370. Both Scales and SS Andres Blanco are switch-hitting infielders batting over .300, but Scales has played some 3B and even a bit of 1B besides his usual post at 2B while Blanco has been strictly a shortstop early on. If an infielder is to be recalled today, Scales may have an edge based on versatility.

Chad Fox got the win last night despite yielding his first run of the year in half a dozen appearances. A quietly emerging story in the team's bullpen is RH Greg Reinhard. He's now thrown 11 scoreless innings while walking only three to go with 17 strikeouts. Jason Waddell remains unscored upon as the team's bullpen southpaw.

The team was to leave early this morning for Nashville where they start a four-game set tonight. Still unknown is whether or not they'd be dropping anyone off in St. Louis.

Jake Fox may be ready to take on big league pitching but last night he was silenced by a trio of ex-big leaguers as the Iowa Cubs fell to the Albuquerque Isotopes in a 7-0 yawner at Principal Park.

Eric Milton tossed six impressive innings on his way back from TJ surgery. Jeff Weaver and Tanyon Sturtze preserved the shutout with tidy work of their own. Each took at least one turn hosing down the blazing Big Jake.

Fox went hitless for the first time in 2009 and finally fell off of his unsustainable RBI pace of two per game. He grounded out to end the dreary affair and send everybody home to bed before a noon matinee today that is forecast to be played in good weather breezing through Des Moines on its way to Chicago. Look for the C-Cub crowd to be dressed a little more comfortably on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley.

Even though they only managed a combined two for eight, the Albuquerque highlights for me were Isotope veterans Valentino Pascucci and Chin Hu. I love the 1B with the name of an opera singer and it always makes me smile to know Hu's at SS.

I hope to get to the ballpark in mid-game today and plan to be there tomorrow night for Jack Snow, er, Jeff Samardzija's next start...MW

It's a shame there weren't more people there to see it because duels of legitimate pitching prospects like the one that played out last night at Principal Park are rare in the homer-happy Pacific Coast League.

 The mundanely named Bud Norris and your own fighting Irishman with Samardzija scrabbled on his mail fought each other to a 2-2 standoff before Round Rock eventually prevailed 7-5.

For his part, Samardzija looked every bit the big leaguer in waiting as he carved his way through the Texans' lineup to the tune of six innings, one walk, five strikeouts, less than six dozen pitches and a lone hit, that unfortunately being a two-run homer by Reggie Abercrombie who would later blast an encore that put his team ahead to stay.

Samardzija offered first pitch strikes to 12 of the 21 hitters he faced and 49 of his mere 71 pitches were strikes.

His inning by inning pitch counts broke down thusly: 11,13,9,9,18, and 11. Abercrombie's homer followed a two-out walk in the 5th.

Samardzija hit more batters [2] than hit him.

The prodigious Jake Fox smote a tying two-run blast beyond the center field wall in the bottom of the sixth to swell his RBI total to 20 already in only 10 games. That finished Norris, Houston's #2 prospect, who appears as tenacious and hard-throwing as his counterpart. Both were throwing in the low to mid 90's and one can imagine them opposing each other in Houston and Chicago before much longer.

Between the 6th and 7th innings I spotted a very high-ranking Chicago Cub official in the seats directly behind home plate and wandered down to see if I might pick a little at his large brain. I introduced myself by name and affiliation.

"After the game," he said, "I'm working right now." as though he were a player and I an autograph hound. I said I didn't mean to interrupt; just thought I could ask a couple quickies between frames.

"Whaddaya wanna ask?" he gasped as his eyes rolled.

"Does Jake Fox have a big league future with this organization? Are other teams interested in him?"

"That's none of your business." the wheeler-dealer said. "Do you expect me to tell you what teams have asked me about him?"

"No," said I. "I just wondered if there's interest in him."

"Jake Fox is a big league hitter." he declared in summation.

Then followed an even briefer, but no less pleasant, discourse about young Mr. Samardzija's progress after which I thanked him for his time and left him to enjoy what remained of what I like to call the "I think my husband's home" race in which contestants scramble to dress themselves in a uniform ASAP and lunge across a finish line in pursuit of a gift certificate for a free oil change.

I hope the high-powered observer enjoyed the 7th inning stretch, by which time Samardzija had showered and I was on my way to a late showing of "State of Play". Russell Crowe also looked very sharp...MW

Ahh, opening night at the ballpark. The aromas of the stadium grills. The energy of the gathering crowd. The intense greenness of the diamond. The excitement in the PA announcer's voice. The flowers in the restrooms!?

Even the national anthem singer last night at Principal Park in Des Moines couldn't wait to get the Iowa Cubs' home season started. She zipped through a snappy rendition in a minute or so and away we went.

Alas, once the game was put in the hands of professional ballplayers it ground nearly to a halt right out of the blocks.

A nearly 40-minute first inning saw both starting pitchers walk in a run and get paid a visit from their respective dugouts on the mound.

When the I-Cubs finally got to hit, leadoff man Sam Fuld popped one foul down the third baseline and headed for first. A hustling batboy sprinted from the home team's dugout and grabbed at Fuld's bat, by then in the grip of Round Rock's catcher. Only the catcher wouldn't let go. The confused batboy looked up at him pleadingly and the catcher pointed his attention to the stands where the ball had landed. Fuld was on his way back to the batter's box and wasn't yet done with his bat.

The first inning might never have ended had the sizzling Jake Fox not swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded into a fielder's choice that broke up an otherwise monotonous, if profitable, stretch of four straight walks by Round Rock's impostorous southpaw hurler.

Later on Fox would fire a run scoring single and launch a towering solo homer to maintain his per game RBI average at precisely two and the I-Cubs eased to an 8-3 win in front of an unusually large and comfortable opening night crowd of nearly ten grand.

By the second inning the renewed joy of baseball had already worn off for many and the scoreboard was inviting children to the playground under the first base grandstands. Such are the times we live in.

First game kinks were fairly minimal. There were a few pitches clocking in on the scoreboard radar screen at 50 mph, but the whole operation was otherwise in mid-season form.

I'll be back there tonight to have a look at the Notre Dame receiver turned thrower. If, that is, I can keep myself out of the playground. Tonight's promo is an earmuff giveaway; they shouldn't be necessary if the weather holds. Tomorrow afternoon is Samardzija jersey-shirt day. I'll check to see if they spell it right...MW

The Iowa Cubs will play their 2009 home opener tonight after completing a 5-3 road trip with an 8-7 win yesterday in Albuquerque.

Early on the story is the booming bat of Jake Fox, who's filling the shoes of Micah Hoffpauir and then some. So far he's hitting a robust .516 with a video game OPS of 1.676. Extrapolations of Fox's torrid start over a season's course, always fun in April, lead to some numbers of federally stimulating proportions. Were he to maintain his soul-sold-to-the-devil paces and NOT be recalled, Fox would rack up, for instance, 70 homers, 280 R'sBI and, gulp, 595 total bases.

I can't wait to get to the ballpark tonight and see how his road show plays in Des Moines.

Jake isn't the only Fox off to a fast start. Chad has racked up four straight scoreless outings out of the bullpen and recorded a save in yesterday's win.

Jose Ascanio is transitioning nicely from relief work to the rotation with two scoreless starts, each lasting four innings, as he stretches out to higher pitch counts. Ascanio has issued just one walk against eight strikeouts.

Jeff Samardzija had a lackluster two-inning stint out of the pen in the season opener but followed that with four shutout frames in his first start of the year later on the trip. He'll start again over the weekend and I plan to be there for a good look. He says he's throwing three sorts of fastballs now, along with his slider and a changeup that's the big work in progress. Samardzija reports throwing it several times in his last outing for strikes and says it's coming along. He threw 62 pitches last time out and will be rationed to about 75 on Saturday night en route to a routine workload in excess of 100.

Mitch Atkins has struggled in his two starts thus far, allowing 15 hits and 14 runs in just nine innings.

At the plate, CF Sam Fuld has played the best supporting role behind leading man Fox out of the leadoff spot.

April 17th sounds just about right for a midwest opening night and, sure enough, it looks like the I-Cubs have caught a break from the weatherman for a change. Afternoon highs in the low 70's are expected to give way to a comfortable evening. Unlike Ascanio and Samardzija, I think I have a good shot at going the distance my first time out...MW

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Since season's bitterly abrupt end I have been busy putting finishing touches on my first book, Far From the Trees: The Troubled Sons of an American Neighborhood. If nothing else the gang hereabouts should like the cover design. You can check that out without even buying the book, though it goes without saying that I hope you do both.

Copies can be ordered through either Amazon or Barnes & Noble online; hopefully a wider distribution is forthcoming - the book has gotten off to a tremendous start here in Des Moines. The local independent bookstore where we held a launch party immediately sold out of its hundred copies and has a waiting list of more than 200 and counting in anticipation of their next shipment. Amazon quickly sold out of its first batch.

Far From the Trees is a composite memoir from the neighborhood where I grew up; sort of a before/after the wild '60's seasoned with Cub angles throughout - forgive this shameless self-promotion offered for your consideration.

Happy holidays everybody - here's to a healthy 2009!

MW...

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