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Monday, December 4

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Cubs Fri Apr 06 2012

Signs of Cubs Progress Despite Opening Loss


It's the only word that can fully describe Thursday's 2-1 opening loss to the Washington Nationals. Even when plays went the Cubs' way (see Starlin Castro's pop fly single that could've easily been bunted farther), seasoned fans sensed a one-run lead wasn't going to last.

After 7 2/3 innings of near-brilliance from Ryan Dempster, manager Dale Sveum walked to the mound and seemingly asked the wind-whipped starter if he had another hitter left in him. But after 108 pitches, the safe play on the first day of a long season is to let the bullpen mop up. Three walks, a run, and a Carlos Marmol ninth inning later, you can drive home safely without a rendition of "Go Cubs Go."

The game did, however, give us a glimpse at the changes Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Sveum were aiming to make for this year and the long term. A team built on the back of starting pitching, heads-up base running, and hitting with a plan.

When Sveum said he'd put his starting rotation up against anybody in the league, he wasn't being totally ridiculous (ok, maybe a little). If each guy pitches to potential, a top 10 rotation isn't out of the question. The odds of it happening are what made people (mainly me) laugh hysterically. Dempster's domination after scuffling through the first inning is something a manager hopes his team can lean on the whole season. Take notes, Jeff Samardzija.

Alfonso Soriano took Sveum's aggressive base running approach to heart in the fourth inning with an attempted steal of third. (Unicorn sighting!) Unfortunately he was called out (wrongly), and also failed to let the runner behind him know what he was doing so that at the very least, a runner was still in scoring position. Despite the failure, seeing Soriano running early is encouraging, considering he's attempted just 20 steals in the past three seasons.

Some might fault Joe Mather (I seriously just had to look up his name) for being thrown out at home in the ninth, but he was going on contact no matter where the ball was hit. The attacking style is a smart attempt to make up for an offense that lacks punch and frequent base runners.

Taking pitches and drawing walks will certainly be cornerstones of future Cubs teams, but patience is something that's difficult to instill at the big league level. The team is loaded with free swingers, so instead of totally derailing their style, Sveum has attempted to channel it into production. It was obvious the hitters had a plan against young fireballer Stephen Strasburg -- attacking his first pitch fastballs over the outer half so they didn't fall into pitchers counts -- only to see the devastating curveball and changeup that made him the first pick in the 2009 draft.

Progress? Yes. But progress is a process.

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