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Two more weeks in closer derby
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/8/2008 12:24 AM

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MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Friday he hopes to have the closer's situation settled by the third week of March.

"We get so concerned about the closer's role that you lose a lot of ballgames like we have here in the spring in the eighth inning," Piniella said. "I think we've lost three or four already. … Just give us a couple more weeks to sort this thing out, and we'll have an answer for you."

Veteran Bob Howry threw the ball better Thursday against the Athletics. The Cubs said Kerry Wood has touched 98 mph on his fastball. Carlos Marmol has looked good most of the spring, with Piniella saying winter ball has put him ahead of the other competitors in terms of how he's throwing.

Piniella still is looking for another right-handed arm to add to the mix that already includes the three closer candidates and Michael Wuertz. That arm could belong to Kevin Hart.

"Of all the guys that we have here, Hart is emerging as that guy right now," Piniella said. "He looks confident out there. He's got some poise, and he's throwing strikes. We'll see how camp proceeds, but it's starting to look more and more that way."

In Friday's 6-4 victory over the Mariners, Hart gave up 2 hits and 2 runs in one-third of an inning in the eighth. He also was hit in the left Achilles' tendon with a batted ball, but the Cubs said he's OK.

Ramirez returns: Third baseman Aramis Ramirez made his 2008 Cactus League debut Friday, going 0-for-2 with a walk. He also made a nice running catch in foul territory near the wall.

Ramirez has been out with a sore right shoulder. He did not have to make any throws.

"I played five innings the first day out there; I feel pretty good right now," he said. "I can come back (today) and play five more innings and go from there."

Left fielder Alfonso Soriano is also expected to play today. He's been out since Sunday, when he suffered a minor break of his right middle finger.

Roster cuts: The Cubs reduced their spring roster from 59 to 50 Friday. The most notable cut was right-handed reliever Billy Petrick, who was optioned to Class AAA Iowa. The Cubs took it easy on Petrick this spring in the wake of the shoulder problems that slowed him last year. Petrick got into eight games with the Cubs in 2007.

"We love Billy, but coming off his injuries, we would be remiss to try to force him to get ready by the 28th, 29th of the month," general manager Jim Hendry said. "We think he's a long-term player for us, and we feel if we rush him or he goes out there and is not ready to go two to three days in a row and he tries to force it, he might force himself into a situation that would not be good for him."

The Cubs also sent eight nonroster men back to minor-league camp, including hard-throwing reliever Jose Ceda and outfielder Tyler Colvin, their No. 1 draft pick from 2006. The others sent out were pitchers Esmailin Caridad and Geoff Jones, outfielder Andres Torres, infielder Bobby Scales and catchers Welington Castillo and Josh Donaldson.

Cubs 6, Mariners 4

Cubs' record: 3-6

At the plate: Daryle Ward hit a 2-run homer in the Cubs' 4-run fourth inning. Derrek Lee had an RBI double in the first. Matt Murton was 2-for-4

On the mound: Lefty Ted Lilly gave up a 2-run homer to Yuniesky Betancourt in the first and nothing after that in 3 innings. Tim Lahey worked a scoreless inning. Kevin Hart gave up 2 runs in the eighth. Carlos Marmol earned his first save with a scoreless ninth, but he gave up a hit and walked one.

Next: The Cubs play a pair of split-squad games. In Mesa, Sean Marshall pitches against TBA for Arizona (2:05 p.m., Channel 9). In Phoenix, Jon Lieber pitches for the Cubs against Oakland's Rich Harden.

-- Bruce Miles