Daily Herald
What that 'cruelest month' April may portend for Cubs
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 5/3/2010 3:10 PM | Updated: 5/3/2010 3:41 PM

Cubs @ Pirates

TV: Channel 9 Tuesday and Thursday; Comcast SportsNet Plus (CLTV) Wednesday

Radio: WGN 720-AM

Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Ryan Dempster (2-1) vs. Paul Maholm (1-2) Tuesday; Ted Lilly (1-1) vs. Charlie Morton (1-2) Wednesday; Randy Wells (3-0) vs. TBD Thursday. All games begin at 6:05 p.m.

At a glance: The Cubs were 10-4 against the Pirates last year, 5-1 at PNC Park. This will be a homecoming of sorts for ex-Pirates John Grabow, Aramis Ramirez, Xavier Nady and Tom Gorzelanny. The Pirates are 10-15. They rank 16th in the NL in batting average, at .234 and 15th in runs, at 86. They're last in ERA, at 6.79. Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot has a 12-game hitting streak, one short of his career high. Second baseman Mike Fontenot is riding a 10-game hitting streak, two shy of his career best.

Next: Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, Friday-Sunday

Poet T.S. Eliot wrote that "April is the cruelest month." For the Cubs, it may not have been cruel - unless you were one of the team's starting pitchers - but it sure was crazy.

The Cubs ended April with a victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks to begin a three-game winning streak and put them back to .500, at 13-13, heading into Tuesday night's series opener in Pittsburgh.

So much of what happened in April will have an effect on the rest of the season. Let's take a look back and head.

Happy-happy, joy-joy: When Carlos Zambrano got shelled for 8 runs in just 11/3 innings on Opening Day in Atlanta, talked turned again to whether he should start anymore on Opening Day, not whether he should start at all.

But two weeks ago in New York, manager Lou Piniella, with all the encouragement from GM Jim Hendry, shocked Cubdom by announcing that Zambrano would move to the bullpen.

The move happened as starter Ted Lilly came off the disabled list. The Cubs declared at the time that Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva were better suited to start. They cited Zambrano's "stuff" as making him the candidate for the important eighth-inning role. That and the fact that the bullpen has struggled, with a 4.77 ERA and a WHIP (walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched) of 1.49 through Sunday.

Zambrano hasn't quite seen it that way, saying he wasn't "happy" happy with the decision.

This one bears watching to see if the rotation can indeed hold up and whether Zambrano can be happy and effective as a $91.5 million setup man.

And if the Cubs do have to move him back to the rotation, how long will it take to get him "stretched out" to start again?

When trotting is permissible: Alfonso Soriano got caught not running out a double in New York, with TV analyst Bob Brenly calling him out on the air (In fairness to Brenly, he lauded Soriano for his inspired play later that series.)

However, Soriano did a lot of trotting around the bases in the just-concluded series with Arizona, hitting 4 homers and driving in 10 runs over the final three games. He also won back the Wrigley Field fans, at least for now.

Soriano's surgically repaired left knee seems fine, and Soriano seems comfortable in that knowledge. He also seems to be clicking with new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, with whom he worked in the past at Texas. Jaramillo has Soriano planting his front foot sooner, giving him better looks at the ball. He's also being slightly more selective at the plate.

When Soriano is hot, he can carry club for long stretches. And if his health holds up, he could be on his way to a 40-home run season.

The real Soto? Entering April, Cubs fans had every right to wonder which was the real Geovany Soto: the one who won Rookie of the Year in 2008 or the one who batted .218 last year.

The doubters may have been saying, "I told you so," as Soto got off to a 2-for-15 start, but he's completely turned it around.

If April and the first couple days of May are any indication, Soto is well on his way to making last year look like the aberration.

Soto enters Tuesday with a hitting line of .322/.487/.492 for an OPS of .979. Most impressive are his walks total and percentages. Soto has 19 walks and 12 strikeouts in 78 plate appearances, meaning he has walked 24.4 percent of the time he has come up. Last year, the figure was 12.9 percent, and in 2008, the walk percentage was 11.

Soto's line-drive percentage is at 29.8, up from last year's 18.1. He's hitting balls well, and getting a lot to show for it as his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) stands at .364. Last year, the BABIP finished at .246, suggesting some bad luck.

On the other hand: As well as Soriano, Soto, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot have hit over the first month, the Cubs have yet to really hear from Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, their 3-4 guys in the lineup.

If the Cubs offense is to go, Lee and Ramirez must go. Manager Lou Piniella gave Ramirez the day off Sunday, meaning he gets all the way until Tuesday night to clear his head. Ramirez has a hitting line of .155/.215/.278.

Lee had a single for the eventual game-winner over the weekend, but his line is at .221/.342/.358.

Lee was a slow starter last year before hitting .313 in May. Ramirez, when healthy, has been the Cubs' most potent offensive force.

The most alarming aspect for Ramirez is that he's struck out 25.8 percent of the time up and that his line drives are down to 14.9 percent.

Lee is still getting his walks, but both of these boppers will have to turn it on when other hitters hit eventual slumps.

Cubs on the NL's leaderboard

The Cubs have several players among the National League leaders, both in hitting and pitching. Here is a look.

Hitting categories

Hits

1. Ryan Theriot (39)

T2. Marlon Byrd (35)

Batting average

T2. Theriot (. 355)

T4. Byrd (. 354)

9. Kosuke Fukudome (. 342)

On-base percentage

2. Fukudome (. 438)

Walks

T4. Geovany Soto (19)

T9. Derrek Lee (17)

Total bases

4. Byrd (60)

T9. Alfonso Soriano (54)

Home runs

T8. Soriano (6)

T13. Byrd (5)

OPS

4. Fukudome (1.068)

5. Soriano (1.057)

10. Byrd (. 975)

Pitching categories

ERA

13. Tom Gorzelanny (2.48)

16. Ryan Dempster (2.78)

WHIP

7. Dempster (0.98)

8. Carlos Silva (1.00)

Opponents' batting average

10. Gorzelanny (. 208)

Opponents' OBP

8. Silva (. 266)

9. Dempster (. 271)

14. Gorzelanny (. 276)

Note: Position among leaders through Sunday's games.