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James Russell would want to crack Cubs’ rotation, but embraces role in pen

James Russell

James Russell

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Updated: April 8, 2013 7:59AM



MESA, Ariz. — You can’t even identify the players with a scorecard at some of the Cubs’ spring training games.

With Starlin Castro, Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Ian Stewart injured, Anthony Rizzo with Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic and other starters getting extra rest during a lengthy spring training, the Cubs look like a minor-league team. And not a good one.

It’s early. And manager Dale Sveum seems confident that everything will sort itself out as the Cubs hope to emerge from Arizona with a team that won’t lose 100 games in 2013 — Castro will return from a hamstring injury next week; Rizzo will be back after the WBC; Garza will come off the disabled list in mid-April; and either Stewart or Luis Valbuena will start at third base.

About the only area that’s not in flux is the back of the bullpen. Carlos Marmol is the closer. Newcomer Kyuji Fujikawa is the likely set-up man. And workhorses James Russell and Shawn Camp give the Cubs a lefty-righty duo to get to Fujikawa and Marmol. In fact, the latter duo might have been the best thing the Cubs had going during a dreadful 100-loss season in 2012.

Russell in particular has blossomed as a reliever. After going 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA as a starter in the first two months of the 2011 season, Russell was moved to the bullpen and went 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA. Filling the lefty set-up role after Sean Marshall was traded to the Reds for Travis Wood, Russell was 7-1 with a 3.25 ERA in 77 appearances last season.

‘‘He had a great year,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘Hopefully we don’t have to pitch him as much as we did last year.’’

Russell, 27, a 14th-round draft pick by the Cubs in 2007, still has hopes of becoming a starter. But, as Sveum pointed out, his ‘‘bad numbers’’ as a starter pretty much locked him into the niche role as a left-handed set-up reliever.

But Russell credits the 0-5, 9.33 stint as a spot starter with making him the pitcher he is today. He calls that the turning point in his career.

‘‘I went 0-5, but I feel like I learned a lot about pitching,’’ he said, ‘‘and what to do and how to go about my business and executing pitches on the mound to where I could get the most out of my pitches and get quick at-bats and get guys out consistently.’’

His final start of that season, against the Boston Red Sox, was an eye-opener for Russell. He allowed three runs in four-plus innings. But he pitched three scoreless innings. Two of the runs scored on sacrifice flies. He would never start again. But it was something to build on.

‘‘Sunday Night Baseball at Fenway against a pretty damn good lineup — I went [four] strong innings,’’ Russell said. ‘‘If I can do that against a team like Boston ... [I] can do that anywhere.

‘‘It’s just that little bit of confidence that you could just take and run with. Ever since then I feel like I’ve made big steps forward and just progressed as a pitcher.’’

In three spring appearances, Russell has retired eight of 10 batters, allowing two singles.

‘‘I still have an itch for starting. I’ve done it all my life. I still believe I can do it,’’ Russell said. ‘‘But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now my goal is to help us win and that’s being a left-handed reliever. So that’s what I‘m going to do — try to be the best one in the league.’’

RANGERS 3, CUBS 2

TAKAHASHI STRUGGLES: Veteran left-hander Hisanori Takahashi, a bullpen candidate, started against the Rangers and allowed three runs and five hits in three innings, with two walks and four strikeouts. He gave up an RBI single to Mitch Moreland, a sacrifice fly off the bat of Ian Kinsler and a home run by Lance Berkman on an 0-2 pitch. He struck out Adrian Beltre twice. Opposing batters are hitting .320 against Takahashi in his four spring appearances. The Cubs (5-8) have lost six of their last seven games.

PEN DOES THE JOB: Michael Bowden pitched two scoreless innings and Jaye Chapman, Trey McNutt and Hector Rondon one each as the Cubs’ bullpen allowed three hits over the last five innings in relief of Takahashi. Bowden has a 1.69 ERA this spring.

HAIRSTON HOMERS: Scott Hairston hit his first home run, a solo shot off Rangers left-handed starter Robbie Ross in the first inning. Hairston, expected to start in right field, is 3-for-19 (.158) with two RBI in seven spring games.

CUB CLOUTS: Third baseman Junior Lake hit a triple into the gap and is hitting .304 (7-for-23) with a double, triple and home run. ... Brian Bogusevic snapped an 0-for-5 skid with an RBI double that closed the deficit to 3-2 in the sixth. ... Catcher Dioner Navarro threw out the lead runner at third on a sacrifice attempt in the Rangers’ three-run second inning. ... Former Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski had two singles and is hitting .375. ... Former Cubs farmhand Jim Adduci went 0-for-1 and is hitting .313 for the Rangers.

UP NEXT: vs. White Sox, 2:05 p.m. at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. Mark Potash



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