Feldman shaky as Cubs fall 4-1 to Braves to start tough 18-game stretch
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org April 5, 2013 11:15PM
Updated: May 7, 2013 6:20AM
ATLANTA — The Matt Garza countdown clock officially began ticking Friday with the right-hander’s season debut in the Cubs’ clubhouse.
It coincided with the start of a 19-game gauntlet against contenders in a tough early schedule — which sounds more like the ticking that comes from an abandoned briefcase in the movies.
How fast can Garza get back from the disabled list? How long can the Cubs hold out in the next three weeks against five teams that finished an average of 22 games over .500 last year?
So far, not so good.
Scott Feldman was shaky in his Cubs debut, and Atlanta Braves left-hander Mike Minor throttled the Cubs’ tepid lineup into the eighth inning to beat them 4-1 at Turner Field.
Next up in the survival game is fifth starter Carlos Villanueva, who makes his Cubs debut Saturday in Atlanta.
‘‘We don’t look at it as tough; we look at it as a way to show what we’ve got from the beginning,” Villanueva said. ‘‘It’s good. It’s better that we face that good competition early on and kind of test ourselves and see how well off we are this year.’’
After the Braves series, the Cubs return home to face the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, then go on the road to face the Brewers again and then the Cincinnati Reds. Four of those teams, including the Braves, were in the playoffs last year. The Giants won the World Series.
The Cubs just hope to remain relevant by the time Garza returns from the DL sometime in early May, assuming his throwing program goes according to plan.
‘‘It’d mean a lot,’’ manager Dale Sveum said of getting through the tough stretch and then getting a pitcher as valuable as Garza back in his rotation. ‘‘This first month of the schedule, with the teams we’re playing, it’s very important to keep your head above water and then get completely healthy and then go from there.’’
Garza, who’s been sidelined since straining his left latissimus dorsi Feb. 17, said he felt great Thursday during his first bullpen session in a month. He’s scheduled to throw again Sunday in Atlanta, with an eye toward a minor-league rehab assignment starting sometime around the middle of April.
‘‘I’m pushing for early May,’’ Garza said of his return from the DL, ‘‘and pushing hard, too.’’
If the Cubs can just hang around until then . . .
‘‘I think we could do it better than just hanging around,’’ he said before Friday’s loss. ‘‘I think we’re right where we need to be.’’
But Feldman had little command of anything, failed to cover first in time on a grounder in the fourth inning, couldn’t pitch out of the fifth and didn’t get enough run support for it to matter much anyway.
‘‘I’ll try to just flush that one and get back to work,’’ said Feldman, who channeled Garza’s optimism about the next 18 games.
‘‘It’s going to be a tough stretch,’’ he said, ‘‘but it’s early, and we’re capable of beating anyone on any given night.”
Maybe if they hit. A team that went 0-for-13 with men in scoring position the first two games has batted only four times in that situation since. Five of the Cubs’ seven runs have come on home runs, including a fifth-inning leadoff homer by Scott Hairston on Friday.
‘‘We’re not going to win a whole lot of games unless we start scoring runs,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘Nobody’s swinging the bats at all right now. Somebody’s got to step up and start hitting. Hopefully, it’s the whole team.’’
Anthony Rizzo is hitless since homering on the first pitch he saw this season on Monday in Pittsburgh. He struck out three times Friday. Starlin Castro had hits in his first two at-bats Monday — and one in 12 since. Alfonso Soriano is 2-for-15.
David DeJesus, Luis Valbuena, Brent Lillibridge and Dave Sappelt all are still looking for their first hits after 36 combined at-bats.
‘‘It’s too soon to call it struggling,’’ Hairston said, pointing out that they scored enough to win twice in Pittsburgh and have played only four games. ‘‘We just didn’t execute tonight.’’