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McGRATH: Cubs’ Donnie Murphy making most of his opportunity

Donnie Murphy

Donnie Murphy

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Updated: August 27, 2013 9:40AM

A ballplayer named Donnie Murphy could be a popular figure among a certain tribe of Chicagoans, including a South Side-bred sect with which I am most familiar.

But neither his Irish-American ethnicity nor the prospect of becoming a local folk hero is of much concern to the Donnie Murphy these days. The Cubs’ third baseman for the last three weeks, Murphy is intent on establishing himself as an authentic major-leaguer at age 30, trying to capitalize on the best opportunity he has had over 12 years and 14 teams as a professional.

“In the past, I might start a game, then sit out four or five, and it’s hard to stay sharp doing that,” Murphy said. “Being in there every day and getting consistent at-bats really helps.”

Aside from brief interludes with Ron Cey and Bill Madlock, third base was pretty much a black-hole position for the Cubs between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez. It seemed headed that way again after Ramirez left for Milwaukee as a free agent following the 2011 season. First Ian Stewart and then Josh Vitters flamed out as replacements, leaving the hot corner in the not-too-hot hands of Luis Valbuena last year and a Valbuena-Cody Ransom platoon this year.

The Cubs needed a body at third after Valbuena went on the disabled list with a strained oblique Aug. 4, and Murphy got the call. He was hitting .265 with 12 homers in 89 games at
Class AAA Iowa, mostly at shortstop.

“I came up as a shortstop and it’s probably where I’m most comfortable, but I can play third or second,” Murphy said. “You increase your value by being versatile.”

Murphy has been a steady hand at third, offsetting three errors by starting seven double plays and making a handful of highlight-reel plays that demonstrated his range. But it’s at the plate where he has distinguished himself, slugging eight homers in his first 16 games, including two in one night against Washington last week and a game-tying, two-run shot off the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg in the ninth inning three days later.

Murphy is no big bopper at 5-10 and 190 pounds, but he always has had decent power, having gone deep 92 times in 748 minor-league games.

“A lot of it is opportunity,” he said. “When you’re the right-handed half of a platoon, you don’t play much because there aren’t that many left-handed pitchers. And when you do play, you’re facing guys like Johan Santana or CC Sabathia, so it’s hard to get anything going. But when you’re in there every day, you’re seeing more pitches and you feel more comfortable.”

Murphy cooled off during a 1-for-13 visit to San Diego, but he still was hitting .282 as the Cubs headed to Dodger Stadium. And he has made an impression on his manager.

“You’ve got a kid with bat speed who can hit the ball over the right-field fence right-handed, and people forget what good defense he’s played at third base,” Dale Sveum said. “He’s been an exceptional two-way player for us. You sit back and say, ‘What happens if he were to get 500, 600 plate appearances playing every day?’ ”

A fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2002, Murphy had 719 total plate appearances over parts of seven previous seasons with the Royals, the Oakland A’s and the Miami Marlins, never more than 132 in a year. A broken bone and torn ligaments in his right wrist in September 2010 was the most serious of several injuries to bedevil him.

Sveum can empathize. He shattered his leg in a gruesome outfield collision as he was emerging as a star shortstop in 1988 and spent the rest of his 12-season career as a utility player.

Murphy claims he never lost faith on a long and winding road to Chicago that detoured through 10 minor-league cities. “I’ve always believed there’s a team out there I can help if I could stay healthy,” he said.

Murphy loves what he has seen of Chicago, staying in a downtown apartment with his wife and child and taking the Red Line to work. The Cubs invested the No. 2 pick in the June draft on third baseman Kris Bryant, and the Matt Garza trade brought third-base prospect Mike Olt from the Texas Rangers. Murphy might not be a long-term solution at third base, but he’s playing his way into consideration for a big-league job.

“You’re evaluating for next year, what our needs are,” Sveum said. “A lot of times guys just need the opportunity.”

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