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Ryan Dempster is all about this year

Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster works out Tuesday February 28 2012 spring training camp MesArizona. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster works out on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 10, 2012 10:28AM



MESA, Ariz. — A little more than two weeks into his ninth spring training with the Cubs, Ryan Dempster is healthy, smiling, unbeaten after one start and scheduled to pitch again Saturday.

Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Another Opening Day start? A big bounce back after his worst of four seasons as a Cubs starter? Any chance of returning after his contract expires at the end of the season?

It’s all in play as the Cub with the longest unbroken tenure on the roster prepares for what could be his final season with the club that took a chance on him as an injured pitcher in 2004.

‘‘All those pieces will fall into place if you just go out there and do your job,’’ Dempster said after pitching two innings Monday against the Oakland Athletics. ‘‘That’s how I look at it.’’

Since then-general manager Jim Hendry took a chance on Dempster, who was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander became a closer for one playoff team, an All-Star closer for another, a clubhouse leader, a Hendry favorite, a fan favorite, a full-time Chicago resident and a Tom Ricketts favorite.

Whether any of that matters to the Theo Epstein-led front office at contract time, one thing’s for sure: Dempster needs to perform better than he did last season, when the worst April of his career contributed to a 10-14 record and 4.80 ERA.

‘‘That’s why I worked really hard this winter,’’ he said. ‘‘Anytime you have a subpar year, speaking for myself, you don’t really like it a whole lot and do a lot better the next time.’’

Whatever went wrong in April last season (1-3, 9.58 ERA), Dempster can’t or won’t say: ‘‘I forgot about last April.’’

He went 9-11 with a 3.94 ERA after that. His ERA was 3.59 before his final start of the year (he gave up nine runs in 52/3 innings against the Padres) as he secured his fourth consecutive season with 200 innings.

‘‘I know that he’s mentioned a few things that I won’t go into,’’ manager Dale Sveum said of the April troubles. ‘‘He had an unbelievable spring training last year where he had unbelievable command of his fastball, he said. That might have got him into a little bit of trouble because he mentioned he wasn’t using his secondary pitches as much [in the spring].’’

Said Dempster: ‘‘That’s really a strong possibility. I never really thought of that.’’

Either way, he said he has worked especially hard on his offspeed stuff this spring.

At $14 million this year, Dempster is the second-highest-paid player on the roster.

At 34, he’s the third-oldest.

And it couldn’t have been too reassuring to watch the way the front office dragged out the process of bringing back Kerry Wood, who was motivated to sign, into January.

‘‘I think the easiest thing for me to do is just focus on my job,’’ Dempster said. ‘‘And whatever happens will happen.’’

Many expect Dempster to get his second Opening Day start April 5 against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field, though Sveum said he won’t make the call between Dempster and Matt Garza until sometime in the next week.

Dempster said that doesn’t matter.

‘‘The bottom line,’’ said Sveum, ‘‘is he knows he’s better than he showed last year, and I think he’s on a mission to prove he’s the pitcher he was before that.’’

As for the future?

‘‘There’s a bright future on the horizon [with the Cubs],’’ Dempster said. ‘‘But there’s also a bright future right now. There are a lot of good players in here, and we’ve got to go out there on the field and be about it and not just talk about it.’’



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