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Aspiring Cubs first baseman Brad Nelson still chases big-league dream

Brad Nelson

Brad Nelson

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Updated: April 8, 2013 8:03AM

MESA, Ariz. — They all say they love the game. Brad Nelson has the numbers to back it up: 1,328 games, 1,307 hits, 181 home runs and 793 RBI — in the minor leagues.

Nelson, 30, a non-roster first baseman who leads the Cubs with a 1.202 OPS in nine spring-training games, has spent most of the last 12 seasons in the minors. He has 33 at-bats in the big leagues — with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 and 2009, including two postseason appearances in the 2008 National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

He struck out in both at-bats, then went 0-for-21 in 2009 before he was sent to the minors. But an 0-for-23 skein in the big leagues is not even close to convincing Nelson it’s time to give it up. He never will.

‘‘It’s still a dream; it’s still playing ball,’’ Nelson said. ‘‘Somebody’s going to have to tell me that I’m done rather than me choosing to do that.’’

A 6-2, 260-pounder from Algona, Iowa, Nelson is going to force the Cubs to tell him he’s not good enough. He’s hitting .333 (6-for-18) with two home runs, a double, a triple and two RBI. But he’s still a long shot to make the team.

‘‘You don’t talk about that,’’ Nelson said. ‘‘I’m still in a major-league camp, so I have a chance. I’m not counting myself out. I understand what’s going on. I know [Anthony] Rizzo’s going to be the first baseman. But I’ve got to do what I can do because who knows what’s going to happen?’’

Nelson hit 24 home runs each of the last two seasons at Class AAA Round Rock (Texas Rangers). Why should he quit when he’s in his prime?

‘‘I don’t know what [else] I want to do,’’ Nelson said. ‘‘I’ve focused so much on baseball that I guess it’s a good problem. I should maybe worry about that later in life. But right now, my wife, immediate family, we’re in this to give it my best shot because I don’t want to look back and say, ‘What if?’ or ‘Woulda, coulda shoulda.’ I’ve been blessed to play this long. I’m going to keep going at it.’’

Not an early riser

Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, allowed four runs and six hits with no walks and three strikeouts in a minor-league ‘‘B’’ game Wednesday morning against the Rangers.

All he wanted was the work.

‘‘It’s a game on the back field at 10 in the morning ... so, yeah, it just felt good,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘My body and my arm felt good. They like to hit the fastball in the minor leagues. I could have [thrown] sliders and stuff, but I wanted to work on pitches. It was all right. No walks. I felt good. No complaints at all.’’

Castro upbeat

Shortstop Starlin Castro, who hasn’t played since suffering a hamstring injury Feb. 27, said it’s tough for him to be patient ‘‘because I like to play too much.’’ But he’s on board with the Cubs’ plan to keep him out until early next week to make sure the injury is fully healed.

‘‘I feel good; I don’t feel any pain,’’ Castro said. ‘‘I want to take my time because when I’m ready, I want to play and not get hurt anymore. This doesn’t count. I want to be ready for the season. The season counts.’’

Pen spots open

Manager Dale Sveum named seven pitchers in contention for three open bullpen positions — right-handers Zach Putnam, Michael Bowden, Blake Parker, Jensen Lewis, Hector Rondon and Cory Wade and left-hander Hisanori Takahashi.

‘‘Putnam’s been very impressive,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘Throwing strikes, keeping the ball down, getting a lot of weak contact. [And] he’s got a split-finger, which is always nice.’’

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