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Cubs’ Ian Stewart, Matt Garza take big steps forward in injury recoveries

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Updated: April 13, 2013 6:37AM



SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If the Cubs are going to have any chance of getting off to a competitive start this season, then Monday might wind up being one of the biggest days of spring training to that end.

The Cubs got positive news from the medical staff about several players, including a better-than-expected prognosis on third baseman Ian Stewart, a player the Cubs’ brass had visions of getting 25 or more home r uns from since they day they traded for him more than a year ago.

And right-hander Matt Garza, who has been sidelined since Feb. 17 because of a strained left lat, started throwing again, playing catch from 45 feet just more than a wee k after being shut down for the second time by the injury.

Stewart, who hasn’t played since suffering a strained quadriceps in an intrasquad ga me Feb. 21, is scheduled to make his Cactus League debut off the bench Thursday, manager Dale Sveum said after Stewart fared well in practice and running drills. The news came a day after Sveum said Stewart’s return might have to be pushed back because the quad still was bothering him Saturday.

‘‘We were a little bit worried that it was going to be maybe next week, but he’s gotten [there] a little bit quicker,’’ said Sveum, who stressed Stewart still needs to win the job, even though Stewart said Saturday he thinks the job is his if he’s ready to play. ‘‘He came in knowing it was a job [he has to win]. He’s going to have to just play well and produce, and we’ll see where we’re at.’’

Stewart, who said his surgically repaired left wrist has felt great this spring, hit .201 with five home runs before missing the final 3½ months of last season because of the wrist. The Cubs non-tendered him, then re-signed him for a discount $2 million deal. Because it’s a one-year contract, the Cubs can save all but $500,000 of it if they release him before the season opener.

‘‘I have absolutely no concern about that at all,’’ said Stewart, who has said he considers himself the starting third baseman ‘‘until they get rid of me.’’

Several signs pointed in that direction for much of the first month of camp, but Cubs officials now seem more optimistic about Stewart’s chances to be an important part of the lineup for a team that desperately needs improved production this season, particularly at third base.

‘‘There’s still 16 or 17 possible [spring] games left, starting Thursday,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘You’re looking at hopefully cramming 30 at-bats into that and some minor-league at-bats, too. So there’s plenty of time to evaluate him.’’

If Stewart is a potential key to the lineup, the speed and effectiveness of Garza’s return might be the key to the starting rotation being strong enough to keep the trade dogs at bay in July. He threw 25 easy tosses Monday and is expected to throw again Wednesday.

Garza, who missed the last two months of last season because of a stress reaction in his right elbow, might have time for one Cactus League game before the end of camp and is expected to spend the first two to four weeks of the regular season on the disabled list.

CUBS 7, D-BACKS 5

FOR STARTERS: Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija gave up a pair of home runs in 4 2/3 innings but said he felt “outstanding” with three weeks to go before his season debut. “Obviously, the results aren’t what we wanted,” he said. “A couple home runs, a couple hanging off speed pitches will do that to you. … But I felt outstanding, which is really exciting. Probably the best I’ve felt all spring. We’ll get those off-speed pitches down in the zone and we’ll be all right.”

BATTERY POWER: Trailing 3-1, Samardzija drove a 2-2 pitch from Trevor Cahill over the wall in left-center for his first homer of the spring. And one inning later, down by two, his catcher, Welington Castillo, tied the game with a two-run shot to the same place. “Close your eyes and you run into some things sometimes,’’ Samardzija said.

GLOVE AFFAIR: Darwin Barney, the National League’s reigning Gold Glove winner at second base, was the fielding star of the game, including a pair of especially sharp plays in the second: diving to rob Paul Goldschmidt of a hit leading off the inning, and charging and shoveling throw to take one from Wil Nieves two batters later.

WORKING VACATION: While most of the Cubs take Tuesday off, Scott Baker and Carlos Villanueva both are scheduled to pitch in a minor-league game. For Baker, who missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery, it’s the first actual game action since he last pitched for the Minnesota Twins in September 2011.

ON DECK: Cubs take Tuesday off before resuming Cactus League play Wednesday with a home game against Colorado, HoHoKam Stadium, 3:05 p.m. (audio on cubs.com).



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