Cubs draw inspiration from what A’s, O’s did last season
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org March 28, 2013 10:19PM
Updated: March 29, 2013 9:01PM
MESA, Ariz. — As the Cubs broke camp Thursday to head to Houston and then to Pittsburgh for the season opener, they were reminded of Oakland and Baltimore.
Almost every year there’s a team or two that defy odds and logic and wind up in the playoffs. Last year brought the 94-win Oakland Athletics and 93-win Baltimore Orioles.
“Those are obviously the teams you think about and understand how things changed for them,” manager Dale Sveum said as the Cubs closed out their Cactus League schedule with a 6-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners. “One hot month can change things around with a ballclub. Your hitters get hot at the right time. Oakland, they weren’t doing anything for the first few months of the season, and then they just started hitting home run after home run.”
The A’s were .500 at the All-Star break and 51-25 afterward, using a 19-5 July to jump-start their unlikely run to the American League West title.
The Orioles used a 19-9 start and a 38-18 finish to earn a wild-card berth.
“I was in Baltimore’s division [with Toronto],” Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva said, “and you definitely didn’t take them as serious going into the season. Even at the midpoint in the season, you always thought about the Yankees and Boston and even Tampa in that division.
“I faced them a bunch of times, and their lineup was tough. What they had was opportune pitching. Their starting pitching wasn’t great, but they kept them in the game, and their bullpen was good. It just shows you when you’ve got good pitching that keeps you in the game, anything can happen.”
Like the Cubs, neither the A’s nor the Orioles had anything better than middle-of-the-league hitting. In fact, both ranked near the bottom of the American League in fielding, and the Orioles’ pitching staff barely cracked the top half of the league rankings.
It’s not likely to happen on the North Side this year.
Then again, it wasn’t likely to happen in Oakland or Baltimore last year.
“These are all the things that you think about, and that players talk about,” Sveum said. “ ‘Hey, this was supposed to happen — but if you get off to a start or you have this one incredible month, things change.’ ’’
It would almost certainly take an end to the injury bug that has top starter Matt Garza sidelined until at least some time in May and starter Scott Baker’s return from Tommy John surgery pushed back from mid-April to at least midseason.
It’s also going to take guys such as newcomers Scott Feldman and Villanueva to contribute some serious production at the end of the rotation and for closer Carlos Marmol to start April a lot better than he’s finishing March.
“I don’t know how it happens, all the guys that came in like [Edwin] Jackson and Feldman and myself. But we’re here. We’re tight,” Villanueva said. “And that has a lot more to do with it than people think. I’ve seen a lot of great teams on paper that just can’t win. When you’re in the ballpark in June and you’re already sick of looking at each others’ faces, that could be like a cancer in the clubhouse.
“So far it’s been great, and we feed off each other. And hopefully we get it rolling and those questions answer themselves.”
But Garza remains a huge loss early. Production at third base remains a major question mark with Ian Stewart starting the season on the DL (for a quad) just as he finished last year (because of wrist surgery). Converted second baseman Luis Valbuena (career .224 average, .343 slugging) is the starter until further notice.
And those are just the biggest concerns for a still-rebuilding team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, including a 101-loss train wreck last year.
“I think we have a good-enough offense,” Villanueva said. “And you never know: You add some pieces during the season, depending on how we’re doing, and we can surprise a lot of people.”