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Cubs hope that fast start could forestall expected purge

Updated: April 3, 2014 12:22AM



PITTSBURGH — Team president Theo Epstein said a strong start could “turn the narrative on its head” and change the low expectations by outsiders for the Cubs.

Many players have a more personal reason.

“Everyone says you can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it in April,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “This year we want to make it a little harder for that [trade] deadline to come around and hopefully add this season instead of get rid of guys.”

The Cubs gutted the roster each of the last two seasons at the July 31 deadline, with little cause for outrage with the Cubs well on their way to 101- and 96- loss seasons.

Whether influenced by happy-talking new manager Rick Renteria or by the growing chips on the shoulders of survivors of the last two purges, players have persisted in shows of defiant confidence.

“We’re going to surprise a lot of people that don’t believe in us,” shortstop Starlin Castro said.

Maybe.

But if two games in Pittsburgh proved anything, it was just how tough getting off to a quick early start might be. Despite good pitching and nine hits in two games by new leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio, the 2014 Cubs still are looking for ways to score consistently.

It took a successful eighth-inning challenge of an in-the-neighborhood call at second base on what was ruled an inning-ending double play for the Cubs to score their first run of the season.

It won’t necessarily get easier, though the Phillies might provide a relatively softer landing at home this weekend.

But 25 of the Cubs’ first 41 games are against 2013 playoff teams expected to contend again, including 10 against the defending National League champions and division-favorite Cardinals.

Two are against the Yankees, who reloaded their pitching staff, and seven are against the Diamondbacks and Brewers, who appear to be improved.

That six-week stretch could bring out the for-sale sign early again if the clubhouse optimists aren’t right about how much they’ve improved since their fourth consecutive losing season.

It’s at least enough to add a few more chips to a few more shoulders.

“It was the first time in my career where I really heard all those trade rumors all the time last year,” said outfielder Nate Schierholtz, one of nearly a dozen Cubs on the block last July and one of the top five most likely to be moved this year.

“Yeah, it gets annoying at times and frustrating hearing that guys are going to leave, to hear great teammates are going to leave. But we can control that by all of us coming together as a team and playing better.

“It’s about doing the small things, playing good defense, playing together as a team, just getting on a roll. Obviously, early in the year, it sets a tone.”

For every Rizzo and Castro on the roster, there is a Schierholtz and Carlos Villanueva, veteran players who understand the long-term plan but have short-term focus.

“The guys that are here are thinking about now,” ­Villanueva said. “We want to win now.”

Against the Pirates, against the Cardinals, against all odds.

“I wouldn’t say as a whole we’re here waiting to be traded,” said Darwin ­Barney, another potential trade candidate. “We want to win now. We all play to our potential with the roster we have. We think we can compete.

“In the end, if you don’t play to your potential and you don’t compete, things are ­going to change. And that’s been the case the last few years.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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