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With pitching coach Mark Riggins, Cubs know there’s life after Larry Rothschild

Matt Garza’s victory Thursday was shot arm for Cubs though they still have worst ERA major leagues. |

Matt Garza’s victory Thursday was a shot in the arm for the Cubs, though they still have the worst ERA in the major leagues. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM

For all the players lost in trades and free agency over the winter and to injuries the first 21/2 months of the season, the Cubs’ biggest loss since last season might be the intentional curmudgeon of a pitching coach who returns with the New York Yankees today for the most hyped home series of the season.

Larry Rothschild was to be the stabilizing influence for the Cubs’ overhauled field staff — the widely respected, underrated guru to three postseason pitching staffs and the constant through three managerial changes in his nine seasons with the Cubs. Then family considerations and a sudden opening in New York prompted him to leave the Cubs in November.

‘‘And it’s always tougher when
it’s a friend,’’ new manager Mike Quade said.

It’s tougher still when your pitching staff approaches midseason with the worst team ERA, the fewest quality starts and the most walks in the majors, a collective performance that has helped put the Cubs in their fifth-place predicament in the National League Central.

Not that the Yankees don’t have their own laundry list of pitching problems — enough to make Carlos Zambrano a certain focus of trade speculation all weekend. But they also swagger into Wrigley Field with the fourth-ranked pitching staff in the AL.

‘‘I learned a lot from Larry, and when I heard that Larry was gone, I was sad,’’ Cubs closer Carlos Marmol said. ‘‘I kind of miss Larry.’’

But Marmol and others are quick to defend the new pitching coach, former
minor-league pitching
coordinator Mark Riggins, when it comes to the Cubs’ decline.

‘‘He’s good. He works hard for you,’’ Marmol said. ‘‘It’s not the pitching coach. He helps you before the game, but he can’t do it for you out there [on the mound].’’

The Cubs were hit quickly, with two starting pitchers lost to injury the first week of the season. Then Matt Garza, the winning pitcher in a 12-7 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, was hurt for two weeks in May. Last year’s rookie surprise, Casey Coleman, hasn’t come close to replicating his 2010 success in fill-in roles, and anticipated depth vanished quickly with a pair of retirements of veterans and a lack of ready prospects at Class  AAA.

‘‘I don’t make excuses. But facts are facts,’’ said Quade, who also acknowledges an adjustment
period for the new guy. ‘‘It’s a transition for everybody involved. Larry’s been here for so long, and a lot of these guys were with him. Riggs comes in; they’re getting to know him.

‘‘There’s a lot of that still going on [in all areas] on this club. And anytime you lose someone the stature of Larry, that’s obviously going on with the pitchers. But I feel great about Riggy. . . . I think, so far, Riggy’s filled his shoes about as good as he could.’’

Riggins gets high marks from pitchers and management for preparation, work ethic, communication and a positive-reinforcement style, even if the Cubs’ 4.78 ERA would be its worst since 2000 if it holds up.

Riggins, whom general manager Jim Hendry called the best minor-league coordinator the Cubs had in his 16 years here, said he thinks most of the feeling-out process was done in spring training and that the comfort level with his pitchers has been good all season.

And while Riggins was criticized by ousted pitcher Carlos Silva at the end of camp, he also has been involved with a reasonably saner Zambrano this season. After an apparent miscommunication with newcomer Garza over approach, they’ve been on the same page since.

And if anybody else wants to take shots, ‘‘It doesn’t bother me,’’ Riggins said.

‘‘I’ve been around long enough, [so] it’s not going to bother me one way or the other,’’ he said. ‘‘I have confidence in myself. My guys, I think, have confidence in me, and when I come to the park, those are the guys I’m responsible for and care about. The rest of it, outside of this clubhouse, is for somebody else to read.’’

Nobody is bothered more than Riggins by a rough outing or a pitcher’s struggles.

‘‘As coach, there’s nights you go home and you don’t sleep well,’’ he said. ‘‘But every day I wake up and it’s a brand new day. And I think things will be good every day I come out there. I don’t waste mental
energy on the past.’’

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