In that last start on March 18 against the Chicago White Sox, Rusch gave up five runs on eight hits over two innings. Thursday was definitely an improvement.
"The main thing today was getting out there and throwing all my pitches," he said. "With only one more start left and maybe a relief inning, I need to be ready for that game [April 5]."
"That's the best he's looked so far this spring," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "It's the right time for him to get it together."
Rusch was inserted into the rotation against Cincinnati because of all the left-handers on the Reds roster. However, lefties have hit .287 against him -- including
a .333 average last year -- while right-handers have hit .293 off him. What does he need to do to fare better against lefties?
"Maybe a better breaking ball, if I can borrow one from somebody," Rusch said, laughing. "It's always been that way for me in my career. Maybe I can mix it up a little more. Sometimes I get into tendencies where I'm not using my changeup as much as I could and not pitching in enough to lefties."
Step-by-step: Mark Prior is doing everything but throwing as he waits to be re-examined by team orthopedic specialist Dr. Stephen Gryzlo this weekend. The Cubs pitcher has a moderate strain of the subscapularis muscle in his right shoulder, one of the rotator cuff muscles, and was shut down from throwing for 10 days.
"It's a situation where I can do a lot of normal, everyday activities," Prior said. "It's not like I have a broken foot or a broken wrist or something that's visible and I have a cast.
"I won't know a whole lot about how it's feeling until they put me through some tests, and they're not going to do that until this weekend because they don't want to sit there and keep playing around with it and aggravating it," he said. "I'll know more this weekend."
The Cubs should have a better timeframe for Prior after he's examined. Asked about a timetable, Prior shrugged.
"I don't know what 'moderate' means," Prior said.
Juan Pierre has one stolen base this spring, but don't worry.
"He hasn't forgotten how to steal," Baker said.
Stealing bases is similar to hitting in that a player has to work on his timing.
"For awhile, he had trouble getting on base to steal," Baker said, "and No. 2, you go through your basic soreness in Spring Training with your legs and stuff. I think catchers are at their freshest right now throwing-wise. Unless their arms are sore, [catchers] are at maximum arm strength."
Last spring, Pierre only played in five spring games with the Florida Marlins because of a sore calf and stole one base. He finished the season with 57 steals.
Backups: One of the keys in the final 10 games this spring is determining who's on the bench for the Cubs.
"It's hard to cover every area of a team," Baker said. "There's only so much talent around. We're putting a team together with the players that we have. I think we have more versatility than most. It depends on who you keep, but you could have some switch-hitters with some speed, you could have a right-hander with some power, a left-hander with some power, a left-hander who could play different positions.
"How many teams have two bona fide shortstops in Neifi [Perez] and [Ronny] Cedeno, or three second basemen? Or two guys who are second basemen [Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston Jr.] who can play second and outfield?" Baker said. "That's pretty good versatility, I think."
One candidate for a roster spot is outfielder Angel Pagan, who hit his third home run this spring on Wednesday. Pagan, who has been compared to Carlos Beltran, has a career Minor League average of .282.
"I like a lot about him," Baker said of the 24-year-old outfielder, who hit .271 at Triple-A Norfolk last year and has spent his entire career in the New York Mets Minor League system. "I like his speed, like his attitude, he switch-hits, he plays all outfield positions, he asks good questions, he's hungry to learn and he enjoys playing."
Baker is still looking for that surprise guy, and it could be one of the young pitchers who are candidates for the fifth starter spot.
"Every spring, I'm looking for a surprise player, especially a pitcher," he said. "It's a guy you weren't counting on or a guy who got his act together for whatever reason -- a light came on, his mechanics came together or his control or he learned one pitch so he goes from a two-pitch pitcher to a three-pitch pitcher which changes the whole equation. I think we're going to be all right."
World Baseball Classic: Michael Barrett got some extra at-bats with the Cubs Minor League players on Wednesday, and Henry Blanco and John Mabry played there Tuesday. Barrett didn't get much playing time in the World Baseball Classic, so it's a chance for him to make up ground. Baker said he wasn't as worried about Blanco, because he played this winter in Venezuela.
"A lot of teams have the same problem," Baker said about getting the tournament players at-bats. "I think it's different per person. It probably didn't help Derrek [Lee] that he was getting his stroke good and then missed a couple days. I'm not worried about Henry's stroke as much as I am Michael's."
Prior to Thursday's game, the Cubs met with Donald Fehr, the Players Association executive director, and the World Baseball Classic was one of the topics. Fehr said the union has gotten nothing but positive feedback from the players who participated in the event. There are some issues to be discussed such as the timing of the event, pitch counts, and the format.
"No one has suggested it was a bad idea," Fehr said.
Roster moves: The Cubs trimmed the Spring Training roster. Catcher Geovany Soto was optioned to Triple-A Iowa and catcher Jose Reyes and first baseman Brian Dopirak were optioned to Double-A West Tenn. In addition, the Cubs returned infielders Casey McGehee and Augie Ojeda to the Minor League camp.
The Cubs also get right-handed pitcher Juan Mateo back. The Cardinals selected Mateo off the Cubs' roster in the Rule 5
Draft in December. To keep Mateo, the Cardinals had to put him on the 25-man roster this season, but decided not to. Mateo was 10-5 with a 3.21 ERA in 32 games for Class A Daytona last season, striking out 123 over 109 1/3 innings. Mateo was to report to the Minor League camp.
Extra bases: Lee was back in the starting lineup, his first game since he bruised his left shoulder
on March 12 in Team USA's game against Japan. ... Baker was going to give Aramis Ramirez the day off
on Thursday after playing Wednesday night, but Ramirez wanted to play. Good thing, too, because he hit an RBI double in the first and another in the third. Ramirez has a hit in his last nine at-bats. "He's ready to start the season right now," Baker said. ... Outfielder Felix Pie, who was hit on the hand by a pitch
on Wednesday, played Thursday and hit an RBI double. ... Sean Marshall and Jerome Williams will each start Saturday in the split-squad games. Marshall will pitch at HoHoKam Park against Oakland.
Quote of the day: "Nothing's on hold. These games will go on regardless. They'll go on your record, wins or losses, regardless. Nothing's on hold. You wish you could stop time, but I'm looking at that clock and the second hand is still ticking." --
Baker, on whether there's a danger of the Cubs putting things on hold until Kerry Wood and Mark Prior return
On deck: The Cubs travel to Surprise on Friday night to play the Texas Rangers. Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs' Opening Day starter,
is scheduled to start against R.A. Dickey in the 8:05 p.m. CT contest.