Wade Miller took his turn Thursday, giving up one run on six hits and two walks over three innings in his second outing as the Cubs beat San Diego, 8-6. Miller got some help in the first when he gave up a leadoff single to Terrmel Sledge, who was thrown out trying to steal second. Miller walked Todd Walker, but he was thrown out in a rundown between first and second.
"It was interesting," Miller said.
The good news is the right-hander is having no issues with his shoulder. He had arthroscopic surgery in September 2005, and was able to make five September starts for the Cubs last season.
"I feel fine," Miller said. "I felt better this time than the last time. I felt I had a little bit more on my fastball, and I was able to keep it down later in the last inning than the first couple innings. Overall, I felt pretty good."
Cubs manager Lou Piniella liked that Miller had more life on his pitches and better snap on his breaking ball later in his outing. With Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill set for the rotation, the race is on to see who gets that fifth spot. Miller is aware of the numbers game.
"I'm just trying to go out there right now and show what I've got, and go out there and get outs," he said. "That's what you have to do, and that's the only thing I have in my mind now."
Besides Miller, the other candidates include Mark Prior, Neal Cotts and possibly Angel Guzman. Cotts will start one of the split-squad games Friday. Prior will make his second Cactus League appearance on Saturday, and he didn't throw many breaking pitches in his first outing.
"We're looking for improvement, even small improvement," Piniella said of his expectations for Prior. "There's still plenty of time, but we would still like to see improvement. [We want him to] get a little crisper with his pitches, command his breaking ball a little better, and, if possible, pick up a little velocity."
Don't ask Piniella if Prior is having any problems with his mechanics.
"Talking to me about mechanics is like talking to me about your Mercedes or Oldsmobile or Chevrolet to get serviced," he said. "You're asking me about what's under the hood. What I look for in pitchers is can they get people out or not. That's as mechanical as I want to get in that situation."
There's no clear favorite after eight games.
"We're going to leave here with whatever team gives us the best chance of winning baseball games," Piniella said. "It could go down [to the last week]. That's why it's competition. I'm open to anything. I've got nothing in mind. Go out and compete and good luck to the winner. The other part of the equation is, we're going to need a long reliever, too."
Young pitchers who have impressed Piniella so far include Rocky Cherry, Sean Gallagher and Jeff Samardzija. The former Notre Dame wide receiver will definitely open the season in the Minor Leagues. Maybe by then Piniella can spell his name.
"'N.D.' -- that's what I write in," Piniella said. "'Jeff N.D.' That's my spelling."
Highlight reel: Felix Pie made a stellar throw from center field and gunned down San Diego's Kevin Kouzmanoff at home to end the second inning.
"That was a pretty throw from center field," Piniella said. "I remember center fielders of yesterday. That was impressive. He threw a strike right to home plate. He's playing well. He told me today before the ballgame, 'If I have to pick up bats, I want to be on the Major League club.' These kids are playing like they want jobs here, and that's really what you want."
However, the outfield mix doesn't appear to include Pie, who had his second multi-hit game this spring and is batting .421.
"Right now, my plans are [Alfonso] Soriano, and that's it," Piniella said of his options in center field. "I'm not going to deviate from those plans for now."
Asked before the game if Soriano will be a regular in the starting lineup, Piniella laughed.
"The Tribune people would have me hung in effigy over at Wrigley Field [if he didn't]," Piniella said of the $136 million outfielder.
Backstops: Piniella doesn't believe in a pitcher having a personal catcher the way Henry Blanco was matched with Greg Maddux in Atlanta.
"What I like out of my second catcher is that he wins baseball games," Piniella said. "That's really what I'm interested in. If he catches a particular pitcher a little better than anybody else, yeah, why not? Will he be his personal catcher? No. We'll have statistics on every pitcher with every catcher and maybe one of them does a little better job, and we'll look at that."
Piniella said so far he's very pleased with both Michael Barrett and Blanco.
South of the border: On Wednesday, Jacque Jones had three hits, driving in three runs, and all of the hits came off left-handed pitching. Last season, he hit .234 off lefties compared to .303 against right-handers.
"Andruw Jones hit .245 against lefties, and he plays every day," said Jones, who talked to the Atlanta outfielder during the Major League Baseball tour to Japan this offseason. "The more you see, the better you can do."
The Cubs have struggled to find a left-handed batting practice pitcher, which Jones said would help.
"The more you see, the more complete you are," he said. "But you can kill them in batting practice and still stink in the games."
Hometown hero: Cliff Floyd is getting antsy. He's hoping he could play as early as Saturday, possibly as the designated hitter for the Cubs in their game against Kansas City in Surprise, Ariz. However, Piniella said it may not be until Monday.
"I have to get the cobwebs out," Floyd said.
Last July 16, as a member of the New York Mets, Floyd recorded his 13th career multi-homer game and his sixth career grand slam at Wrigley Field. Did he think then about the possibility of playing at Wrigley full time?
"No, I really didn't," Floyd said. "I always thought if I got an opportunity to do it, I'd love it. As far as going home, everybody knows the expectations go up a little higher. But I never thought about it."
He did think about the Cubs in 1991, when the Montreal Expos selected him in the first round of the draft.
"I thought I had a chance to get drafted by them out of high school in '91," said Floyd, who grew up in Chicago. "They said they didn't want to put pressure on me being a hometown guy or something like that. It kind of made sense to me. I thought, that's how it is."
Heading into last season and knowing he would be a free agent, Floyd didn't think about the Cubs. He thought he'd be back with the Mets.
"When you're with a team that's winning and things aren't going well, you aren't thinking about free agency," he said. "You're thinking about making things OK. When things fell apart there, I did think about here."
Extra bases: When Pie does get to the big leagues, Piniella said he expects him to bat second or eighth. ... Buck Coats had three hits Thursday, and Daryle Ward hit his first spring homer, a tiebreaking solo shot in the seventh off Trevor Hoffman. ... The Cubs will likely make roster moves after Sunday's game, or Monday's, and could re-assign as many as 15 players from the 58 in camp. ... Soriano, Matt Murton and Angel Pagan were working on their throws early Thursday at HoHoKam Park with outfield coach Mike Quade.
On deck: The Cubs will play two on Friday with split-squad games at Surprise, Ariz., against Texas at 2:05 p.m. CT, and at HoHoKam Park in Mesa against San Diego, also at 2:05. Cotts is slated to make his first start for the Cubs in Surprise, while Hill will start in Mesa. The home game will be televised on Comcast Sports Net, and can be seen live on MLB.TV.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.