After beginning the season 0-8 in games decided by two runs or less, the Cubs are 5-1 in their last six games that have been decided by that margin.
"We've been playing good baseball, and we've been winning some close games, which to me, is very important early in the year," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Tuesday. "Winning the close scores, one-, two-run ballgames, they give your team confidence, and I think that's the best thing to happen to us."
But Piniella isn't satisfied.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again -- let's not get giggly with this little run we're having," he said. "We have to continue to improve and play better baseball, because the rest of the teams we'll be playing will get better themselves. There's a lot of work to be done here, but I'm encouraged. We're getting a lot of effort and that's really important, and I'm proud of our guys for that."
It helps that closer Ryan Dempster has gotten off to a good start. The right-hander was 7-for-7 in save situations.
"Dempster has really pitched well," Piniella said. "When your closer is pitching well, it settles everything down in your bullpen, the same way as if your No. 1 pitcher is pitching well, everything settles into place.
"Our bullpen is going to function just fine. We have a nice combination of lefties and righties. We need to throw more strikes. I've said that before, and I'll continue to say it, because invariably, walks beat you."
On the run: Reliever Bob Howry finally joined Dempster and Neal Cotts in their pregame run Tuesday along the Chicago lakefront, but he didn't get very far. Dempster and Cotts, who have been dubbed Steve Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers, headed out Tuesday with Howry and Tim Buss, the strength and conditioning coach.
"We got to Broadway, and Demp and Neal turned right and Bussey looked back and I said, 'I'm going back,'" Howry said. "I did make it back all the way without stopping."
He lasted 11 minutes. The others run 30 minutes. It had been a running joke in the clubhouse as to whether or not Howry would join the group. Michael Wuertz and Rich Hill have tried to keep up with Dempster and Cotts, and it's tough. They run at a good pace.
"For a while, it was a joke -- 'Hey, you guys didn't wait for me,'" Howry said. "[Dempster] sent a text [message] saying, 'We're waiting for you if you want to go.' I went today, and I'll never go again."
However, he does have a new appreciation for running. His wife, Dena, is training for a half-marathon.
"The other day, she ran six miles," Howry said. "I was impressed by the sound of it. After 11 minutes today, she's the greatest. There's no chance."
Good cause: Michael Barrett raised $12,000 for teammate Derrek Lee's Project 3000 during a silent auction Sunday at Gino's East restaurant. The top items sold were a "W" flag signed by the Cubs players, and four field passes.
"We had a lot of support from a lot of people," Barrett said.
That included a $300 donation from a youngster who set up a blog and promised $1 for every hit he got.
"I was so encouraged, I want to do another [fundraiser]," Barrett said.
Project 3000 is raising money to fight Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, a rare genetic eye disease, which has caused partial blindness in Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Jada.
Learning curve: Ryne Sandberg was ejected from a game as a player at least once in his career, back on May 26, 1993. On Monday night, the new Class A Peoria Chiefs manager and Hall of Famer was tossed for arguing balls and strikes in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"There was some frustration with some close pitches," Sandberg told reporters after the game. "When the pitcher hits the glove, that's one thing. In my opinion, we were being squeezed out there. There's a kid out there [Rafael Dolis] who's just trying to pitch, and when a young pitcher like that has to throw 15, 20 more pitches than he should, in my opinion, at this level, it's no good.
"It was just a question with the strike zone. I didn't feel like he was calling a good game back there."
Sandberg was tossed in '93 by first-base umpire Charlie Williams, who called the second baseman out at first on a slow roller to short. Sandberg says he also was ejected by umpire Randy Marsh once.
"We're watching where the catcher sets up, where he's hitting the glove," Sandberg said of Monday's game. "We're trying to battle and salvage a win, and the guy's out there throwing way too many pitches than he should just because he couldn't get a quality pitch called."
It must have been hard for Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo not to laugh. Dascenzo and Sandberg were teammates on the Cubs.
Extra bases: Infielder Ronny Cedeno, optioned to Triple-A Iowa on Saturday, was expected to start for the Iowa Cubs on Tuesday night. ... First-base coach Matt Sinatro missed Tuesday's game because he was ill. Bench coach Ivan DeJesus subbed at first. ... Some of the Cubs hitters have shown more patience at the plate, and that's good. "The guys who don't hit the ball out of the ballpark, those are the guys we want to work the count more than anyone else," Piniella said. "There's a reason they keep on-base percentage statistics."
Minor matters: Sean Marshall gave up one run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings while striking out three in Iowa's 7-1 win over New Orleans. Marshall has a 0.79 ERA. Micah Hoffpauir had two hits, including a two-run homer. ... Justin Berg gave up two runs on eight hits over seven innings in Tennessee's 2-1 loss to Montgomery. ... Joel Santo gave up two runs, one earned, on seven hits over six innings in Daytona's 3-2 win over Tampa. ... Rafael Dolis gave up one run on five hits over 4 1/3 innings in Peoria's 10-4 win over Fort Wayne. Yusuf Carter had three hits, including a home run, and finished with three RBIs.
On deck: Jason Marquis will make his seventh start of the season and fourth at home on Wednesday night in Game 2 of this three-game series against the Pirates. Marquis is 2-1 with a 2.00 ERA at home. It's another game under the lights at Wrigley Field, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. CT.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less