Piniella looks to bench for a spark

Piniella looks to bench for spark

CHICAGO -- The temperature was in the mid-50s with sun and nary a cloud in the sky on Saturday morning, a much more palatable setting for an early April baseball game than the Cubs have experienced in the opening week of the season.

Starting the season at home has made for cold fans, cold bats and a middling start for the Cubs.

Hoping for more heat from his offense, Cubs manager Lou Piniella reconfigured the lineup again Saturday. Reed Johnson started in center in place of Felix Pie, and hit in the No. 2 hole in place of Ryan Theriot, against Roy Oswalt and the Astros. Theriot, who has batted .222 in the top two spots of the order thus far, was moved down to eighth.

Piniella waited to post the lineup until after the media left the clubhouse, possibly to avoid more attention over his penchant for lineup juggling.

"I've got to play my bench some, I really do," Piniella said. "What's the sense having people coming out of Spring Training with at-bats and sharp, and all of a sudden I have them sit there a couple weeks without playing. You've got to play your bench, and your bench has to help you, at times, win some baseball games."

Piniella also said there is a right to worry, if only a little bit, about the team's slow start at the plate. Derrek Lee was 4-for-18 and Aramis Ramirez 2-for-13 coming in, and Alfonso Soriano was hitting just 1-for-17, forming an unproductive, and much-discussed, top of the lineup with Theriot.

"Quite frankly, we didn't swing bats that well this spring," Piniella said. "But we'll work hard and start swinging. What can you say? I don't think you can just turn the faucet on and off.

"Look, I played and I understand that hitting in cold weather is not the easiest thing in the world to do," Piniella added. "You've got to have some patience. We're going to straighten this thing out. We might have to make some changes along the way to do it but we will get this thing straight."

Johnson, the last addition to the team in Spring Training, had a pinch-hit double in the sixth Friday but was stranded at third in the Cubs' 4-3 loss. Despite the fact that Johnson is a right-handed hitter facing the righty Oswalt (Pie is a lefty), Piniella said he planned on playing Johnson at some point this weekend, so he went with his gut.

While the Cubs have struggled at the plate, hitting .220 going into Saturday's game, the bench has been an asset, albeit with a small sample size. Cubs pinch-hitters are 2-for-6 thus far, with a .500 on-base percentage. And it's not easy to warm up in ancient Wrigley Field.

Because the batting cages are in the outfield, the Cubs have had to make do with limited space to get ready in a hurry. Last season, they made a change from a small hitting contraption -- a garbage-can sized circle with a deep net -- to a large net that unfurls from the ceiling to the floor of the clubhouse. The net, set up in the near side of the clubhouse right in front of a large marker board along the wall, is used for throwing and hitting practice during the game.

"It was [clubhouse manager Tom "Otis" Hellman's] idea," Daryle Ward said. "But I was the one who said I needed this, so I could do my job the best I can. That little net was tough sometimes. If you didn't hit it in the circle, the ball would bounce off the net and people would be ducking in the clubhouse. The reason why we had to change is that Cliff Floyd [who played for the Cubs last season] couldn't hit the ball in the circle and he was almost killing everybody."

Johnson didn't use the net before his double Friday, but he has said he's used it to practice his throws.

"At least we have something," he said. "It's better than not having anything, especially in [cold] weather. You need some way to get inside and warm up."

With Johnson's at-bat Friday, backup catcher Henry Blanco is the only Cub yet to play.

"We'll get Henry in there, too," Piniella said. "[Geovany] Soto's swinging the bat, hitting the ball hard. We need offense right now."

Piniella also said Mike Fontenot, unavailable Friday with tightness in his back, was ready for Saturday.

Jon Greenberg is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.