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Untapped potential: LaHair gets shot with Cubs

Untapped potential: LaHair gets shot with Cubs

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Untapped potential: LaHair gets shot with Cubs
MESA, Ariz. -- It's the tap every player dreads, because it means the dream is on hold. You're going to the Minor Leagues.

In each of the last five years, a coach has tapped Bryan LaHair on the shoulder during the last days of Spring Training and told the first baseman he's wanted in the manager's office.

But not this year. This year, no tap. This year, the dream is reality.

"Last year, [coach Pat] Listach came and got me and said, 'The manager wants to see you,' and I told him I wasn't going in there," LaHair said. "Pat got a kick out of that."

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In December, LaHair was told there would be no tap this spring. That's when Cubs manager Dale Sveum plus Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer met with the first baseman at the Winter Meetings. They told LaHair what he's waited to hear since he was drafted in 2002: You're our first baseman.

Instead of beginning the baseball season in Sacramento or Des Moines, LaHair will be in Chicago at Wrigley Field on Thursday for Opening Day with the Cubs. That tingling in his stomach won't be the same one he felt the last five years when he got that first tap.

"The biggest thing for anybody getting sent down is to continue to work hard and continue to prove to yourself first that you have the ability to play every day," LaHair said. "If you take care of that, you'll make other people believe.

"A lot of times, it's not necessarily that you're not capable of playing [in the big leagues], and you don't want to put that kind of doubt in your mind that you're not capable of being a big league player. I never put that doubt in my mind. I just continued to work hard and continued to believe that eventually I'd get the opportunity, and sure enough I am."

He made the Cubs believe with a stellar season at Triple-A Iowa, hitting a Triple-A Iowa franchise record 38 home runs and leading the Pacific Coast League with 76 extra-base hits, 303 total bases, a .664 slugging percentage and 1.070 OPS. He tied for the PCL lead with 109 RBIs. LaHair was named the league's MVP, and he didn't stop there. He played this offseason in the Venezuelan Winter League and hit another 15 homers.

Last year, Carlos Pena took over at first and batted .225 with 28 home runs. But Epstein and Hoyer decided to give LaHair a chance. The 29-year-old infielder has 195 big league at-bats, and most of those were in 2008 with the Mariners.

"I tend not to buy into the concept of the '4A hitter,'" Epstein said in December. "If you can dominate at the Triple-A level and get on base and hit for power there and in so doing demonstrate you can handle different kinds of pitching and cover the entire strike zone, I think given enough time, he'll contribute at the Major League level."

The Cubs are counting on LaHair and third baseman Ian Stewart to provide some power following the departure of last year's corner infielders, Pena and Aramis Ramirez. LaHair did not hit a home run this spring.

"He's got to relax and understand that he's the guy and go off and do what he can do," Sveum said. "He's a left-handed power hitter who can generate a lot of runs, but he's got to relax and be Bryan LaHair and not want to do everything at one time, too."

Knowing it's his job has helped LaHair in the final days of spring camp.

"It's starting to sink in, and I'm starting to settle in with the thought of being the guy and getting the opportunity," Lahair said. "It's allowed me to clear my mind and be the player I can be. I think once you start doing that as a player, things start working out for you and you start being more productive. I think it's starting to sink in now that it's going to be my shot and my opportunity, and I'm looking forward to it."

On March 23, Anthony Rizzo, whom the Cubs acquired from the Padres for pitcher Andrew Cashner, got the tap on the shoulder. The highly touted Rizzo, 22, is projected as the Cubs' first baseman of the future. For every strikeout by LaHair, anxious Cubs fans will check to see how Rizzo is doing with Iowa. Did seeing Rizzo pack his things help LaHair relax?

"No -- we already knew the situation," LaHair said. "We've talked to each other. We're teammates."

Fans may not have been impressed by LaHair's early at-bats this spring, but hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo sees progress. The first baseman was making some adjustments and simplifying his approach. LaHair spent a day in the Minor League camp, getting seven at-bats and making good contact. It was a confidence boost.

He's been working on getting his top hand and lower hand comfortable again. A career .295 hitter in the Minor Leagues, he hit .331 last season at Iowa. In the big leagues, LaHair has a .262 average. He knows when it's time to turn the intensity up.

He kept an eye on the coaches in the clubhouse in the final days. It may not hit him that he's going to Chicago until he loads his personal items on the truck. He's finally going to be on a big league team on Opening Day.

"You never want to assume anything," LaHair said. "It's been made very clear that it's going to be my job. I just go with that. I'm sticking with that, and I'll continue to work hard every day and get better."

Will he take a moment to reflect on the long journey he's had to take to get to Wrigley Field? LaHair did that on the day Rizzo was sent down.

"I stopped for a second, and even my wife mentioned it to me," LaHair said of Nicole, who has been with him for nine years. "She said, 'You're still in camp, you're still on the roster, you're still going to Chicago. What does that make you feel like?'

"I said, 'Honey, I already reflected on that today.' I stopped for a second, and it was like, 'Wow, this is really going to happen.' For a guy like me, you never know day to day what's going to happen. Now I'm beginning to realize it. It's going to be a great year."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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