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Rusin ignoring pressure of rotation competition

Cubs left-hander is finding success with relaxed approach this spring

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LAS VEGAS -- Chris Rusin attended the University of Kentucky, is a huge fan of Wildcats basketball, and before the NCAA tournament bracket was announced on Sunday, he was already "brain storming" about whether to pick his school to win it all.

He's not planning that far ahead as far as his baseball career is concerned.

Rusin is in the mix for a spot in the Cubs' Opening Day rotation, and on Sunday the lefty held the Mets to one hit over four scoreless innings, striking out two. He faced 14 batters, did not walk anyone, and smoothly fielded a comebacker by Travis d'Arnaud to end the fourth.

"I was able to find all my offspeed [pitches] and keep the ball down in the zone with movement. And when I do that, I'm able to get ground balls, and that's what happened," Rusin said after his outing in the Cubs' 6-3 win. "I just have to build on it. I'm pretty close with all my pitches -- breaking balls, fastballs, two-seams away. I just have to keep being consistent."

This has been a much easier spring for Rusin.

"I just feel more comfortable," the lefty said. "It's not anything different. I just feel comfortable. I feel I can be myself, and that's why I can pitch my best."

He did that in his previous outing, throwing three hitless innings against the Giants. He did not walk a batter and has issued three walks over 11 2/3 innings in his four outings.

"With Chris, he falls in line with a lot of young guys," Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode said. "That first year, not knowing what the expectations are on the Major League level, a little doubt -- they don't know if they can pitch up here or not. He got quite a taste up there in '12, and he came back and got to understand what it took for him to compete, not so much what other people do, but what he needs to do to be competitive at that level and confident that he can get the job done.

"With that experience, now he knows he can do it. He knows, yes, he needs to work on better command with his fastball, and come up with a decent breaking ball, something he can throw for strikes and not always use his cutter for an out pitch. He's learned how to do that, he's more poised and more relaxed and more confident, and it's just a matter of him going out there and doing his thing."

Rusin made his big league debt in 2012 and went 2-3 with a 6.37 ERA in seven starts. Last year, he was called up in July, and went 2-6 with a 3.93 ERA.

"Each year, I feel like I'm getting more comfortable on the field, and just trusting my pitches more," Rusin said. "I'm working on my breaking balls this spring and they're coming around real well. I'm throwing it for strikes, especially the last game [against the Giants]. It's progressing well."

All it takes is more innings, more games, more experience.

"He's confident he can throw any of his pitches for strikes. He's confident he can get those guys out. He knows how important location and command are for his game because he's not a power guy," Strode said. "He knows he has to command his pitches. With that being said, he's worked on his delivery to allow his arm to have a consistent release point and allows him to execute his pitches."

Against the Mets, Rusin's only misstep was in the first inning, when he and first baseman Daniel Vogelbach both tried to get to the bag at the same time to get Eric Young Jr. out. Vogelbach was charged with an error. Rusin knew Young was out. He had the cleat marks on his shoe as proof.

That's been the only glitch.

"My slider was a little rough at the beginning of spring, and the last game I threw it for strikes, along with the curveball," Rusin said. "So far, it's coming along the way I want it to. That was my best outing, so maybe I need to throw more breaking pitches. It felt good to get out there -- my first pitch was a breaking ball that inning [against the Giants] and I threw it for a strike, and it was good ever since."

He listened when Greg Maddux offered him advice a few years ago. Rusin will listen to everyone. He was playing catch with a coach, and having trouble with his changeup. The coach suggested tweaking his grip so his thumb was angled down. It worked.

"It's not something I didn't know but something to get in my head," Rusin said. "It was a little thing to help me out."

"Something that Chris has going for him, that's just natural, is every pitch he throws has some type of movement," Strode said. "His pitches are not just straight. He's so calm out there. You can see that. He just goes out there and pitches, and, 'Hey, here's what I've got, I'm going to change speeds on these guys, change locations on these guys and enjoy myself.'"

Where will Rusin open this season? He's trying not to look ahead. The lefty, who admits he gets nervous before every start, will just have to be patient.

"You just get lost in Spring Training and being here and having fun," Rusin said. "Once you get a week or two away [from the start of the season], maybe you start thinking about it, because you have to think about where you're going to live. I don't really let it affect me."

Jake Arrieta was projected for the rotation, but he's been slowed this spring by a tightness in his right shoulder. The Cubs are looking at James McDonald, who starts on Monday, and Tsuyoshi Wada as other options for the rotation. So Rusin waits.

"That's what I've been doing the last two years is just waiting for getting a call up and always being ready," Rusin said. "It's not something I'm not used to."

It gives him time to work on his NCAA bracket. He went to two Kentucky basketball games in the offseason and can't root against the Wildcats.

"They're my sleeper," Rusin said.

The lefty could be the Cubs' winning pick for the rotation.

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.

{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }
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