When manager Jim Frey got the dispiriting news that his star pitcher, Rick Sutcliffe, had been hit on the thumb of his pitching hand by a batted ball and had been rushed to the hospital for observation, he was stricken with a dreadful sense of déj√† vu. Were the powers that be ganging up on him yet again? The season hadn't even started and already his pitchers were beginning to drop like Rambo antagonists.
Last year the Cubs, division champions in '84, were breezing along in first place after 57 games when, one by one, the pitchers started clutching various parts of their anatomies and staggered off to the infirmary. By Aug. 11, Frey's entire starting rotation was on the disabled list. For the season, Dennis Eckersley, Scott Sanderson, Steve Trout, Dick Ruthven and Sutcliffe missed a total of 61 starts and collected just 37 wins.
So when Frey heard that his ace was in the hole again, he could only clap hand to brow and mutter, "A guy could develop a serious drinking problem if this happened two years in a row." But Sutcliffe's injury was only a bruise, and within days he was back throwing again. The key to the Cubs' season is keeping those starters healthy. If they stay that way this team could contend again, for it has power and some speed. It also has a shortstop, which is something it didn't have at this time a year ago.
Shawon Dunston was just an untested rookie last spring, and his competition with the ancient Larry Bowa for the shortstop job was an unsettling experience. Dunston started the season at short, but the pressure soon wilted him. He recovered his confidence in Triple A, had a big September back in Chicago (.330 for the month) and hit .295 in winter ball. "He's a different player now, more confident and relaxed," says Frey.
In fact the Cubs will be well fixed at six of the eight field positions when catcher Jody Davis (stomach virus) and centerfielder Bob Dernier (foot surgery) are fit again. The mere presence of nonpareil second baseman Ryne Sandberg is enough to warm Frey's heart. But the Cubs look to be in trouble at third base, where 38-year-old Ron Cey, never very mobile, seems permanently planted, and in leftfield, where 35-year-old Gary Matthews is trying to come back from knee surgery. Even if the Cubs have their health, their defense may be hurting.
THE ELIAS ANALYST:
Has hit 48 career HRs at Wrigley Field, 28 in road games.
Loves to face the man the Cubs gave up to get him, Bruce Sutter: 7 for 15, 3 HRs.
Career batting average of .311 at Wrigley Field, .265 on the road.
Averaged 3.72 assists per nine innings, highest among NL shortstops.
Went 37 straight games (June 10-July 27) without a HR, the longest drought of his career.
Only one homer in last 151 at bats in LIP situations (regular season only).
Fewest RBIs (21) of any major leaguer who qualified for 1985 batting title.
Led NL with 33 hits with 2 outs and runners in scoring position.
Career BA of .625 (5 for 8) with the bases loaded.
Opponents on-base percentage in LIP situations (.174) was lowest in NL since 1976.
Led the majors with 6.16 strikeouts per walk last season.
1985 breakdown: 7-1 vs. teams below .500, 2-6 vs. teams above .500.
Allowed 24 extra-base hits in LIP situations in '85, highest total in either league.