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Friday, May 05, 2006

Cubs; Todd Walker Likes His New Position - MLB.com

Notes: Change does Walker good
Cubs first baseman adapting to new position in field, lineup
By Jason Grey / Special to MLB.com

PHOENIX -- At a time when the Cubs are in an offensive slump, having scored just five runs in their last five games, Todd Walker is doing his best despite plenty of changes.
Walker has been asked to play a new position, first base -- in the absence of Derrek Lee -- and be more of a run producer hitting in a new spot in the lineup, third and even fourth on Thursday night.

Despite all that, Walker has continued to get it done early in the 2006 campaign. His .342 batting average ranks fifth in the National League entering Thursday, he's ripping righties at a .423 clip -- good for second in the league behind teammate Ronny Cedeno's .439 -- and his .438 mark with runners in scoring position shows he's making his hits count.

But Walker is careful not to read too much into it.

"Every time you're doing well, people want to come over and tell you how great you are," Walker said with a laugh. "But no matter how much you focus or how good you feel, you go through streaks and have good runs and bad runs. Hopefully, you just minimize the bad runs. I've already had one this year [an 0-for-11 stretch], and I survived."

Walker has gone through some torrid streaks with the bat before, but when you do it at the beginning of the season, it seems to always get a little more attention.

"No matter what you're doing, you can't let it affect the next week or even the next at-bat," Walker said, "For me, the key is that I've learned not to take anything for granted."

Despite the changes, Walker tries to put them out of his mind in the batter's box.

"I realize that if you're consistently putting the ball in play, you're going to get hits, and that's my main focus," Walker said. "Whatever happens defensively, you can't let it affect you at the plate. Just worry about it when you're out there."

Prior sighting: Mark Prior threw long toss for the second straight day as he recovers from a bout of what he believes was food poisoning that pushed his timetable back a little bit in his rehabilitation from a shoulder strain.

"I'm doing all right," Prior said. "The most important thing is I was able to get some throwing in after a few days off. We'll just take it day by day until I get my strength back up. The thing right now is just trying to get the work in. Once I get back on the mound, it shouldn't take much longer."

Prior still feels he can get back into the Cubs' rotation by the end of May.

"That was my expectation going into this past weekend," Prior said. "I was right there at the cusp of getting into some simulated games. Right now, it's backed up until the latter part of this month, but I think it's possible."

The good thing is there have been no issues with his arm.

"The shoulder's been feeling good," Prior said. "It's responded well. I haven't had any problems with it at all."

Case resolved: Prior also received a ruling in a lawsuit regarding a 2004 memorabilia signing.

The suit stemmed from a disagreement about what was expected of him during the appearance, and it alleged that he acted rudely toward fans and left without signing some additional items that he was contracted to. The judge ruled Prior must pay restitution of $30,000 for the items that weren't signed, but ruled in favor of Prior in the other portion of the case, and that he did not act inappropriately with fans.

"I'm glad it's over with and hopefully we can just move on," Prior said. "I think ultimately the decision is what was going to be expected. All along I said that I never behaved in a negative or rude way, and [the ruling] kind of cleared my character. To me, that was the most important thing."

Help on the way? Manager Dusty Baker was hopeful that some right-handed offensive help via trade might be on the way soon.

"There's some action," Baker said. "We hope so. I'm very optimistic."

Second time's the charm? Thursday night's starter, Rich Hill, became the third rookie to join the Cubs' rotation this season. He struggled in 10 appearances last season, posting an ERA above nine, but he says it will be different this time around.

"I have to challenge the hitters and not just try and nibble at the plate like I did last year," said the 26-year-old left-hander.

Scouts say Hill's curveball -- a huge 12-to-6 breaker -- is among the best in baseball, but he has had trouble commanding it at times and did indeed look tentative last year. The Cubs are hoping he can be the pitcher that led the Minors with 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

"It's just a matter of consistency in the strike zone with him, that's all," Baker said.

Hill thinks his command has been much improved this year.

"I've just been working on it and working on it and I think it eventually came around with repetition," Hill said. "I've been repeating the same delivery and throwing my curve consistently for strikes, and that's been the key difference for me so far this year."

Hill posted 1.44 ERA in four Triple-A starts before being called up, striking out 33 in 25 innings.


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