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The Cubs bold new strategy to win the World Series


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MESA, Ariz - Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee breaks into a broad smile upon hearing manager Lou Piniella's latest brainstorm.

Get the regulars more rest during the regular season. Enter the playoffs — assuming the Cubs qualify — with a fresher team.

"Most managers say that in spring training," Lee says. "Things happen during the season. I don't think managers always follow the game plan exactly how they wanted to."

Spoken like a 12-year veteran, one who has seen managers abandon plans to rest their regulars at the first hint of a losing streak.

Piniella, however, vows this season will be different.

"As manager, I've learned a lot about our situation here in two years," Piniella says. "We've got to have a rested team. Hopefully, we'll get back to where were last year and be much better off because of it."

The Cubs can't be any worse in the playoffs, can they?

Two years ago, they were outscored 16-6 in getting swept by the Diamondbacks in the Division Series. Last year, they were outscored 20-6 in getting swept by the Dodgers.

Was the whole team tired against the Dodgers? Or just certain players?

"Let me tell you what happened to us in the postseason," Piniella says. "We tried too hard. I thought ..."

Piniella pauses, staring at the ground, searching for the right answer to the questions about fatigue.

"I don't know about the whole team. I think portions of the team. Not the whole team.

"The starting pitching, we kept pretty fresh all year. I thought the bullpen was in pretty good shape. The offense was the biggest problem."

And it's a manager's job to search for solutions.

The greater number of day games at Wrigley Field is an adjustment for newer Cubs, but Piniella says players get worn down mentally as well as physically.

The reason: The sense of urgency surrounding a team that has not won a World Series since 1908, the sky-is-falling reaction in Chicago to every defeat.

To a degree, the 2008 Cubs were victims of circumstances: A number of their bench players were limited by injuries down the stretch. Then, after clinching the division title on Sept. 20, Piniella had to field representative lineups for the final seven games against the Mets and Brewers, both of which were still in contention.

The latter is no excuse, in Piniella's view — he says he should have made sure the team was better rested going into the final week. But this year's team, at least on paper, should give him greater flexibility:

Paul Bako or Koyie Hill will replace Henry Blanco as the backup catcher. Blanco missed nearly three months last season with a herniated disc. Geovany Soto made 131 starts at the position as a rookie, batted .241 in September and went 2-for-11 in the Division Series

Kosuke Fukudome, Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright play all three outfield positions, giving the Cubs the ability to rest their fragile right fielder, Milton Bradley, or replace him for prolonged stretches, if necessary.

Micah Hoffpauir plays the outfield corners and first, providing a left-handed hitting alternative to Lee or left fielder Alfonso Soriano. Daryle Ward, last year's backup first baseman, was limited to 102 at-bats due to a bulging disc in his lower back.

Aaron Miles and Mike Fontenot, who will share playing time at second base, also can play short and third.

Piniella, concerned about the lack of protection for third baseman Aramis Ramirez, says he's "beginning to feel that I need another infielder." Ideally, that infielder would have been Mark DeRosa, whom the Cubs traded to the Indians to clear payroll for Bradley. Piniella is fine with the move, but has difficulty remembering that he can only carry 25 players.

To add an infielder — say, third baseman Corey Koskie, who signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs and is playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic — the Cubs would need to return to Hoffpauir to Triple-A or release Gathright.

Neither option is appealing. Hoffpauir, 29, was the Cubs' minor-league player of the year and hit .342 in four major-league stints last season. Gathright, 27, would be a hellacious pinch-runner and solid fifth outfielder.

No team is perfect, not even the filthy-rich Yankees. The Cubs' intention to carry 12 pitchers prevents them from carrying a full bench complement. Still, Piniella's instincts usually are correct.

He fretted over the team's need for a left-handed hitter even when the Cubs were 35 games over .500 last season. Now, he's convinced that he needs to give his regulars more rest.

"I will. I will," Piniella says. "I have to. If not, we're looking for the same result. We don't want that."

Two straight first-round eliminations and 101 straight years without a World Series title are enough.

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