Opportunities Await Several Iowa Pitchers

Hart likely to go back up (PHOTO/LARRY WOOLIS)

With the upcoming September 1 roster expansion, the Chicago Cubs will dip into its minor league system to add help, and several pitchers with Class AAA Iowa could be up (or back up) with the big league team.

Michael Wuertz

The right-handed reliever has regularly taken the mound at Wrigley Field over the past five seasons, but was sent down to Iowa on July 11 to work on his slider. He has made 12 appearances with Iowa, allowing seven runs over 14 2/3 innings.

"What you get to do down here is go with the adjustments," said Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason, who added that Wuertz's slider is occasionally flat. "In the big leagues, you don't really have a lot of time – you either have to perform or not. (Wuertz) has been able to do a few things that he probably wouldn't have tried up there.

"He's actually developed a little bit slower slider to go with a harder slider, so he's able to add and subtract on the same pitch, and that's only going to help him when he goes back up."

Kevin Hart

Hart quickly ascended from Double-A to the big leagues last season, but has faired poorly against major league hitters this season with a 7.91 ERA in 14 appearances.

"Kevin found out what it's like to be more known by major league hitters," Mason said. "Last year, they didn't know he had a quick little cutter, so they started chasing stuff off the plate. This year, he kind of got his eyes opened, and the fact that they weren't chasing the same pitches that they were last year, he needed to make an adjustment to get it in the zone more.

"He's been up and down a few times, and now he understands what he needs to do. I'm pretty sure he's going back up in September. When that happens, he'll be a different pitcher up there."

Hart has a 3.35 ERA in 10 starts with Iowa this season, but returned to the bullpen since last returning from Chicago. He has made nine appearances, pitched 10 2/3 innings, and has allowed just three runs (2.53 ERA) on seven hits.

Mitch Atkins

The 22-year-old right-hander is having an eye-opening season in the minor leagues.

Atkins has won his last 12 starts dating back to June 15 at Class AA Tennessee, and is 7-0 since being called up to Triple-A on July 11. After allowing one earned run over six innings Thursday, he has a 3.61 ERA with Iowa.

"He goes after people all the time, and he's got a good curveball," Mason said of Atkins. "He had a really good curveball [Thursday], and it kind of allows him to get away with some other pitches that he normally wouldn't. But everything he throws is live."

Atkins has given up eight home runs in those seven starts, striking out 36 while walking 17.

"He's not a blazer who is going to throw 93 miles an hour," Mason said. "He is throwing 88, 89, but everything he throws is crisp and has life, and these hitters here are having a tough time squaring him up. And because he can throw anything at anytime, he keeps these guys off-stride, and that's how you go 7-0."

Mason said that Atkins, who is not currently on the 40-man roster, just needs experience and that he needs to experience adversity.

"He's going to have to have some failure before he develops the attributes that will make him a big league pitcher."

Jose Ascanio

The hard-throwing 23-year-old reliever has struggled since the beginning of June.

After beginning the season with a 1.90 ERA through the end of May, Ascanio has an 8.00 ERA since then. The right-hander has given up nine home runs in his last 25 innings after giving up just one long-ball in his first 21 2/3 innings pitched.

"We're working on some mechanical things with Jose. Especially, at this point – obviously we're trying to get him ready for September 1, so he's in a position to get called up. You sacrifice some things a little bit now so that when the time comes, he's not going have to worry about it then.

"It's just some mechanical things right now. He tends to get flat, and when he loses his angle, 95 is not 95 anymore. But he's working his way through it, and he's going to be better in the long run."

Ascanio has played in six games with Chicago this season, allowing five runs over 5 2/3 innings.

"A lot of pitchers throw 95 in the major leagues, and it's the secondary pitches that are going to afford him the luxury of making mistakes with his fastballs," Mason said. "He's got a pretty good changeup, his curveball is pretty good, and it's just a matter of Jose ironing it out and becoming a consistent major league pitcher."

Carmen Pignatiello

Pignatiello made Chicago's opening day roster, but pitched in just two games before being sent to Triple-A and hasn't been back since. With Iowa, the left-hander sports a 7.00 ERA.

"Piggy is in one of those funks where even when he throws good pitches, he's getting hit," Mason said. "It's just one of those things where … the numbers look ugly, but he's had stretches of 10-12 outings where he doesn't give up anything, and then he gives up five."

After straining his calf in early May, Pignatiello came off the disabled list and allowed two runs over his next 16 1/3 innings pitched. Then, on June 28, he blew a one-run save opportunity against Albuquerque, allowing six runs on six hits.

"You just got to go game by game with Piggy," Mason said. "He's battling through it, and again he's still got good stuff; he's just … getting burned by every mistake he makes."

Best of the Rest

Both right-hander Mike Burns and left-hander J.R. Mathes made the mid-July Triple-A All-Star game, while right-hander Randy Wells has a 3.99 ERA after 24 appearances (17 starts).

All three are coming off solid starts, with Burns throwing eight shutout innings and allowed four hits in a 1-0 win on Friday against New Orleans at Principal Park.

On Wednesday, Mathes scattered five hits over eight innings, allowing one run against New Orleans. Wells threw six shutout innings on Tuesday, giving up three hits.

"They're the guys that don't have anything nasty, but everything they throw is good and they can use both sides of the plate, throw off-speed stuff anytime they want," Mason said.

Mason said the three pitchers "consummate pitchers," and are the kind of players "I kind of push for," though they have not been afforded extended playing time to prove themselves in the major leagues.

"You play to maybe get your one shot and if you do, you take advantage of it," Mason said. "There are guys up in the major leagues that don't throw hard, but if you do get your opportunity and take advantage of it … I mean, Orel Hershiser didn't throw hard, either. There are a lot of guys like that that didn't throw hard. [Burns, Mathes and Wells] still love the game, they still love to compete, and they'll get an opportunity."

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