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After big changes, Cubs ride Rizzo into second half

CHICAGO -- The first half of the season for the Cubs will be remembered for the changing of the guard.

On May 18, Kerry Wood made his final appearance after 12 seasons in Chicago, entering in the eighth inning against the White Sox in an Interleague game at Wrigley Field. He struck out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches, and that was it. Wood received a standing ovation as he walked off the field and an emotional hug from his 6-year-old son, Justin, who came sprinting out of the dugout.

"It's time -- it was time," Wood said. "It's time to give somebody else a chance."

On June 26, the Cubs looked to the future and top prospect Anthony Rizzo. Manager Dale Sveum didn't get much sleep as he searched for the right lineup combinations and dealt with injuries in the first half. It wasn't until the promotion of Rizzo, inserted into the No. 3 spot, that everything stabilized. He delivered game-winning hits in three of four wins in his first week, a good sign for the second half.

Remember Opening Day? Starlin Castro was batting third, Ian Stewart playing third, Marlon Byrd in center and Bryan LaHair listed as the starting first baseman. Today, Castro is batting second and headed to his second All-Star Game. Stewart will have surgery on his left wrist Tuesday, and is done for the year. Luis Valbuena, claimed off waivers April 4, now is the starting third baseman.

Byrd is gone, traded to the Red Sox on April 21. David DeJesus has moved to center, and LaHair is now playing right because of Rizzo. It's not all bad for LaHair, 29, a surprise pick to the National League All-Star team after receiving the second-most votes among first basemen on the players' ballot. His peers appreciate his perseverance. LaHair spent nine years in the Minor Leagues, six at the Triple-A level, and several offseasons in Venezuela and Mexico before getting an opportunity this season.

How did he celebrate his All-Star selection? LaHair took a long, warm bath to soak it all in.

There were other changes. Rudy Jaramillo was dismissed June 12, but Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, made a point of not blaming the hitting coach. Epstein said they wanted a "new voice with a new message." It's all part of the makeover going on at Clark and Addison.

First-half awards
MVP: Starlin Castro All-Star for second straight year; much improved on defense.
Cy Young: Ryan Dempster Ranked among NL ERA leaders; just couldn't get run support.
Rookie: Steve Clevenger Smart behind the plate, and is another good left-handed bat.
Top reliever: James Russell Developing into top left-handed setup man in second full season.

The stagnant offense -- the Cubs were at the bottom in the league in slugging percentage and on-base percentage -- contributed to Ryan Dempster's lopsided numbers. The Opening Day starter, Dempster ranked among the NL leaders in ERA, and began the year with quality starts in his first five games and a 1.02 ERA in that stretch. But he went winless in his first nine starts.

He did finish strong, extending his scoreless streak to 27 innings with five more on Sunday, and winning his last four games. In the second half, expect to hear a lot of trade rumors regarding Dempster, who will be a free agent after this season.

All Sveum wants his starters to do is throw strikes. They struggled a little in the first half, finishing near the bottom of the National League in ERA. Jeff Samardzija did survive a horrible June, Travis Wood has settled down, and Matt Garza continues to amuse.

It was a roller coaster first half for closer Carlos Marmol, who lost his job to rookie Rafael Dolis, among others, then was injured. Marmol is back now, as long as he doesn't shake off his catcher and sticks to the game plan. If they catch him shaking, he owes pitching coach Chris Bosio a case of wine.

Sveum's first half MVPs? He picked relievers James Russell and Shawn Camp, who had ERAs under 2.50, filled in whenever needed, and were effective.

Players to watch in second half
Anthony Rizzo Rookie has taken over No. 3 spot in lineup, and his at-bats are not to be missed.
Darwin Barney Wants to win Gold Glove; would be first Cubs 2B to do so since Ryne Sandberg in '91.
Jeff Samardzija Had rough 0-4 June, but isn't afraid to work to get better.

The one constant in the first half has been Sveum. His goal since Spring Training started was to be prepared. That means lots of meetings between the players and the coaching staff, video sessions and studying spray charts. Whenever Darwin Barney seemed perfectly positioned to make a play, it's because he knew where to stand. Infield coach Pat Listach and outfield coach Dave McKay could often be seen giving each other high fives in the dugout when the positioning worked.

There were lows, including a 12-game losing streak from May 15-27, which matched the franchise's longest skid. Other numbers they don't want to repeat is the puzzling 8-18 record against left-handed starters, although that also has improved with the arrival of Rizzo.

The Cubs also were 10-17 in one-run games, the most losses in the Majors. That, Sveum says, should change, too. It's no coincidence the team has gone 8-4 since he was promoted. Wood's career may be over, but Rizzo's is just beginning.

"[Rizzo] has changed everything," outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. "Batting third, hitting homers, defense -- I hope the way he plays and the way we play, I hope we continue that way in the second half."

Chicago Cubs