CHICAGO – The Cubs are on their second closer, and the season is only a week old.
The Milwaukee Brewers are missing two key sluggers, and a third is struggling with a neck issue.
This should be quite the opener at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs and Brewers are dealing with some early challenges heading into the first game of the season at the Cubs’ longtime home today.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum announced Sunday that Kyuji Fujikawa would take over as closer after Carlos Marmol blew a save opportunity in Saturday night’s 6-5 loss in Atlanta. Fujikawa finished a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Opening Day, but the Cubs had only one other victory on the six-game road trip.
The Cubs lost 5-1 to the Braves in the series finale after Jeff Samardzija set a career high with 13 strikeouts, but gave up four runs and four walks in 52/3 innings.
“We’re a better team at home,” said Sveum, looking forward to the first game at the cozy neighborhood ballpark. “Most teams are better teams at home. We proved it last year. Even with a tough year, we were only a couple of games under .500 at home last year. You’re more comfortable.”
The Brewers’ opening homestand was so bad they were looking forward to getting away for a while.
Ryan Braun has missed three consecutive games due to spasms on the right side of his neck, and shortstop Jean Segura was pulled from Sunday’s 8-7 loss to Arizona because of a bruised left quadriceps. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez went on the disabled list Saturday with a sprained left knee, and first baseman Corey Hart is expected to miss the first month of the season recovering from right knee surgery.
“To start a season, this is tough,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “You don’t expect to have this many injuries early. And when you do, it is hard to figure out how you cover everything.”
Milwaukee has dropped five in a row since it beat Colorado 5-4 in 10 innings on opening day. The starting rotation has struggled, and Roenicke has his own problems at closer.
John Axford surrendered a long two-run homer to Eric Hinske in the 11th inning Sunday. The right-hander has allowed six runs and eight hits over 2 2-3 innings covering his first three appearances.
“Ax isn’t happy the way he is throwing,” Roenicke said. “He knows he is better than what he is doing.”
But Braun and Segura both could play against the Cubs, and the Brewers remain confident after beginning the season with high hopes for contending in the division and returning to the playoffs.
Right-hander Marco Estrada, set to start for Milwaukee against Edwin Jackson on Monday, said there were “a lot of positives” in the Brewers’ latest loss.
“Try to build off of them and bring it into tomorrow’s game. We know we have a tough road trip ahead of us. We are going to take it the same, one game at a time, try to win that first game and then try to win the series,” he said.
If Braun returns to the lineup, it would be his first road game since his name surfaced in records from the now-defunct Biogenesis of America LLC clinic that allegedly provided banned substances to several players.
After his name was connected to the clinic, Braun issued a statement in which he said he used the clinic’s operator, Anthony Bosch, as a consultant in appealing his previous positive test that was overturned.
He could receive an icy welcome when he is introduced at Wrigley Field on Monday, but he is the best player on one of the Cubs’ division rivals so it may just be more of the same.
“The good thing is it doesn’t faze him at all,” Estrada said. “He was good last year and he had probably an even better year than 2011. So he’s a great hitter, goes about the game the right way.”
While the Cubs are coming off another lackluster road trip, there could be a bit of positive news to announce as they return to iconic home.
The city of Chicago and the Ricketts family that owns the team appear to be close to an agreement for a $500 million overhaul of Wrigley Field. It’s expected to be completed by Monday.
That long-awaited deal could add another element to what’s sure to be a festive atmosphere for the home opener.
“It’s the first time in a couple of years we’ve started on the road, so I think it will be a good buzz around Chicago,” second baseman Darwin Barney said. “Opening days are pretty special. It’s one of the things you miss not being able to be out there, but I think it will good for the fans to see the club we have and go out there and try to get things going.”
Associated Press writer George Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap