CHICAGO – Through his first three starts of the season, Cubs right-hander Carlos Villanueva has mastered the art of pitching to a game plan even with a fastball hovering around 88 mph.
He doesn’t overwhelm opposing hitters, but Villanueva finally picked up his first win after holding the Texas Rangers to two runs Thursday in the Cubs’ 6-2 win.
“Most of my countrymen from the Dominican are blessed with the power arm,” Villanueva said. “I’m not, so I have to find a way to get it done.”
Cubs manager Dale Sveum praised Villanueva’s ability to use a combination of his four pitches (fastball, change-up, curveball and slider) while mixing speeds to keep Texas’ hitters off-balance. Between a four-seam fastball that averaged 88 mph, topping out at 89, and a curveball that sat at 72 mph, the Rangers struggled to get solid contact.
“I have to have an advantage some how,” Villanueva said. “The fact that I might not throw 98 but can throw four pitches for strikes, and I can make those four pitches look like eight pitches because I can vary speed on those four pitches.”
Villanueva said the ball sometimes flattens out when he overthrows, which resulted in Nelson Cruz’s homer. However, the Cubs (5-9) finally backed Villanueva, spearheaded by Anthony Rizzo’s two-run homer and Alfonso Soriano’s solo homer in the third inning against Rangers starter Alexi Ogando. The back-to-back homers were the first of the season for the Cubs.
“He goes out there, competes and prepares his butt off between starts, which I’ve seen so far,” Rizzo said of Villanueva. “That’s a good-hitting lineup they have and he kept them off-balance and we finally got him a win today.”
Villanueva was adamant during spring training that he had the necessary tools to be a starting pitcher, though he was unproven before he joined the Cubs. He was a spot starter the past two seasons with Toronto (2011-12) and was solely a reliever with the Brewers in 2010.
“Right now I feel like the best chance I have with helping this team is in a starting role, but if that would change tomorrow, then, like I said in spring, if I complain I’ll complain behind closed doors,” Villanueva said. “I don’t think anything positive comes out of complaining in public. I’ll voice my opinion if I have to, I’m pretty understanding. I’ve done it my whole career.”
Villanueva’s eye-popping statistics – a 1.29 ERA, four walks and a .186 average against in 21 innings pitched – is impressive for an eight-year veteran who didn’t carry a ton of starting experience entering this season having started 58 career games. But Villanueva is most satisfied with pitching deeper into the game. Through three starts he is averaging seven-inning outings. Against the Rangers, Villanueva allowed four hits in seven innings with both Rangers runs coming off solo home runs by Ian Kinsler and Cruz.
Villanueva made it through seven innings needing only 87 pitches thanks in part to an economical first when he needed only five pitches to retire the side. He was efficient most of the game, throwing 14 pitches or less in six of the seven innings.
“I’m not going to kill [Villanueva] with pitch counts,” Sveum said. “He’s not one of them guys that has endured 100-, 115-, 120-pitch counts in his career, so it’s early in the season, too.”
Villanueva’s inclusion to the rotation, aided by Matt Garza’s spring training injury and subsequent stint on the disabled list as well as Scott Baker’s longer-than-expected rehab from Tommy John surgery, opened the door for the 29-year-old to prove he deserves to start. If Villanueva, who has three of the Cubs’ eight quality starts, can continue to provide consistent starts that put the team in position to win, it will be tough for Sveum to justify moving him to the bullpen when Garza’s ready to come off the DL.
“Where I’m needed I’ll give it my all,” Villanueva said. “I’ve done it my whole career. You ride the good times and right now I feel pretty good. Hopefully, I can continue the whole year.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Payoff Pitch blog at NWHerald.com and on Twitter @Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.