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Valbuena staking a claim to third base

Luis Valbuena has four home runs in 59 at-bats this season. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was before Thursday's game against the Miami Marlins that Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum told reporters rehabbing third baseman Ian Stewart would have to "earn" his job back when he was ready.

Then current third baseman Luis Valbuena won the game with a ninth-inning home run, his fourth in the first month of the season, presumably making Stewart's task that much harder.

"He came up huge," Sveum told reporters after the Cubs' 4-3 victory. "He's just been consistent. His at-bats, his defense. He's on pace for 30-something home runs."

It was the second late-inning home run by Valbuena this week. He hit a two-run shot in the top of the 13th inning on Monday against the Cincinnati Reds only to see that lead evaporate in the bottom of the inning in a 5-4 loss.

Valbuena is showing power that even Sveum wasn't sure he'd see at third base until Stewart returned. He lamented as much in spring training. But Valbuena is tied for second among third baseman for home runs in the National League behind Todd Frazier (6) of the Reds. Not bad for a player picked up off waivers at the end of spring training last season.

"I've never had four home runs in April," Valbuena said.

The Cubs might be able to live with his low batting average (.222) and on-base percentage (.311) if he keeps his slugging percentage (.481) and OPS (.813) at decent numbers. He's ranked fifth and fourth among third baseman, respectively, in those categories.

And although it's still a small sample size, Valbuena's numbers jump when scrutinized from the seventh inning or later. His on-base percentage is .423 and his OPS is off the charts at 1.042. Not bad considering all 21 games the Cubs have played have been decided by four runs or less. Whatever he's contributed late in games has been valuable.

Add his solid glove to the mix and Valbuena has been one of the most consistent players on the team. Credit a change at the plate for some of his newfound power. He hit four home runs in 265 at-bats last season for the Cubs. He's matched that total in 59 this year.

"(Sveum) asked me in spring training to move closer to home plate," Valbuena said. "The pitch middle away I can pull now."

Asked if it's made a difference, Valbuena responded: "Big difference."

With any player or issue regarding the Cubs, the more important question is how this has an effect on the team long-term. Valbuena isn't exactly a budding prospect at 27, but he's not washed up either. It makes him a perfect transition player until the third baseman of the future is found, unless he blossoms into it at a later age than normal.

Third base is one of the weaker positions in baseball so maybe he keeps his job in a platoon situation. Or he could simply be around when the Cubs are ready to contend as a super utility player. He can play any position in the infield.

As for Stewart, he said in spring training that he considers himself the starting third baseman when he's healthy. His offense in Triple-A Iowa, rehabbing from a quad injury, has been spotty. He's hitting .111 with as many errors in eight games (two) as Valbuena. And he has yet to hit a home run.

When asked if he wants to keep playing as the starter, Valbuena had the same response he's had since February.

"I'll play however they want me to play," he said Thursday.

The one surprise from the soft-spoken Valbuena came when he was asked about his ninth-inning, two-out home run off Marlins closer Steve Cishek on Thursday.

"I tried to hit a homer from the pitch right there because I don't want to play extra innings," he said. "I want to win the game right (there)."