Lopez gets first look in rotation battle

MESA, Ariz. -- Now that the baseball games are starting, let the game within the games begin as well.

Rodrigo Lopez got the call to start the Cactus League opener for the Chicago Cubs against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday as the arduous process of determining the last two spots in the rotation begins.

It’s early, but Lopez set the bar high with two perfect innings before turning things over to the bullpen. He said he was aided by a slight tweak with the grip on his slider, something that was suggested to him by guest pitching instructor Rick Sutcliffe.

“He knows my slider when I was back in rookie ball; I would throw it without thinking,” Lopez said. “He just gave me a couple of things to work on with the grip. Today I worked on the new grip for the slider and most of them worked pretty good. But definitely it’s been helping a lot.”

Sutcliffe was Lopez’s pitching coach for a season in the San Diego Padres organization in the mid 1990s.

Two locks for the rotation, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, will pitch Monday and Tuesday respectively, then it gets back to the rotation battle. Jeff Samardzija will start Wednesday against the Kansas City Royals while Chris Volstad goes Thursday against the Seattle Mariners.

Paul Maholm, who figures to have the No. 3 spot in the rotation nailed down, will pitch Wednesday in a “B” Game.

In a perfect world a team already has its five starters decided and can use spring training games to tune up for Opening Day. But a little in-camp competition could end up being a good thing.

Like a team that has to earn its way into the postseason over the final week of the regular season and is hitting its stride when the playoffs begin, the rotation tussle among guys like Lopez, Samardzija, Volstad, Andy Sonnanstine, Randy Wells and Travis Wood could prove to be beneficial.

“There is nothing better than competition and obviously we have spots that are open in the starting rotation and bullpen, the back end of our bench,” manager Dale Sveum said. “It’s fun to be able to sit back and watch and understand there is a lot of competition and really focus on a few guys in these roles.”

While Sveum expects to have an Opening Day lineup set by March 15, a decision on the rotation could go down to the final day in camp.

“We have some tough choices and we have to give them every opportunity in the world to prove to us they should be the five guys who will start the season with us,” Sveum said.

Making things even more challenging, and perhaps adding to the sense of urgency this spring, is the fact that the pitchers who don’t win a starting spot don’t necessarily have a bullpen spot waiting for them as a consolation prize.

“It can’t be a given because you’re still building your bullpen to get the other lineup out so whatever happens with that rotation, the bullpen will fall into its place in a whole other entity of that.” Sveum said. “It’s not a given that anybody falls into that spot anyway. One of them could fall into the long role out of the bullpen or something like that, but that’s about as far as that goes.”