When you arrive at Wrigley Field for Monday night's opener of the annual Cubs-White Sox series, you'll notice a lot hasn't changed.
Cubs-White Sox scouting reportCubs vs. White Sox at Wrigle Field
TV: Comcast SportsNet and WCIU Monday; WGN and Comcast SportsNet Tuesday
Radio: WGN 720-AM and WSCR 670-AM
Pitching matchups: The Cubs' Jeff Samardzija (0-3) vs. Jose Quintana (1-2) Monday; Edwin Jackson (2-2) vs. Hector Noesi (0-2) Tuesday. Both games 7:05 p.m.
About the Cubs: Fresh off their first series victory since last September, the Cubs embark on their second foray into interleague play. The lost a doubleheader to the Yankees in New York last month. Samardzija has been baseball's hard-luck pitcher. He's without a win despite a 1.98 ERA. Young "core" players Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have found their strides again. Rizzo is among NL leaders in walks and on-base percentage. Castro entered Sunday night's game with a .429 (12-for-28) average since moving to the cleanup spot.
About the White Sox: The Sox rallied to beat the Indians on Dayan Viciedo's 3-run homer in the ninth inning at Cleveland Sunday, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Alexei Ramirez (.333) and Viciedo (.330) rank in the Top 10 in batting average, and Jose Abreu leads the American League in home runs (12) and RBI (34). The Sox lead the major leagues with 71 runs scored after the seventh inning. After being swept by the Cubs last season, the White Sox should be motivated this year. Quintana is 0-2 with a 5.82 ERA in his last three starts. The left-hander made his only start vs. the Cubs in 2013 and took the loss after allowing 4 runs in 4 innings. Look for designated hitter Adam Dunn to play left field in one or both games at Wrigley. Outfielder Jordan Danks is in an 0-for-16 slump with 9 strikeouts.
Next: White Sox vs. Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field, Wednesday and Thursday
-- Bruce Miles and Scot Gregor
The ballpark renovations still haven't gotten under way -- I wonder what Ozzie Guillen would have to say about that -- and the Cubs are battling the Pirates for the bottom spot in the National League Central.
But there have been some positive signs around the old ballpark recently.
The Cubs are coming off their first series victory since the middle of last September, and it came against the hated St. Louis Cardinals.
And speaking of positive, there's the new manager, Rick (or Ricky, if you prefer) Renteria, who hasn't seen a cloudy day yet despite the losing record.
Although Renteria's media sessions are a diet of blandness, his approach with his players seems to be working. There's a looseness around the clubhouse, and more important, young "core" players Welington Castillo, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are off to good starts.
Castro especially looks like a different person both on and off the field. Or maybe he looks like the old Starlin Castro, the one who was getting 200 hits a year and making all-star teams. It appears Renteria and his coaching staff are letting Castro be himself. That is, they're letting him be aggressive at the plate and make hard contact.
Rizzo, too, looks more confident at the plate. Not only is he hitting with power of late, but he's drawing plenty of walks.
If Sox manager Robin Ventura asks how to pitch these kids, tell him "very carefully."
As they have the last two years under the regime led by team president Theo Epstein, the Cubs throw out some pretty good starting pitching. Jeff Samardzija goes for the Cubs in the series opener, and wouldn't he look good in a Sox uniform if the Cubs are intent on trading him?
Us sabermetrics types say pitchers' records don't tell the whole story, and in Samardzija's case, it's true. He's 0-3, but the ERA is 1.98. He's looked every bit like the ace the Cubs hoped he would be. You remember Edwin Jackson from his White Sox days. He has 2 more wins than Samardzija, but with a 5.24 ERA. That's baseball.
It's been a few years since anybody said they were impressed with a Cubs bullpen. That could be changing. We're still in the small-sample-size zone, but after an early shake-up that saw veteran Jose Veras lose his closer's job and wind up on the disabled list, some youngsters have been getting the job done.
(We could get into a whole column about the Cubs wasting money the past couple of years on veteran closers, but that's for another day.)
Hector Rondon was a Rule 5 pick before last season, and he's emerged as the new Cubs closer, even if Renteria won't come right out and say that. Of late, the bullpen situation has been termed "fluid" and "organic" by the manager. I'm waiting for "mountain fresh" next.
No, these Cubs aren't world beaters by any stretch, and they may well sink into last place all by themselves before the season is much older. And all those prospect you've heard about, well, they won't be here for this edition of Cubs-White Sox, but I'll bet at least a couple of them will be up next year when we do this.
Win or lose, though, it's always interesting on the North Side. But do bring a jacket.