DES MOINES, Iowa -- Wearing a cumbersome brace on his left knee due to recent surgery, Iowa Cubs pitching coach Bruce Walton was limping around Principal Park with a walking cane.
"I got my little stick. I'm doing good," Walton said. "No big deal."
Walton's starting rotation? A huge deal.
No wonder the I-Cubs are in healthy shape, atop the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division with a 54-47 record through Sunday. Starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada made the all-star team, while Dallas Beeler and lefties Chris Rusin and Eric Jokisch also have pitched effectively.
"Our starting rotation has just done an excellent job of taking the game into the seventh inning and finishing the seventh inning," Walton said. "Our goal is to get 21 outs a night with our starting rotation, and they've done an excellent job of doing that within their pitch count."
With the Cubs' trade of ace Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland on July 4, the big-league team has a couple of starting-rotation slots open for the second half of the season.
Unlike the last couple of seasons, however, when they unloaded starting pitching before the trade deadline, the Cubs appear to have depth at Class AAA to utilize.
In the last month alone, Hendricks, Wada and Beeler made their major-league debuts -- Rusin posted a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts for the Cubs last season -- and each flashed potential. Hendricks will start for the Cubs on Tuesday at Wrigley Field against San Diego.
"Every single guy in the rotation is close, and they're all in the finishing-off stages," Walton said. "Any one of those starters has the ability to go up in the big leagues right now and pitch a heck of a game. That's really cool to have."
"We pitch our (butt) off," manager Marty Pevey said. "Bruce Walton has done an unbelievable job with our starters. Middle-of-the-road guys have turned themselves into guys that have a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time."
There are no I-Cubs who appear to have the upside of Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, no flamethrower who hits 95-mph on the radar gun, no pitcher with "ace" potential. Rather, Hendricks, Wada, Beeler, Rusin and Jokisch piled up a combined 36 wins in the first half by pounding down in the zone and getting early outs.
That's what Walton, who served as the Toronto Blue Jays' pitching coach from 2010-12, has preached. He coached 16 years in Toronto's organization.
"I feel he's done a good job with all of us," Beeler said. "You can see the results. Hendricks was good last year (at Class AA). He's just gotten better. It's not so much physical stuff (how Walton has helped the staff). It's the mental game. He treats us like how you're supposed to be treated in the big leagues."
Hendricks, who was acquired two summers ago along with third baseman Christian Villanueva from Texas for pitcher Ryan Dempster, made his major-league debut for the Cubs at Cincinnati just before the all-star break. After a shaky first inning, the 6-foot-3 right-hander settled down and threw 6 innings, striking out his final batter, the dangerous Jay Bruce.
Hendricks' first half at Iowa included a league-best 10 wins, 3.59 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 102⅔ innings.
"He does a very nice job of commanding the strike zone and using all of his weapons. He doesn't overuse them," Walton said. "His changeup is very effective. What we did here was just put a plan together for him."
Wada, a 33-year-old lefty and native of Japan, signed a minor-league contract with the Cubs in the off-season. He went 9-5 with a 2.66 ERA and 105 strikeouts in the first half. Wada, Hendricks, Northwestern-product Jokisch (3.95 ERA), Beeler (3.93 ERA) and Rusin (3.87 ERA) all throw their fastball between 88-92 mph.
"We compete against each other," said the 6-foot-5 Beeler, a 41st-round pick in 2010. "You always want to one-up the other guy."
Yet another quality arm joined the I-Cubs this month, when righty Dan Straily was acquired in the Oakland trade. A 10-game winner as a rookie with the Athletics last season, Straily was pitching in Class AAA when he was dealt. He had 2 starts for Iowa before the break and was OK (9 innings, 4 earned runs).
"I think it's just some mechanical things he needs to work on -- his direction toward the plate," veteran catcher Eli Whiteside said.
"I got optioned (to Triple-A) with Oakland because I didn't have that good of fastball command at the time," Straily said. "Everyone over there (on the A's staff) is pitching in the low-3's (ERA). And I wasn't."
The right-hander, who spent five years in Oakland's system, believes he needs to get acclimated to his new surroundings and "keep pitching" in order to get back to the big leagues.
"It's really as simple as it is," Straily said. "It's like anything else in this game. You just got to go out there and do your job better. … I was doing a lot better before I got traded, so I got to figure out real quick how to get to how I was."
If he can rediscover his fastball command, the Cubs have another candidate for their starting rotation.
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