Aardsma on Return to Closing

DES MOINES, Iowa -- After losing some zip on his velocity last season at Double-A, right-hander David Aardsma was throwing in the upper 90s this spring and was awarded a share of the closing duties at Triple-A Iowa to open the year.

Since being optioned to Iowa for the start of the season, Aardsma has tossed four shutout innings while allowing just one hit. He pitched two innings in Iowa's 11-inning, 7-6 win over Nashville on Monday, notching four strikeouts in the team's fourth straight victory.

OF Felix Pie, ranked as the Cubs' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America entering the year, hit the game-winning single in the 11th inning to finish with five RBIs on the night. He is now 10-for-21 with 11 RBIs and four extra base hits in his first five games with the team. His game-winner gave Aardsma the victory.

A former relief pitcher at Rice University and the first overall pick of the San Francisco Giants in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Aardsma joined the Cubs last May in the three-player trade that finalized LaTroy Hawkins' long overdue exodus from Wrigleyville.

Asked about the sudden resurgence in velocity, Aardsma told Inside The Ivy that there two key factors involved.

"The main one is that last year, the Giants had me starting," he said. "I think that definitely hurt my velocity a whole lot because in Spring Training, I was throwing probably 93-95. That was pretty decent and then they made me start and I began topping out at 91."

Upon joining the Cubs, Aardsma made three starts at Double-A West Tenn before being moved back to the bullpen for the remainder of the season. He was 4-1 with two saves and a 3.91 ERA with the Diamond Jaxx and went on to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in October.

"Toward the end of the season when I had been back in the bullpen for a while, I topped out at about 95 one game," Aardsma added. "I was starting to get it back a little bit and then in the Fall League, I got up to 97 one game."

The other reason leading to Aardsma's sudden dip in speed was that late in Spring Training, his elbow began flaring up for a short period of time. It was a minor injury that only required five days rest.

"I didn't really pitch that well in a game against the White Sox and they wanted me to go to the minors and just get some rest and let it heal," he said. "There was a small write-up about it somewhere saying that it was my shoulder when it was really my elbow. It was no big deal."

This year in his first Spring Training with the Cubs, Aardsma was throwing as high as 97 mph and impressed team officials, who wanted him to rotate closing duties at Triple-A with right-hander Roberto Novoa.

"I was told when I got here that it was going to be split between me and Novoa. I enjoy closing here. I'd of course rather be closing in the big leagues, but while I'm here, I'm going to take this opportunity to get better so I'll be a better pitcher when I get back to the big leagues."

Aardsma had a brief taste of major league experience in 2004 when he appeared in 14 games with the Giants. He spent the rest of the season at Triple-A Fresno and saved 11 games. He entered 2006 with 21 saves in his professional career.

ELSEWHERE ON THE FARM … In Birmingham, West Tenn's pitching remained stellar for the fifth straight night to open the year as they took four of five from the White Sox Double-A affiliate on Monday with a 3-2 win. Right-hander Juan Mateo, returned by the Cardinals this spring after being selected in the Rule 5 draft, allowed the opponents only two runs in five innings while scattering three hits.

The team's 1.22 ERA through their first four games of the series was the best mark in the Southern League, outshined in all of Double-A action by only the Bowie BaySox of the Eastern League, who posted a 0.24 mark in their first four contests. The Jaxx bullpen has surrendered one run in 19 innings to open the season.

Offensively, catcher Tony Richie picked up his first two-hit game of the year and drove in two of the team's three runs while third baseman Scott Moore produced his third two-hit performance in the opening series.

In St. Lucie, Fla., Grant Johnson wasn't lights outs in his 2006 debut, but everything else was. Johnson allowed four runs on five hits while walking four in 5 2/3 innings. He is currently in line to receive a loss when play resumes Tuesday. The game was suspended due to a power outage in the late innings with Daytona trailing, 5-3.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Peoria's Ryan Norwood and Brandon Taylor continued their hot starts in a 7-5 victory in 10 innings. Taylor hit the go-ahead home run in the 10th, his first of the year, and has hit safely in four of five games while Norwood collected his third multi-hit game in five tries this season.

Right-hander Mitch Atkins surrendered two runs in five innings. He struck out five and walked two. Jesse Estrada, a starter with the Chiefs a season ago, picked up his first career win in relief despite allowing three runs and seven hits in two innings. Right-hander Matt Avery was used in relief for the second time to open the year after making 11 starts at Boise a season ago.

E-mail Steve Holley: staff@insidetheivy.com.

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