All is Wells in New Orleans

METAIRIE, La. – Randy Wells' second start at Triple-A was noticeably more effective than his first. The right-hander pitched six shutout innings on Thursday night, giving up five hits and escaping trouble with clutch pitches and the help of a few nice defensive plays as the Iowa Cubs beat the New Orleans Zephyrs, 4-3.

The evening did not start quite as Wells (5-3) would have liked, but he avoided trouble. He loaded the bases with nobody out in the first inning after allowing bunt singles to Bernie Castro and Henry Mateo, and a Larry Broadway single to left.

But Wells proceeded to secure two fly outs, one to right field and one to straight-away center as Michael Restovich and Felix Pie each made strong throws to the plate to prevent the speedy Castro from scoring. A Wiki Gonzalez pop-up ended the inning.

The leadoff man reached base in each of Wells' first three innings, though once due to a Buck Coats throwing error at third. Wells stranded seven opposing runners on base. His fastball was consistently clocked at 88 mph on the radar gun with a top-out speed of 90.

So what was different between Wells' start Thursday and his Iowa debut after being called up from AA-West Tennessee last week?

"I used that first start to kind of test the waters," Wells said after the game. "The outcome obviously didn't go my way. I used the same approach tonight, only I established my fastball early and used my off-speed stuff whenever I wanted. It seemed like I pitched from the stretch the whole game.

"I was throwing a lot of changeups and sliders tonight. Being able to locate my fastball the times I wanted really helped set up my other stuff."

(Wells gets set to throw a warm-up toss prior to Thursday's game. Inside The Ivy Photo/Steve Holley)

Wells left Double-A last week with a Southern League leading 1.59 ERA in 12 starts. The former catcher turned pitcher has 64 strikeouts to 15 walks on the year and has allowed just three gopher balls.

"Nice rebound off his first start here," Iowa manager Mike Quade said of Wells. "I think he's going to get better. He looked a little more comfortable tonight and made a lot more quality pitches. It's not that easy coming here. I know some of these kids did a great job at Double-A in the first half, but there are still some adjustments to make. They're all learning."

The Cubs' bullpen allowed three runs off of seven hits in the final three innings with Michael Wuertz striking out former Cubs prospect Brendan Harris to end the game for his eighth save. Wuertz is now 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in 30 innings since being sent down from Chicago in mid-April.

Leading 4-0 entering the seventh, left-hander Clay Rapada took over for Wells and proceeded to allow four consecutive hits to open the inning and score the Zephyrs' first run before striking out Broadway for the first out.

Kerry Ligtenberg came on and yielded two runs in an inning and a third – the first time all year that the right-hander and Triple-A all-star had given up more than one run earned in any outing. He has a 2.08 ERA in 30-plus innings with the team.

For Quade, it was business as usual. The Cubs played in their 33rd one-run game of the season. They are 16-17 in those games and now 38-41 overall, just four games back of first place Nashville in the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division after taking three of four from New Orleans.

"Our bullpen was not as sharp as they normally are, but they picked each other up and did a good job," Quade said. "You get so accustomed to seeing your bullpen close it out with a four-run lead, but it doesn't always happen that way without a few bumps."

Second baseman Mike Fontenot continued his hot hitting with a 2-for-4 night that included his second triple of the year. The 5'8" middle infielder has hit safely in nine straight games, going 16-for-28 in that stretch and batting a season-high .326 in 72 games.

The Cubs' offense stranded seven on base.

"We might have missed a few opportunities to score some more runs, but that's an ongoing battle with us," Quade said. "In the meantime, we still have to execute and pitch as well as we have been."

Iowa's pitching staff has a combined 3.66 ERA that is third in the PCL. The offense is hitting .255 collectively, which is 13th in the 16-team league.

The Cubs will open up a four-game series in Omaha beginning Friday against the Royals, who are last in the division at 30-50.

Series Notes

  • OF Felix Pie finished the series hitless in 12 at-bats with five strikeouts. His batting average is down to .247 after a .219 (21-for-96) mark in June. Since May began, Pie is batting .225. He stole his fifth base in 13 attempts Thursday.

  • OF Angel Pagan, out since April after straining his left hamstring against the Pirates at PNC Park, started all four games in the series and was 4-for-15 with a stolen base. Pagan said after his first start on Monday that he expects to re-join Chicago by early next week.

  • Casey McGehee, normally a mainstay at third base, did not start Thursday, but came into the game to relieve Micah Hoffpauir at first. He also suited up lightly at catcher in pre-game warm-up's prior to Wednesday's game. A former part-time catcher that hasn't played the position since his 2004 season at Class A Daytona, McGehee insists his days behind the plate are "well in the past."

  • Speaking of catchers, Geovany Soto's major league call-up lasted a whopping three days. The AAA team's primary backstop and fun-loving practical joker emeritus is expected to re-join the club in Omaha after being optioned back to Iowa once Michael Barrett finished serving his 10-game suspension Thursday for punching White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski at U.S. Cellular Field last month. Soto did not garner an at-bat with Chicago and was hitting .267 in 62 games for Iowa.

  • INF Tony Womack, optioned to Iowa when Soto was brought up, did not report to the team in New Orleans, but is expected to in Omaha. The veteran 36-year-old was 14-for-50 with a .333 OBP in 19 games for Chicago and was 7-for-15 in five games with Iowa previously.

  • Catcher Jon-Mark Sprowl joined RHP Andrew Shipman in being demoted to Double-A earlier this week. Shipman had a 3.13 ERA, but a .315 average against in 37-plus innings at Triple-A. Iowa pitching coach Alan Dunn said he was more concerned with Shipman's 19 walks than his 45 hits allowed. For his part, Sprowl was 1-for-8 in limited playing time with the Triple-A club.

  • Zephyr runners stole three bases in four attempts against starting catcher Jose Reyes Thursday, but don't let that fool you. Best known for his defense behind the plate, Reyes made crisp, strong throws down to second base during each attempt and was often victimized by good jumps from speedy New Orleans runners against right-handers Wells and Ligtenberg. Reyes also made a clean snap throw to first in the eighth inning to pick off Josh Labandeira. The Zephyr infielder initially avoided McGehee's tag on the throw but overran the first base bag standing up on his way back and was tagged out. Prior to being called up to Triple-A, Reyes had thrown out 43 percent (17 of 40) of runners attempting to steal at West Tenn. Last year at Double-A, he threw out 37 percent (36 of 98) of would-be base-stealers. The 23-year-old switch-hitter is struggling at the plate this year with one hit in his first 17 at-bats with Iowa and a .229 average at West Tenn in 47 games.

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