Rocky Journey for Cherry

Cubs right-hander Rocky Cherry is getting plenty of notice this spring, and not just because he's the guy with the interesting name.

In that regard, Cherry has heard all the various quips and puns that originate from his name. He's just not sure what to make about all the fuss.

"It seems they all know me more for my name than what I do on the field," Cherry says. "It doesn't bother me. For me, it's all about doing my job."

Thus far in 2007, it's a job well done.

Eighteen months ago, while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Cherry was working a part-time job at a Mesa-area Home Depot store in Arizona. He now finds himself in the running for another job – in the Cubs bullpen.

In his first five appearances with the club this spring, Cherry had tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings before surrendering the game-winning run in the ninth inning of Tuesday's 6-5 Cactus League loss to Arizona.

His performance has not gone unnoticed by Cubs manager Lou Piniella.

"He's got nice presence. He's got good stuff," Piniella told Cubs beat queen Carrie Muskat of

Impressing Piniella is always at the top of any player's "to-do" list and Cherry, no less a newcomer in Cubs big league camp, is no exception.

"It pretty much means my whole career," Cherry says with a tad of understatement. "If they like me, I might get a chance to one day pitch in the big leagues for the Cubs. Doing well means I'm opening their eyes."

He seems to have done just that.

Through six games, Cherry has a 1.69 ERA and nine strikeouts. He entered the week tied for the most saves (three) in Cactus League play.

What has he been doing differently this spring?

"I don't think this is any different than my other Spring Training's," Cherry said. "It's just that I'm doing it in front of these coaches – where it counts."

Cherry does, however, report to having a better feel for his breaking ball.

When he returned from Tommy John surgery last year, his fastball was as live as ever, consistently in the low to mid 90s with a top-out speed of 97 mph as confirmed by his manager at Double-A West Tennessee, Pat Listach.

Ergo, his second pitch was the final piece of the puzzle.

Cherry still managed a solid 2.22 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 31 appearances a season ago at Double-A en route to garnering Southern League All-Star honors, but he wasn't always consistent with the pitch.

Now, he feels it is more spot-on and that he's become more well-rounded because of it.

"It's really helping me out," Cherry said. "I think everything is starting to come together for me. I'm maturing as a pitcher and I'm confident in what I'm doing."

Cherry delivers a pitch against the San Francisco Giants during Spring Training on March 1, 2007 at Hohokam Park in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Confidence has never been lost on the 27-year-old, especially in light of his journey to big league camp, which has been somewhat like his name: rocky.

In his final season of college ball at Oklahoma, Cherry succumbed to a partially torn rotator cuff. He was selected by the Cubs in the 14th round of the 2002 draft, but was not signed until late January of the following year due to questions about his health.

Just over two years later, while making his third start of the season at Double-A in April of 2005, Cherry threw only eight pitches before feeling a pop in his elbow. He underwent reconstructive elbow surgery and initially wondered if he'd ever pitch again.

Like all Cubs pitching prospects that undergo major arm surgery, Cherry was required to stay in Arizona until his rehab was complete. In the months after the surgery, he received the OK from Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita to take on a part-time job in the paint department at a Home Depot store in Mesa. (Cherry's family owns a paint business in his native Texas.)

By the time minor league rosters were announced last spring, Cherry was ready to go.

As the season wore on following his all-star first half, Cherry soon received a promotion to Triple-A. There he pitched in only two games before falling victim to a bone spur in the middle finger of his pitching hand. Surgery was required and Cherry would miss the final month and a half of the season.

Those injuries may be all behind Cherry now, but don't think he isn't all the wiser for having dealt with a setback or two in his career.

"I've had my struggles and battles, sure," Cherry reflects. "But whenever you were at a high point before, if you come down to that low valley and come out of it strong, you're going to be higher overall. You have to battle through it and then you have even more confidence because you've adapted and learned a lot."

Cherry is still learning, but he is one in a group of right-handers competing for one of the final roster spots in the Cubs' bullpen.

Among others, his competition includes Michael Wuertz and the strangely popular Roberto Novoa. Both Wuertz and Novoa have seldom, if at all, appeared in Cactus League action this spring due to shoulder pains.

Brimming with confidence as he may be, Cherry knows not to put the cart before the horse.

"It's still early, but I've been throwing the ball well. I've been in some good situations and pitched well," he says. "It's a tough call. There's a shot there, but it's still probably not the best odds. Coming into this season, I set my expectations high and wanted to make them have a tough decision on me."

That decision shouldn't come for a little while longer, but the Cubs already made one decision on Cherry when they protected him from last year's Rule Five Draft by placing him on the 40-man roster.

For now, Cherry is trying not to get too caught up in his most recent outing, in which he surrendered a walk and two hits for his first spring loss.

"I had a little fallout in this last game," he acknowledged. "But it really works in my benefit if I bounce back and pitch well. It shows I have character and short-team memory. Everybody is going to get hit a little, but it's whether or not you're consistent and how you bounce back that counts."

Given the injuries and subsequent tasks he has already had to overcome, it could be the easiest bounce back of Cherry's career.

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