CHICAGO -- All-Star third baseman Aramis Ramirez and pricey ace Carlos Zambrano are on the disabled list. Big free-agent acquisition Milton Bradley, 2005 NL batting champion Derrek Lee and former top rookie Geovany Soto each is struggling at the plate.
The Chicago Cubs have had to rely upon an 11-year minor leaguer, a 29-year-old rookie and a pint-sized shortstop -- and still were near the top of the NL Central on Friday, before their game against the Houston Astros got rained out.
"We've had probably as many injuries to key people as any team in the National League," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "You've got to be pleased with the way these guys have hung in."
The opener of a three-game series at Wrigley Field never got started after rain rolled through the area Friday. More rain and thunderstorms were expected the rest of the afternoon, and the game will be made up July 30, when Houston returns for another three-game set.
Perhaps by then, all the Cubs' pieces will be back.
Given their $135 million payroll -- third-highest in the majors -- and their status as two-time defending division champions, they were expected to excel again this season. Then things started falling apart, everywhere except in the wins-losses column.
"When we started getting these injuries and so forth, our thought was let's just stay as close as we can to the league leaders," Piniella said, "and so far we've been able to do it."
They have the same record (20-14) that they did at this point last season, when they won the division decisively. They are 10-3 so far in May.
Although Kosuke Fukudome is batting .340 and Alfonso Soriano has a team-high 11 homers and 23 RBI, they're only a small part of the story.
Piniella credited the rotation, which ranked second in the majors with 20 quality starts. Right-hander Ryan Dempster cited the team's depth. Shortstop Ryan Theriot spoke of intangibles like "character."
All three talked about getting production from unlikely sources.
Bobby Scales, a 31-year-old rookie who finally got a call to the big leagues after 11 years, is hitting .444. Micah Hoffpauir, another late bloomer, has batted .292 filling in for injured teammates. Theriot has almost as many homers in May (five) as he had his first three seasons combined (seven).
Theriot has become such a power threat that a newspaper used him Friday in a story theorizing that today's steroid culture makes every player a suspect.
"That's just comical," Theriot said. "In '05, I stopped drinking protein shakes -- the risk-reward wasn't worth it to even take that chance. My supplements ... have been Gatorade and water."
As for established power hitters like Bradley, Lee and Ramirez, it's only a matter of time before they get healthy and productive, Dempster said.
"Then," he said, "persevering through all this adversity will help us in the long run."
Piniella has been so pleased with the role players that he plans to give his regulars plenty of rest. Maybe fresh legs will help the Cubs succeed if they make the playoffs again, he said. They were swept out of the first round each of the last two years.
"I can understand when people come from out of town and they want to see their favorite player," Piniella said. "But it's not like golf or tennis. It's a team sport. The more you utilize your team, the better everybody feels about themselves -- and it pays big dividends down the road."
Astros manager Cecil Cooper will start Roy Oswalt on Saturday and Brian Moehler on Sunday. Moehler was supposed to pitch Friday. Sunday's original starter, Felipe Paulino, will work out of the bullpen. ... The Cubs will counter with rookie Randy Wells on Saturday and Rich Harden on Sunday. Sean Marshall, Saturday's scheduled starter, will be used in relief over the weekend and will start Thursday at St. Louis.
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