Does Piniella start Soto or Kendall?

Jeff Vorva

Lou Piniella claimed he was going to try not to think of baseball during his day off Thursday.

Hah.

This guy is known for mulling over lineup and pitching rotation changes to excess. And with nine games to go in a hot race with Milwaukee in the National League Central? Don’t believe it. The wheels have been turning in the Cubs’ skipper’s head.

One of the decisions he’s likely given serious thought to is the catching situation.

On one hand, there is Jason Kendall, the veteran the Cubs brought to town in July.

On the other, is the hot kid, Geovany Soto.

Go with experience or the hot hand? That’s Piniella’s call.

Soto is making a case that he should be in there during the stretch run.

The 24-year-old was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .353 with 26 homers and 109 RBI in 110 games for Triple-A Iowa.

All of that means little. It’s what Soto has done on the major league level that counts, and he’s making his spotty playing time count.

This year for the Cubs, he’s hit .387 with two homers and four RBI in 11 games. He hit a fifth-inning solo homer to tie Wednesday’s game vs. Cincinnati at 2-2. The Cubs went on to win 3-2 in regaining sole possession of first place in the division.

Since coming to the Cubs in a trade with Oakland, Kendall has hit .284 with one homer and 19 RBI in 52 games.

On defense, Soto had thrown out two out of seven would-be basestealers. Kendall has thrown out two out of 51, and the two runners he got were tagged out after oversliding second base.

And while Kendall has a world of experience behind the plate, Cubs pitchers have a 4.29 ERA when he starts as opposed to Soto’s 3.26. And the Cubs are 5-0 in games Soto has started in September.

As for Henry Blanco? He hasn’t started since Aug. 31, so he appears to be out of the picture.

Patience has been something Soto has had to deal with for a few years. In 2005, he was brought up in September by the Cubs and had just one pinch-hit appearance.

This year, he’s helping a team in a crucial playoff push.

“Back then I was younger and wasn’t ready for the big boys,” Soto said. “Right now I feel like I could play here. I’ve been swinging the bat pretty good. A couple of years ago I was too excited to be here.”

Even when he was enjoying a minor league campaign that netted him the Pacific Coast League MVP award (an honor once won by Joe DiMaggio) he had to practice patience. He earned a short stint in the majors after the All-Star break but was back in Des Moines and didn’t skip a beat.

That meant a lot to the Cubs’ brass.

“He put up great numbers offensively and defensively,” Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said. “I don’t know how much you could ask. His maturity was incredible. Everyone was getting called up except him. He never once wavered or felt sorry for himself which a lot of times you see at that level.

“He waited his turn. I think he’s shown he deserves a shot. And (general manager Jim Hendry) insinuated to him that he’s going to get that shot. But this game is all about what you do today and tomorrow. If he has a good winter and comes back to spring training like he did this year and keeps moving forward, that’s what you’re looking for. His better days are ahead of him.”

And perhaps there will be a few more good days to come before this season is over.

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