Cubs send seven to All-Star Game
Soto, Soriano and Fukudome voted in as starters for NL
ST. LOUIS -- One year ago, Geovany Soto was prepping for the All-Star Futures Game and Kosuke Fukudome was playing for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. One year ago, Ryan Dempster was the Cubs closer, and Kerry Wood was just trying to get his cranky right shoulder to let him pitch in relief.
Now, the four are headed to the All-Star Game, along with teammates Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez and manager Lou Piniella.
Soto, Fukudome and Soriano were named to the National League starting lineup for the All-Star Game, to be played July 15 at Yankee Stadium. Ramirez, Dempster and Wood were selected by player balloting, and Zambrano was tabbed for his third All-Star Game by NL manager Clint Hurdle.
The seven All-Stars is a franchise record. The Cubs have had six, most recently in 1988, when Andre Dawson, Shawon Dunston, Vance Law, Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro and Ryne Sandberg were all named.
The 79th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD and televised around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive national radio coverage that will also be available on XM Satellite Radio, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage.
Soto and Fukudome will be the first rookie starters for either league since Hideki Matsui did so for the American League team in 2003.
With home-field advantage in the World Series on the line, and the Cubs hoping to get there to end the 100-year drought since their last championship, they can have a say with a good showing in the All-Star Game.
"Let's hope we win," Wood said. "We could have a chance to benefit from that maybe this year. It would be an important game. It's nice to have your teammates there for sure."
Soto, 25, will be the first rookie catcher ever on the NL team, and first rookie backstop to start in an All-Star Game since Sandy Alomar Jr. did so for the American League in 1990. Fukudome, 31, will be the first rookie outfielder in the NL starting lineup since Frank Robinson in 1956.
This also is the first time the Cubs will have three All-Star starters since 1937. That year, outfielder Frank Demaree, catcher Gabby Hartnett and second baseman Billy Herman all made the NL squad. In 1936, the Cubs had four All-Star starters: Demaree, Hartnett, Herman and center fielder Augee Galan.
Last season, Soto won Pacific Coast League MVP honors, batting .353 with 26 homers and 109 RBIs at Triple-A Iowa. He was called up to the Cubs in September, and started two of the three NL Division Series games against Arizona. This year, the Cubs handed him the starting job, and he won Rookie of the Month honors in April, batting .341 with five homers and 20 RBIs.
"Soto's done a real nice job," Piniella said. "I've been pleased with his offensive production, I've been pleased with his catching. He's fit in here very nicely. We count on him to help us out in both areas and he's done a great job."
Soto is the first Cubs rookie to hit at least 14 homers since Rafael Palmeiro belted 14 in 1987. The team record for most homers by a rookie -- 25 by Hall of Famer Billy Williams in 1961 -- could easily be broken.
"It feels surreal," Soto said. "Me trying to make the club and feeling really good, and then going to the All-Star Game. It feels awesome -- I don't know how to feel.
"I just tried to play hard, and tried to make it. I just wanted to give my all and see what happens. I'm really honored by this."
He's the fifth Cubs catcher to make the NL team since 1953, joining Randy Hundley (1969), Steve Swisher (1976), Jody Davis (1984 and '86) and Joe Girardi (2000), and the first starter since Hartnett in 1937.
"The greatest thing I've seen is that whatever happens in his at-bats, stays there," Cubs pitcher Sean Gallagher said of Soto. "He comes back behind the plate, he's 100 percent focused on that pitch, that at-bat, that situation.
"I don't know how he's handled our staff because there are so many different guys with so much different stuff. [Carlos] Marmol, power arm, power strikeouts. Teddy [Lilly], power lefty. [Jason] Marquis, sinker, sinker, sinker. 'Demp,' fastball, slider. The way he's able to adjust with each guy in each situation shows you how far he's come, and what he's willing to do to get better."
Soto has not hesitated to take charge with the pitchers, including slapping Zambrano on the chest on the mound to get his attention.
"He has to have that never-ending confidence," Gallagher said. "He has to show it when he goes out there to talk to you or in the dugout. He has to instill in your head, 'You can do this.' If he goes out there and, 'Oh, you know, why don't we try this?' it won't get done."
Technically, this is Fukudome's rookie season in the Major Leagues. But the Japanese outfielder played nine years for Chunichi before coming to America and signing a four-year contract with the Cubs. He made a great impression at Wrigley Field in the season opener, hitting a game-tying three-run homer that forced extra innings against Milwaukee. A much-needed lefty bat in the Cubs' very right-handed lineup, Fukudome is ranked among the top five in nearly every offensive category among NL rookies, including on-base percentage and multi-hit games.
"I'm very honored to be selected in my first year in Major League Baseball, and I really appreciate it," Fukudome said through interpreter Ryuji Araki.
Piniella said he talked to Hurdle about where to play Fukudome if Soriano had made the team, and the Japanese outfielder might be forced to switch to center field.
"I'll play anywhere in the outfield, and I'm looking forward to having fun playing in the game," Fukudome said.
Fukudome was a four-time All-Star in Japan, getting selected in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004. He also was the top vote-getter among outfielders in 2006, but did not play because of a sore right knee, and declined the invitation. The Japanese play more than one All-Star game in a season at different locations to accommodate fans, so Fukudome has actually played in nine All-Star games in Japan, and is 4-for-22 with a double.
The Cubs have not had a rookie chosen for the All-Star Game since Sam "Toothpick" Jones in 1955. The only other Cubs rookies to make the All-Star event were catcher Toby Atwell in 1952 and Don Johnson in 1944.
Soriano, 32, is being urged to go, but most likely will not play. The left fielder has been sidelined since June 11, when he was hit by a pitch on his left hand and suffered a broken bone. He took batting practice on Saturday for the first time and said his hand felt a little weak.
"The swing, it doesn't feel like it's supposed to," Soriano said. "I think it will take time, maybe a week, to feel good again. I'll be ready to play in the second half.
"I think I want to go, but not play because my hand doesn't feel good. I'll go to enjoy the game. Six players, me seven, so I'd like to go and have fun with my teammates."
The injury couldn't have come at a worse time for Soriano, who was just heating up. He hit .345 in May with 10 homers and 29 RBIs. He did want to go to the game and say goodbye to Yankee Stadium; Soriano began his pro career in the Major Leagues with the Yankees in 1999.
If Hurdle doesn't have Zambrano pitch, he may want to use Big Z as a pinch-hitter. He's batting .360.
On the pitching side, Zambrano, 27, got off to the best start in his career -- 7-1 through May with a 2.44 ERA. He went on the DL for the first time because of a strained shoulder, and in his first start back, threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Friday. This will be his third trip; he was also named to the NL All-Star team in 2004 and '06.
The right-hander joked that he would ride his jet ski in his native Venezuela if he wasn't selected to the All-Star Game. On Sunday, teammates joked that Zambrano should charter a jet for his teammates.
Does he want to start for the NL?
"I don't think so," Zambrano said. "There's Brandon Webb and Edinson Volquez. They deserve to start the game. I can close the game. I can pitch in the sixth, or close the game -- whatever the manager needs. I want to be there to contribute and win."
Dempster and Wood have to go together. The two pitchers have traded roles, and both have been successful in making the switch.
"It's pretty special for both of us -- we're pretty good friends, aside from just being teammates," Dempster said. "We hang out during the winter and talk a lot, and during the season we're always together. To see [Wood] go there is really cool."
Dempster, 31, is one of the main reasons the Cubs are in first. He was a starter, then switched to the Cubs closer for three years, and now is back in the rotation. He's better now than when he first broke into the big leagues. This will be his second All-Star Game. Dempster and Shane Reynolds were the only pitchers who did not get into the 2000 game.
Atlanta's Bobby Cox, who was the NL manager that year, personally apologized to Dempster for the slight.
"He waited at the bottom of the stairs," Dempster said of Cox. "I had walked all the way in from the right-field bullpen. He shook my hand and said, 'Hey, I tried to get you in there to pitch. It was a close game, and you could've gone two or three if I needed you. I feel bad. I know it's your first time, but you'll be back again.'
"I'll never forget that," Dempster said. "He didn't have to do that. I was a young kid, 23 years old. It went from me feeling disappointed to being OK with it."
The right-hander, who is unbeaten at home at 9-0 with a 2.71 ERA, is hoping this time, he gets to pitch.
"It will be awesome to get back there again," Dempster said. "For everything I've been through, to make the All-Star team, what a thrill that would be, and at Yankee Stadium with all the festivities. It'll be one of the greatest All-Star Games ever. It would mean a lot."
Dempster was scheduled to start the day before the All-Star break, and said he'd be able to pitch for the game. It would normally be his bullpen day. Piniella was not about to adjust his rotation for the game.
"We're trying to win baseball games," Piniella said.
This will be Wood's second All-Star Game -- he was on the 2003 squad -- and it may be sweeter than the first. The right-hander has successfully adjusted from starter to closer, and ranks among the NL leaders in saves.
Wood, 31, has gone from a single-game, 20-strikeout pitcher to a 20-plus save man, and did so because his shoulder gave him trouble after 60 pitches.
"I would've enjoyed it a lot more if last night hadn't happened," said Wood, who blew his fifth save opportunity on Saturday against the Cardinals. "It's an honor to be chosen and an honor to be able to go."
Wood has settled into the role well. His fastballs have hit 98-99 mph on the stadium radar guns. His slider is fooling hitters, and his shoulder isn't giving him any trouble. It's been a smooth transition.
"I think just coming back from where I've come back from, and the work put in and where I was two years ago, I think [this All-Star Game] means a lot more than the first one, for me anyways," he said.
Ramirez, who ended an 0-for-28 skid with a two-run homer on Saturday, was happy to hear that he was chosen by the player votes.
"I'm going because the players voted me in," Ramirez said. "And they know baseball better than anybody."
The Cubs, who have the best record in the NL, will be well represented.
"We have seven players for a reason," Ramirez said. "Hopefully we can enjoy it there."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.