Normally an auditioning stand-up comic as a carefree closer for the Cubs during the past three seasons, Ryan Dempster has switched to a serious role in trying out for the starting rotation in spring training.
The Canadian quipster breaks off only scattered one-liners as he competes with Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall for two open rotation slots. Maybe he's not trying to tickle the funny bone because Dempster knows his career possibly is at stake after a steady decline in his performance as a closer.
Dempster is motivated to succeed in a role that first gained him prominence at the turn of the millennium as an All-Star with the Florida Marlins.
"Not a lot of people go from starter to closer to starter," he said. "I know I can do it."
The Cubs are giving him every chance to go the John Smoltz route. He was the first starting pitcher in spring action, looking pretty good when he gave up a run in two innings against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Thursday.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella will allow him every chance to pitch his way into the rotation, suggesting Dempster could be the No. 3 starter as a right-hander to break up lefties Ted Lilly and Rich Hill.
"I'm really not too worried about it," Dempster said. "I worked my butt of this winter. I know that things will take care of themselves if I go out there and just do my thing. I'm just excited to go out there to make 32, 33 starts."
Dempster already had become a workout fiend, losing weight since 2006 through diet and running a four-mile loop with Hill through the Wrigleyville neighborhood three hours before home games last summer. He's amazed Piniella in the spring by running up and down the landmark Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale after workouts.
"I worked my legs a lot more," Dempster said. "It all starts with your legs as a starting pitcher."
He had to do something different. Dempster had a composite 3-16 record as a closer the past two seasons with ERAs creeping toward the 5.00 mark. He had none of the consistency that had marked his 33-save performance in 2005. Too many walks and ill-timed homers were a witch's brew in 2007, and Piniella even thought of briefly moving Dempster out of the closer's role then.
"For me the biggest thing that bothered me was where we were up by a lot or down by a lot," Dempster said. "I seemed to lose a little bit of focus and gave away runs. Maybe it will help me going into the rotation and apply myself for all seven, eight, nine innings. And not having to worry about that the one run you give up means the game."