MESA, Ariz. -- Thursday was just another Cactus League game for Cubs manager Dale Sveum, but not for Chicago fans. Thursday was Round 1 of Cubs vs. White Sox.

"I've got to be honest, they just run into each other," Sveum said of the Cactus League games. "It's just another Cactus League game where guys are just getting their work in, getting their at-bats, getting their innings in. It's a little tough to think you're going to be super serious when you don't have your [regular] lineup out there, they won't have their lineup out there. It still in the preliminary stages of Spring Training where, obviously, two weeks from now, if we had five or six games left, you'd have your team out there and start playing matchups and doing the things you'd do during the season."

This season, the Cubs-White Sox series has been condensed into a four-game stretch from May 27-30, with two games at each ballpark. Because there are now 15 teams in each league, there will be Interleague games every day during the season.

"We're all going to play the same amount of games against Interleague Play," Sveum said. "It'll be sporadic from Day 1. It's not something you have to deal with. It's just going to be earlier than normal."

There will be a slight difference. In the past, the Cubs usually had all of their games versus American League teams during two stretches of the season, and would add a player to be the designated hitter. This year, the games are spread out, and that may not be an option.

The Cubs will play the Rangers April 16-18 at Wrigley Field; travel to Anaheim June 4-5, Seattle June 28-30 and Oakland July 2-4; and play host to the Angels July 9-10.

Villanueva ready to take ball whenever he's called

MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs righty Carlos Villanueva is apparently able to pitch at anytime, anywhere, even if it is last minute.

"I don't take long to get ready or anything," Villanueva said Thursday after his third Cactus League start, which was planned and not an impromptu outing.

"You tell me the day before and I'll be ready," he said. "I've dealt with it before. I've been in the bathroom 10 minutes before a game and found out I'm starting. I remember a couple years ago, Chris Capuano had a groin thing and people kept saying, 'You're starting.' And I said, 'Nah, I'm not.' I started."

Villanueva did well in that game for the Brewers on June 13, 2007. He gave up one run on five hits over five innings, striking out four. Milwaukee won, 3-2.

"For me, tell me when to take the ball and I'll take the ball," he said.

The right-hander doesn't know where he'll be slotted in the Cubs' rotation, but he does know he's included. Injuries to Matt Garza and Scott Baker have forced the Cubs to insert Villanueva, who has been used as both a starter and reliever in his career.

On Thursday, he gave up two runs on six hits over four innings against the White Sox, striking out three. He did serve up a home run to Paul Konerko, but didn't walk anyone.

"The hits will happen," Villanueva said. "Some days they'll hit it hard at somebody, some days they'll loop it and it'll fall down. I'm more satisfied with my sequences today. For the first time I used my offspeed and had guys on base in scoring position a little bit, and it made me work. ... I think we're progressing very well."

He knows how valuable it is to have a pitcher who can multi-task, and also how overlooked he is.

"Our value is definitely under appreciated, if you ask me," Villanueva said of the long man who can make a spot start. "If I was ever managing, I would want at least two guys who can do what I've done. It's not an easy job.

"There's no market for it," he said. "When you go to arbitration with somebody, you hear you're not good enough to start, you're not good enough to close and it obviously drives the value down. But you ask a manager or a pitching coach or the guys who play behind you, if your starter doesn't have it that day, and it's a two-run game and you can bring that guy in the third inning and can hold it there, that's a beautiful thing."

If Villanueva can do so well without knowing when he's starting, maybe the Cubs shouldn't tell him.

"I think it's better because you have less time to think about it," he said. "I think I had four, five days off after that."

High pitch count leads to Marmol's exit

MESA, Ariz. -- Carlos Marmol ran out of pitches on Thursday in the seventh inning.

The Cubs' closer was pulled before he could finish his inning against the White Sox, but manager Dale Sveum said Marmol has done better this spring than last year.

Marmol gave up a leadoff double to Conor Gillaspie in the seventh, and Brent Morel reached on a fielder's choice. Third baseman Christian Villanueva failed to hold onto a relay throw from Marmol, and Gillaspie was safe. He then scored on a groundout by Seth Loman.

Marmol struck out Trayce Thompson, but then threw a wild pitch and walked the next two batters before he was lifted.

"He was just kind of missing with his slider, his fastball was just missing," Sveum said of Marmol. "It wasn't like he was awful by no means. He just got the pitch count up. [Bryan Anderson] laid off some pretty good sliders down and in. He put together a pretty good at-bat there."

Plus, if Villanueva makes the play at third, it's a different story.

In four spring games, Marmol has given up four hits and walked four over 3 2/3 innings. But Sveum says the right-hander has good command of his pitches.

"It's been way better than last year at this time," Sveum said.

Extra bases

• If Thursday was Opening Day, Starlin Castro would be in the Cubs' lineup, but because it's early March, the shortstop is still rehabbing. Castro has been sidelined since Feb. 27 with a tight hamstring. He could return Monday, or the team may take advantage of Tuesday's off-day and give him one more day before having him play Wednesday.

"If it was Opening Day, he'd be playing," manager Dale Sveum said. "I don't think he has to worry about his job."

Brent Lillibridge, who injured his groin on Feb. 27, also is projected to return to the lineup either Monday or Wednesday.

• Scott Baker threw 31 pitches over two innings of a simulated game on Thursday, and the next step will be to pitch in a Minor League game. If all goes well, the right-hander, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, would then make his first Cactus League appearance.

"He got up to 89 miles an hour today in the second inning and let it go today a lot more," Sveum said of Baker's velocity. "He felt good, finished good. It all went really well, especially the second inning when he cranked it up a little bit."

 

• Rule 5 Draft pick Hector Rondon continues to impress. He gave up one hit and struck out one in one inning on Wednesday against the Rangers. He has given up two hits over four innings in four outings this spring.

"His fastball was OK, but it was impressive how he snapped off the breaking balls that he's been working on," Sveum said. "It wasn't really in his tool box coming into spring, and [pitching coach Chris Bosio] has been working on a little bit better breaking ball. [Rondon] pulled them off in some key spots."

• Defending champion David DeJesus advanced to the elite eight in the Cubs bunting tournament, beating Castro. DeJesus needed 35 points in the final round to beat Castro, and perfectly placed his bunts, hitting the "20" mark, then the "10," then the "5."

Edwin Jackson also advanced, upsetting Casey Coleman, who won the pitchers' side of the bracket last year, then lost to DeJesus in the finals. Jackson will face the winner of the Sweet 16 match between strength coach Tim Buss and pitcher Hisanori Takahashi.

The other Elite Eight pairings include Michael Brenly vs. Edwin Maysonet and Blake Parker vs. video staffer Nate Halm.