MESA, Ariz. -- Anthony Rizzo received a few text messages from family members in Italian after he was named to Team Italy for the World Baseball Classic. The Cubs first baseman should be able to reply with more than "buon giorno" after his stint with the international squad.
Rizzo's last game with the Cubs was Sunday. He will practice with the Italian team Monday, and play two exhibition games Tuesday and Wednesday before first-round action Thursday against Team Mexico at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
"I'm going to be competing on an international level, which is going to be cool," Rizzo said. "From what I've heard, the Italian team is pretty good. Hopefully we can shock some people and play good baseball."
Rizzo talked to Cubs manager Dale Sveum before agreeing to play in the World Baseball Classic.
"Obviously, [Sveum] wants me in camp, and I want to be in camp, we want to build as a team," Rizzo said. "For the short time I'll be gone, I don't think it'll be much of a distraction at all."
Sveum wasn't too worried.
"He'd be playing here -- it's baseball," Sveum said. "He'd be doing the same thing here that he'll be doing over there. He's in good shape and his legs are good and everything is fine. He'd be playing here just as much."
The next time Rizzo competes in international competition, he'd like to do so for the U.S.
"If the opportunity ever arose, I think that would be one of the best honors I think I could do for this country, especially for all the troops overseas fighting for us allowing us to be here in Spring Training every day and playing every day," he said. "It would be an honor to represent the country."
Team Italy is the underdog in its pool. It will play the Canadian team on Friday and the U.S. squad next Saturday. Rizzo's father will be in Scottsdale to watch the first-round action, and the first baseman is already looking forward to having more of his Florida based family for the second round.
"When we make it to the second round, it's in Miami and I'm sure everyone will be there for that," Rizzo said, with an emphatic "when."
Samardzija tabbed as Cubs' Opening Day starter
MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija will open the Cubs' 2013 season where he finished with his best start of last season.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum named Samardzija as the Opening Day starter for the April 1 game against the Pirates at PNC Park.
"I've gone through some humbling baseball experiences in '09 and '10 that puts a lot of things into perspective," Samardzija said Sunday. "I'm excited. I've said this before, just the best thing as an athlete is all your hard work, you see positive gains from it. It gets you to keep working hard and keep improving. You get a little taste of success and you want that to keep going. I feel that's where I'm at now and I want to keep the ball rolling."
Samardzija, 28, who was a full-time starter for the first time in 2012, threw a compete-game victory over the Pirates in his last outing Sept. 8. He knew that was his final game of the season because the Cubs had set an innings limit.
"I thought that was a big start," Samardzija said. "I thought the most important start last year was the Atlanta start. I didn't have a good June, but if you look at from that Atlanta start on, it progressively got better every time out and culminated with that Pittsburgh game.
"That's been the roll I've been going on and I want to keep the momentum going," he said. "It's funny we start back in Pittsburgh and I look forward to it."
The start in Atlanta was July 2 when he gave up one run on four hits and struck out 11 over seven innings. Samardzija finished the season 4-6 with a 2.58 ERA in 13 games.
"He's a guy who players rally around because of his work ethic, his bulldog mentality when he's on the mound," Sveum said. "It's a very obvious choice, really."
The right-hander has come a long way from his days as an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame. In 2009 and '10, he was primarily a reliever, and spent more time in the Minor Leagues than with the big league team. It wasn't clear at that time what his future would be.
"He's that guy -- it's game on when he's pitching that day," Sveum said. "The other four days, he's a starting pitcher who doesn't sit around for four days. He's into every game, and picking his teammates up. He's fallen into that leadership role as well."
Samardzija and Sveum met the day the Cubs formally hired the manager in November 2011. The pitcher just happened to be at Wrigley Field that day. They hit it off immediately.
"Me and Dale were on the same page from Day One with what we wanted," Samardzija said. "We didn't want any personal accolades, we just want to win ballgames. That is it. It doesn't matter when you pitch, or where you pitch or what the lineup is. I felt that from him when I met him at Wrigley the day he was hired. It's a good thing to have. There's no drama, you just go out and play ball."
Samardzija finished 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in 28 starts, totaling a career-high 174 2/3 innings. He's not looking ahead to starting on Opening Day 2014 just yet.
"I'm not taking anything for granted in this game," he said. "You don't want to look ahead to the next year or the year after that. All you can do is look ahead to the next start next week, just because nothing's in stone. You just have to have fun doing what you do and go start to start and go from there. I'm really ready to get this season going, to tell you the truth."
Castro close to returning; Stewart out a bit longer
MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, sidelined with mild inflammation in his left hamstring, hit Sunday for the second straight day and could return to Cactus League games by mid-week. Third baseman Ian Stewart, who has been out 10 days with a sore left quad, is not expected back until mid-March.
Castro said Sunday that if this were the regular season, he would be able to play.
"I don't want to be, 'OK, I'm good,' and then get hurt again," Castro said. "I want to be good for 162 [games]."
Stewart, sidelined since Feb. 22 with a sore left quad, was able to swing a bat and play catch on Saturday, and has continued to add some baseball activities to his schedule.
"We've come this far and I don't want to take a chance at a setback now," Stewart said. "We're taking it each day and seeing what kind of progression we make from the day before and going from there."
The Cubs expected him to be sidelined 10 to 14 days before he could start hitting.
"Honestly, I am pretty pleased with the progress we've made because in the beginning, it was hurting pretty bad," Stewart said. "I thought it would be longer than that. I'm pretty pleased with where we're at now."
In a perfect world, Stewart would get 70 at-bats in Spring Training. To do that, he'd have to play every game, every day, every inning.
"If that's what it takes, that's what it takes," he said.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum had talked to Stewart about going to Minor League camp to get more at-bats even before he was injured. That may be an option now, too. Stewart was limited to 55 games last season because of a sore left wrist which eventually needed surgery.
"It is very frustrating," Stewart said about being sidelined. "I worked hard this offseason, spent a lot of time away from my family this offseason, going back and forth from California to North Carolina. It is tough and I guess the only positive is that the season is six and hopefully seven months long. It's better if you're going to be hurt this time of year, and not something to take you away from meaningful games in the middle or latter part of the season. Hopefully, it won't be too much longer."
The Cubs do face some decisions regarding Stewart. His $2 million contract is non-guaranteed, which is not unusual for an arbitration-level player, but there is a March 16 deadline. If the Cubs decide at that date that Stewart isn't ready, they can release him and will be obligated to pay one-sixth of his salary ($333,333). If he's released after that date and before the regular-season opener, the Cubs would owe Stewart $500,000.
"That's the last thing I want to really think about," he said. "I had such a great relationship with Theo [Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations] and the front office over the winter. I trust them and trust that they brought me back to be a part of the team.
"Hopefully, I don't have to start the season on the [disabled list] or even with another team," he said. "I trust them that everything we talked about before I came back to the Cubs is what they believe in and they want me to be a part of the organization here."
Jackson happy for rotation mate Samardzija
MESA, Ariz. -- Edwin Jackson had been mentioned as a possible Opening Day option for the Cubs after signing a four-year, $52 million contract, but manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija. That's OK with Jackson.
"He's a great pitcher and I'm happy for him," Jackson said of Samardzija. "He's the face of the organization and he deserves it. ... At the end of the day, we all want to win. He wants to win, I want to win and every other pitcher wants to win. Whoever gets the Opening Day start, we're happy for each other, and we're just ready for whoever has Opening Day to start the ball rolling in a positive direction for everyone else to feed off of."
Does that mean Jackson could be No. 2 in the rotation?
"Everyone has to be No. 1 on their day -- that's my favorite quote," Jackson said. "Everyone has to be the ace on the day they're pitching."
OK, Jackson may be second in terms of sequence, and could follow Samardzija. It won't be Matt Garza, who remains sidelined with a strained lat.
"We'd definitely rather [Garza] in September when we're coming down the stretch and hopefully making the playoff push," Jackson said. "It's always tough when you're on the other side of it, it's always easier to say, 'Be patient' when you don't have to go through it.
"He'll be fine," Jackson said. "Right now, I'm sure he's anxious, but we'd all be anxious. If I was down, I'd be anxious to get out, too. You have to look for the future and take a deep breath and realize we'd rather have him playing later in the season."
• Javier Baez fouled a ball off his left foot during his at-bat in the fifth inning Sunday but when the athletic trainer came to check on him, the Cubs shortstop said he was OK.
"It still hurts," Baez said of his foot. "I told [the trainer] I was all right. I don't like coming out of the game."
He was good enough to hit his first Cactus League home run on the next pitch, launching a missile to left for a two-run shot in the Cubs' 4-3 split-squad loss to the Brewers at HoHoKam Stadium. He also picked up another RBI on a walk with the bases loaded in the sixth.
So far, spending Spring Training in the big league camp has been pretty nice for Baez, the Cubs' 2011 first-round Draft pick.
"You learn things that you don't realize you'll learn," said Baez, who is getting a lot of tutoring on his defensive positioning.
He didn't get the ball from his first home run. Was it a big deal?
"Not really," Baez said. "I'm just going to keep trying to hit the ball hard."
• Steve Clevenger survived his first game at first base on Saturday. On Sunday, he was taking grounders at second and will likely be shagging in the outfield soon. The Cubs want to see if the left-handed hitter, who made the Opening Day roster last year as backup catcher, fits on the final 25-man roster.
Clevenger, though, could use a little time. He had to borrow Brad Nelson's first baseman's glove because Clevenger is still breaking his in.
• Albert Almora, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft, was on the travel squad for Sunday's split-squad game, and went to Tempe. He got one at-bat in the 4-2 win over the Angels.
"I'm excited to be around all these guys, pick their brains a little bit," said Almora, who was happy to hang around Jorge Soler and David DeJesus.
The Cubs' Minor Leaguers start camp this week, and Almora was eager to get going.
"I'm looking forward to this year first, then we'll move on to next year and the year after," he said. "I'm just excited to be part of this organization. They're going to do great things."
• Former Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe was back in uniform Sunday at HoHoKam Stadium, feeling much better after undergoing emergency hernia surgery. Sutcliffe actually stopped by Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday, four days after he had the procedure, to watch the Cubs-Giants game. He had just been released from the hospital. A Cy Young Award winner in 1984, Sutcliffe will get the stitches removed Wednesday, then go to work in the broadcast booth for the World Baseball Classic.
• Infielder Logan Watkins beat Anthony Rizzo in the first sweet 16 match of the Cubs' bunting tournament. Three more matches will be played Monday, including video staffer Nate Halm's showdown against pitcher Travis Wood.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.