It's hard to decipher what the Cubs are thinking in terms of next year's rotation. A half-dozen rookies have been getting serious shots at filling two or three spots, assuming Mark Prior is penciled in for one.
The only certainty for 2007 is Carlos Zambrano once again will be the ace.
But the one rookie who has impressed the Cubs brass the most lately is right-hander Juan Mateo, who looks like he has both the talent and the demeanor to succeed.
Even in Friday night's 2-0 loss to St. Louis at Busch Stadium, Mateo showed he's a couple of steps ahead of his peers.
"He got himself in trouble, but he got out of trouble a lot," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.
Mateo allowed one earned run over five-plus innings in his fourth start, stranding runners in every inning.
The Cards were 1-for-12 with men in scoring position.
Jeff Suppan pitched 72/3 scoreless innings, dealing the Cubs their 13th shutout of the year.
Still, the silver lining for the Cubs was Mateo.
Ryan O'Malley has a 2.13 ERA in two starts.
"The guy has the best delivery of almost all the young guys," Baker said. "He's got to work on his secondary pitches. If his secondary pitch gets better over the winter "
The Cardinals picked Mateo in the Rule 5 draft but sent him back to the Cubs after spring training.
"I felt comfortable out there," Mateo said through Zambrano, who translated. "I was just looking for an opportunity to get to the big leagues. The first time I faced the Cardinals [on Sunday] I was a little nervous, but [Friday] I was more relaxed."
St. Louis entered Friday's game with a 5.23 ERA in August, the worst of any NL staff. But Suppan turned in an outing that seemed almost effortless, improving to 10-7.
The first three Cubs hits in the first six innings, all doubles, were all misplayed by left fielder Chris Duncan. The Cardinals got a run in the third when Duncan doubled to right and scored on Scott Rolen's sacrifice fly.
Aramis Ramirez's fielding, which had been sparkling until the last few weeks, led to an unearned run in the fifth. Ramirez booted a grounder off Rolen's bat, and one out later he watched Juan Encarnacion's shot skip past his glove for a run-scoring single.
Suppan was pulled when he put two on with two outs in the eighth. Randy Flores entered and struck out Jacque Jones, the third time Jones had ended an inning with a runner in scoring position.
The Cubs were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Baker let Jones hit against the lefty because Phil Nevin also was struggling against left-handers.
"It was pick one, and save Nevin for later," Baker said.