Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

600388.png

Austin drives Lanphier's title hopes

The biggest day in the life of Larry Austin Jr.--up to now, that is--comes on Feb. 18. It will be his 16th birthday. It is only a coincidence that his Springfield Lanphier team, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, will meet second-rated Peoria Central on that date.

"That morning I get my driver's license," Austin said. "I'm looking forward to being able to drive. I don't want to depend on my parents all the time."

If he had a choice, Austin would choose a Ford Explorer or Mercury Mountaineer for his first vehicle, not a Ferrari or Sting Ray or Lamborghini.

That's because Austin, or LA to his friends, is all about being a utilitarian, nothing flashy. He prefers the grunt work, not the spotlight. Of all the many things he does on the basketball floor, he likes to make steals, not shots. He plays with enormous poise and maturity, rare for someone who enjoys watching cartoons.

Austin is a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard who averages 11 points, four assists and five steals for a 20-2 team that will meet highly rated Chatham Glenwood and Peyton Allen on Friday night for the Central State Eight Conference championship.

He already has received scholarship offers from Illinois, Bradley, DePaul and Memphis but most of the major programs, including Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio State, are showing interest. Longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com rates Austin among the top 50 players in the class of 2014.

Austin has built a national reputation despite his modest statistics. As a member of the 12-member USA men's developmental national team that won a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 championship, he averaged only four points but accumulated seven assists and seven steals per game while playing with Simeon's Jabari Parker and Kendrick Nunn and Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor.

"He has a great basketball IQ. He plays at a high level," Lanphier coach Chuck Shanklin said. "He does so many different things. His big statistic is the number of steals per game. His performance in the summer with Parker and USA Basketball brought him to everybody's attention. He will be a point guard in college."

That's what is attracting the major schools--Austin's point guard skills. Have you noticed how many teams in college and the NBA are desperately looking for leadership, someone to steer the ship and prevent it from sinking?

That's why former Thornridge and Indiana star Quinn Buckner, perhaps the most celebrated leader ever produced in Illinois, was the first player ever selected among the top 10 in the NBA draft who didn't average more than 10 points per game. Everybody coveted his point guard and leadership skills.

"The biggest thing that Austin has going for him are the positive intangibles that he brings to the table," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"He sports considerable toughness, is a strong man-to-man defender, has great leadership qualities and plays unselfishly. In addition, he has outstanding speed and quickness which combined with his strength allow him to consistently get to the basket.

"His perimeter shooting is still suspect and he is definitely not a scorer like Marian Catholic's Tyler Ulis, who is the other elite point guard in the class of 2014. Nevertheless, Austin possesses many of the attributes that warrant him drawing potential as a potential high major recruit."

Recruiting seems to be the last thing on his mind. With more than two years left to play at the high school level, he can expect many more offers, giving him endless options and opportunities to select the program of his choice, what is best for him. And there is no hurry to do it.

"I just want to stay focused and stay in the gym and do my schoolwork," he said.

At the moment, Austin doesn't play point guard on a team that is led by seniors Everett Clemons, T.J. Davis and Jaylen Briggity. But Austin will move to point guard as a junior. He knows that is his position for the future and he welcomes the challenge.

"A pure point guard is someone who controls the game very well and makes other players better," Austin said. "He has to have a pass-first attitude. His job is to get everyone involved in the game as soon as possible before he thinks about taking shots.

"Leadership is about communicating with other players, taking the game over when it is necessary, scoring when you have to, being in control of the game. When you see people arguing, you know they are in a bad position. It's your job to tell them what to do and when to do it."

Austin admires NBA stars Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and watches them whenever possible. He marvels at Rose's quickness and how Paul comes off pick-and-rolls. But he always talks about "playing my game" and not trying to copy someone else's.

At the USA Basketball camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he minded to his own business. "I learned how to compete every day. I realized that someone always is working when you aren't. It takes hard work every day if you want to be a great player, if you want to get better. We talked about little things that help you to win games...hustle plays, getting loose balls, breaking down defenses, drawing fouls, getting rebounds, how to make plays," he said.

It didn't take him long to realize that basketball was his future. He stopped playing baseball in second grade, after only one season as a first baseman. He said the game was too slow for him.

"Why basketball? I like intensity, the way we compete against other teams. The atmosphere is there," Austin said. "I like to make steals. If I get a steal and a breakaway and a dunk, it fires up my team and gets the crowd into the game. That's what makes it fun for me. I just go out and play and have fun."

With Aroldis Chapman in the fold, do Cubs now have a bullpen that rivals World Champion Royals?

With Aroldis Chapman in the fold, do Cubs now have a bullpen that rivals World Champion Royals?

Aroldis Chapman firing 103 mph fastballs past hitters is going to send the sellout crowds at Wrigley into a frenzy on a nightly basis in the season's final few months.

It also gives the Cubs bullpen a completely different look, something Joe Maddon has referenced several times since Theo Epstein's front office pulled off the blockbuster for the most dominant closer in the game.

With Chapman slamming the door in the ninth, Hector Rondon and his 1.89 ERA now move up to the eighth inning. Pedro Strop - who is having arguably the best season of his career with a 2.79 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 - now slots in as a seventh-inning guy.

It has the look of a trio of relievers that could rival the dominant Kansas City Royals bullpen over the last two World Series runs.

Cubs second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist got a firsthand look at the back end of the Royals' bullpen last fall, watching Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Wade Davis combine for only one unearned run against the New York Mets in 12 World Series innings.

Zobrist isn't ready to crown the Cubs' bullpen in the same category, but he could see how the comparisons could be made.

"I don't know; it just started," Zobrist said before Thursday's Crosstown finale. "I'm not gonna say it's exactly like it. It's different. It's different guys, but it's the same type of makeup.

"You got really hard-throwing guys that know how to spot their pitches and they're really tough pitchers. That's the way it felt last year in Kansas City. 

"When you get a guy like Strop or a Kelvin Herrera or whatever that's coming in in like the seventh, you're going, 'This guy can be a closer on just about any other team and yet he's coming in this early in the game.'

"That spells doom for other teams. It's tough to overcome that later in the game."

With all the days off built into the posteseason, teams can roll with their best relievers on a nightly basis. 

Maddon likes to play matchups and ride the hot hand, but come October, he will have three very good options, as Chapman's presence has a domino effect on the rest of the relievers.

"That shortens the game," Zobrist said. "For the other team, when they're going up against that, they know that they only have so much time before the game is over in their minds mentally. 

"If we have a lead going into the sixth, seventh inning, they're in trouble because they're going to have to face some of the best relievers in the game the last few innings.

"What [Chapman] does to our bullpen is just takes it to that next level where the game is at least an inning shorter."

Cubs fans got to see that play out in front of them at Wrigley Field Wednesday night as Rondon came in to throw a perfect eighth before Chapman blew the Sox away in the ninth.

"They just know that it's hard to come back from a game when you're winning late in the game like that," Zobrist said. "Even if it's 3-1 like it was last night [before the Cubs tacked on five insurance runs], it seems like an insurmountable lead when you got a couple guys at the back end of the bullpen like that."

Robin Ventura isn't convinced White Sox will sell at deadline

Robin Ventura isn't convinced White Sox will sell at deadline

There’s been plenty of smoke and trade rumors this week, but Robin Ventura doesn’t get the sense a deal is forthcoming.

The White Sox manager acknowledged on Thursday afternoon his role in trade dealings is minimal as general manager Rick Hahn and his staff have fielded all the phone calls, with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana believed to have drawn the most interest. Jon Heyman reported Thursday the New York Yankees are the latest team to have inquired about Sale’s availability.

As busy as Hahn has been this week, his phone apparently ringing off the hook, Ventura isn’t convinced the White Sox will be sellers come Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.

While it could simply be another round of posturing as teams angle to best position themselves, the White Sox headed into Thursday’s finale against the Cubs 50-51 with at least a pulse when it comes to the postseason.

“This week probably led to some more phone calls, of people calling just to see what's going on with us,” Ventura said. “I think our guys should look at it as a nice thing that people are calling and asking about you because that means people want you. But I don't want to see anybody go out of here. I don't think that's going to happen.”

[SHOP: Get your White Sox gear here]

The White Sox managed to stay afloat even though Sale was gone for five games with a 4-1 mark in his absence. That included two walkoff victories over the Detroit Tigers and a pair of wins against the Cubs on Monday and Tuesday. Ventura acknowledged a win behind Sale on Thursday would be a big boost as the club heads into a three-game series at the Minnesota Twins on Friday.

The run comes almost a year after the White Sox rolled off seven straight victories to inch their way back into the wild-card race in 2015. That week of victories convinced the White Sox to hold off from trading free-agent-to-be Jeff Samardzija. The next four games could very well decide the fate of several players as Hahn said last Thursday the club is open-minded in trade talks and sick of being “mired in mediocrity.”

“I hope we do it again,” Ventura said. “That decision isn’t mine and I’m not taking or making any phone calls. For me I hope we do it again.”

Last year the White Sox collapsed after they didn’t trade Samardzija, who fell apart and went 1-8 with a 9.24 ERA in his first eight starts after the deadline. The White Sox rotation is in much better shape than last season’s with the recent success of James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez. The team also is hopeful Carlos Rodon could return on Sunday to accompany Sale and Quintana.

Though the offense has been inconsistent, the group has improved and finally has another much-needed left-handed hitter for the middle of the order in Justin Morneau. So while the White Sox bullpen is beat up pretty good, Ventura thinks his club is better prepared for the stretch run.

“We’re probably better situated of sustaining that than last year,” Ventura said.

Back at Wrigley Field, Rick Renteria not concerned about managing again

Back at Wrigley Field, Rick Renteria not concerned about managing again

Rick Renteria returned to Wrigley Field this week, but instead of greeting the media in a large, well-lit room outside the palatial new home clubhouse, the former Cubs manager sat in a folding chair in the squeezed confines of the visitor’s clubhouse. The cramped setup even made the old Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon, where Renteria held press conferences as the Cubs’ manager in 2014, look spacious. 

But with Al Green and some other soul hits of the 1970s blaring from a speaker in his locker, Renteria — who’s in his first year as the White Sox bench coach — said he’s not concerned with when he’ll get another opportunity to manage after being pushed out for Joe Maddon as the Cubs accelerated their rebuilding process following the 2014 season. 

“I came out here to do the job I’m doing right now,” Renteria said. “I’ve always believed that whatever goes on after that kind of takes care of itself. You can’t really control those things and that’s how I’m viewing it. 

“I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing right now and whatever comes in the future comes in the future. And right now I can’t control that.”

The 54-year-old Renteria, who spent six seasons as a coach for the San Diego Padres before managing the Cubs to a 73-89 record two years ago, took a down-the-middle approach to that question about if his return to Wrigley Field brought back thoughts of managing again. He said he’s shook hands and received well-wishes from a few of his former players, and didn’t mention any animosity to how his exit from Clark and Addison went down.

[SHOP: Get your White Sox gear here]

Whether or not Renteria gets another managerial gig remains to be seen. But his brief stint as skipper on the north side of Chicago is one he said he looks back upon fondly.

“I thought it was a good time,” Renteria said. “It was a lot of positive energy, a lot of possibilities and it was a great experience. Can’t deny it, it was a great experience.”