Bears looking to figure out Seattle

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Bears looking to figure out Seattle

Bears-Seahawks is all about control season still in Bears own hands
Lovie Smith likes to break the season into a series of four-game sprints, and the Bears will finish their third of those on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. From here starts a fourth quarter with three of the final four against, in order, Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit, with the Arizona Cardinals between the Packers and Lions.
Where this becomes a problem on Sunday is if the Bears have been thinking about being within a win or two of clinching a playoff berth, and possibly the NFC North, depending upon what happens Sunday between the Packers and Vikings.
No Lovie Smith team has won its final four games, which means getting to 9-3 becomes significant for staying on the heels of San Francisco (8-2-1) for a chance at the No. 2 seed. A Bears' win and 49ers' loss at St. Louis Sunday would slide the Bears a half-game ahead of the team that crushed them less than two weeks ago.
Were in first place right now and we control what happens to the Bears, Smith said. And thats what its all about.
Unwelcome guests
Seattle has won just once on the road this season. But Seattle also has not lost in Soldier Field in the regular season since 2006, the Bears Super Bowl season. The Bears have beaten the Seahawks twice in divisional-round playoff games, but Seattle put 24 points on the Bears in both the 2006 and 2010 games.
The 2011 loss marked only the 10th time in the Lovie Smith era that the Bears lost a game when leading at halftime (14-7).
And that stung.
"It still does, said linebacker Brian Urlacher. They beat us bad last year They beat us up up front. They came in here, late December, in our weather and put it on us pretty good.
Theyve beaten us the last two times in the regular season when they played here. They beat us the year we went to the playoffs, then we beat them in the playoffs. But they beat us in the regular season two in a row here.
Which Seahawks?
Seattle has been a conundrum this season, defeating the likes of Green Bay, New England and Minnesota, while losing to Arizona, Detroit and Miami. The tipping point, as in real estate, has been location-location-location. The Seahawks are 5-0 at home and 1-5 on the road.
Indeed, Seattle has beaten more teams with winning records (three) than the Bears (two). And the Seahawks had possession for a potential tying final drive against the 49ers in San Francisco, a situation markedly different from the Bears on their trip there.
A fatal flaw has been failure to stop the run, giving up 175 or more yards in three of the last five game. Seattle defeated the Vikings despite giving up 242 rushing yards but the Miami Dolphins, ranking 20th in yards per attempt, averaged six yards per carry in their win over the Seahawks.
Finding Forte
An underused core element of the Bears offense has been Matt Forte, who left the Minnesota game with an ankle injury but is expected to start against Seattle. With the offense running through Forte in 2010-11 the Bears had an identity, something that has not taken firm root even at this late part of 2012.
Its difficult right now to try to get involved in the passing game when youre trying to establish the run so much, Forte said. I think it all will come along.
Curiously perhaps, maybe the key to the balanced offense isnt as much Fortes running as Michael Bushs, or at least a hefty distribution of carries for Bush. The Bears are 5-1 when Bush has 10 or more carries.
Use of running backs has been a problem for the Seattle defense beyond just the running part. In San Franciscos win, for example, Frank Gore rushed for 131 yards and caught six passes for another 51, in addition to backup Kendall Houstons 62 yards on 13 combined touches.
The Bears are expected to maintain the commitment to the run that worked so well against Minnesota, particularly because of the help it gives an offensive line still settling in after a spate of changes.
It does because they can come off the ball and instead of pass-blocking, Forte said. You can come off the ball and not have to worry about people blitzing or where theyre coming from.

In case you missed, my in-game tweets (@csnmoonmullin) and commentary will be part of our whole Bears Pulse package this and every Sunday. See you on CSNChicago.com.

Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

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Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

Wisconsin landed a Power 5 transfer running back Friday.

Like the Badgers need another running back.

Former Pittsburgh ball carrier Chris James, a Chicago native, announced on Twitter that he's coming to Madison, re-teaming with Paul Chryst and the coaching staff that recruited him to the Panthers a few years back.

James was a four-star recruit coming out of Notre Dame College Prep in 2014, ranked by Rivals as the No. 22 running back in that class. He was recruited to Pitt by Joe Rudolph, currently the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and picked the Panthers over the Badgers and offers from a host of other Big Ten teams including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue.

James rushed for 437 yards on 87 carries, scoring four touchdowns as a freshman in 2014. Last season, he rushed for 253 yards on 56 carries.

Per NCAA rules, James will have to sit out the upcoming season, but he'll have two years of eligibility remaining starting in 2017.

That's good news for the Badgers, who will see two thirds of their three-headed running back monster — Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are seniors, Taiwan Deal is a sophomore — depart after the 2016 campaign.

Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

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Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist’s hot streak has earned the veteran newcomer to the North Side a lot of attention of late.

The Cubs’ everyday second baseman is hitting .325/.431/.600 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 11 games. But he’s also showed off some of that much-advertised versatility in recent games, too, playing both second base and right field in two of the last four contests. It’s the first move off second base this season for the guy who signed with a utility-player pedigree, moving all around during his time playing for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay.

That versatility can be found all over this Cubs roster, but perhaps no player has gained more attention for it than Javier Baez, who has taken on a utility role for Maddon.

And because the youth of this Cubs team always has fans and media members looking down the road a few years, the question was posed ahead of Friday’s game against the Nationals: Is Baez the next Zobrist?

In terms of starring as a career utility player — Zobrist made his first All-Star Game in a season where he appeared at seven different positions — Maddon doesn't think so.

“He’s probably going to settle in one spot on the infield. Probably,” Maddon said. “His defense, it’s really different in a good way. Zo was a shortstop, and we took him off shortstop. And he went to the outfield/second base … which really, his abilities are conducive to that. I’m not saying that Javy can’t be that. Of course he can be. But I think you might eventually want him to just nail down a spot, I think, probably in the middle of the field somewhere because he could contribute more there normally. But for right now, I love where he is at regarding this super-utility kind of an attitude.

“Is he going to be Zobrist? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”

Baez has wowed early this season with both his glove and his bat — he’s reached base in 16 of his 43 plate appearances this season — and he’s certainly been versatile, playing at five different positions already in just 15 games.

The versatility of Baez is perfect for Maddon, who loves putting players in every possible spot on the field and in the lineup. He’s done it with Kris Bryant, swapping the All Star between third base and the outfield, and Kyle Schwarber, who was set to play outfield and catch on a fairly regular basis prior to his season-ending injury on the season-opening road trip.

And in addition to being a puzzle piece that fits in numerous spots, Baez and his prowess with both his glove and his bat make it so Maddon can give some rest to another young infielder in Addison Russell without much of a drop in production.

“That’s a beautiful thing, and I think we’ve been able to do that all over the field with different guys when we give guys rest,” Maddon said. “Our guys that are in waiting are really good. So I feel good about that. It’s wonderful to be able to keep Addison strong mentally and physically during the course of the year, like you’re not losing anything by putting the other guy at shortstop. All this stuff … this is something that Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) had set up before I’d gotten here.”

The most glowing praise Maddon gave Baez on Friday had to do with his maturity and how the 23-year-old has changed in just his third season in the big leagues.

“He just really has accelerated maturity-wise,” Maddon said. “The maturation of his game and his outlook on the day is really staggeringly different than it was last year, and I’m not putting him down, he’s just really grown up quickly. To his credit. We’ve done a lot of talking with him, done a lot of explaining with him. He smiles easily right now, and he gets his role on a daily basis and how important it is to us. Give him all the credit in the world.”

Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”