Fire aim for first-ever home win vs. FC Dallas

769196.png

Fire aim for first-ever home win vs. FC Dallas

All the good vibes that came from the Fires first busy stretch of the season are pretty much gone now.

The Fire took seven of a possible nine points in a three-game in nine-night stretch, which included matches with both of the conference leaders in Major League Soccer.

And then came Saturday's visit to lowly Portland and a 2-1 loss created by an own goal, the ball bounding into the net off the knee of Fire captain Logan Pause. Needless to say the second busy stretch of the season didnt start well, and now the Fire (4-3-3) must rebound with a Wednesday home match against FC Dallas (3-6-4). This three-games-in-seven-days binge ends at Columbus on Saturday.

The FC Dallas visit, in which the Brimstone Cup is on the line, is eerily reminiscent of the match with Portland. The Fire has yet to play well against the Timbers, who came into MLS last season. The Fire is 0-3-0 vs. Portland, and the last loss was a problem.

"It was frustrating for us," admitted Fire coach Frank Klopas. "We didnt deserve to walk away with a loss."

But thats what happened, as the clubs three-game unbeaten streak came to an abrupt halt.

The Fire hasnt played well against FC Dallas, either. Wednesdays visitors have never lost at Toyota Park, going 5-0-1 when traveling to play the Fire in Bridgeview.

"Its a quick turn-around (from the loss at Portland)," said Klopas. "Weve got to put that game in the past and focus on what we have to take care of on Wednesday."

FC Dallas last played on May 19, a 2-2 draw against the Philadelphia Union on the road. The Fire was 0-1-1 vs. FC Dallas in 2011, the draw coming in the season opener at Pizza Hut Park on March 19. The Fire has beaten FC Dallas just once in the last 10 meetings, in 2009 at Pizza Hut Park.

Fire player personnel director Mike Jeffries was the coach of the Dallas Burn, the original name of the team, and took Dallas to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002.

Both teams will be without key players. FC Dallas will be minus Brek Shea, who is serving a three-game suspension for kicking a ball at an assistant referee in a match against Columbus. The Fire will be without defender Arne Friedrich, who is nursing a right hamstring sprain.

Chris Rolfe remains questionable with a sprained ankle suffered in training three days after he rejoined the Fire following a three-year stint in Denmark.

Illini's Malcolm Hill breaks backboard with practice dunk

snc_malcolm_hill_breaks_backboard_05-30_640x360_695704643792.jpg

Illini's Malcolm Hill breaks backboard with practice dunk

One of John Groce's goals for his team this offseason was to improve the Illini's strength.

Things seem to be going nicely.

Malcolm Hill broke a backboard in the Illini's practice gym on Monday, and there's photo evidence to prove it.

Take a look at these tweets from Hill and Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.

Hill was already the team's best player in numerous facets. He led the Illini with 18.1 points and 3.3 assists per game and ranked second with 6.6 rebounds per game.

Now he's shattering glass with some mean slams. It could be a crazy senior year for Hill.

Bullpen's ridiculous performance bails out Cubs in win over Dodgers

cubs_maddon_on_wood_he_was_spectacular_05-30_640x360_695644739609.jpg

Bullpen's ridiculous performance bails out Cubs in win over Dodgers

The Cubs' MLB-leading starting rotation has gotten plenty of buzz this season, but the bullpen had their breakout game on Memorial Day.

With Jason Hammel limited to only two innings because of hamstring cramping, the bullpen stepped up big time, tossing seven perfect frames in the Cubs' 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in front of 41,470 fans at Wrigley Field.

Hammel allowed just a bloop single with two outs in the first inning on a ball that fell between Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward in shallow right field, wind-aided and sun-aided base hit for Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

Hammel walked the next hitter and that was it.

No other Dodger reached base after Adrian Gonzalez walked with two outs in the first inning. 

Hammel and four relievers combined to set down 25 straight to end the game, the first time a Cubs pitching staff has done that since May 15, 1960.

Travis Wood was the standout performer from the bullpen, coming in on short notice in the third inning and tossing four perfect innings with four strikeouts, throwing just 43 pitches.

When Maddon sat down for his standard postgame press conference, he said the Chicago media should really be talking to Wood first.

"Oh my God," Maddon said. "I'm really trying to decide when to take him out of that game. ... My goodness. You throw like 20 pitches after two innings.

"He was so pitch-efficient, he permitted us to do what we did. It comes down to that. Pure and simple. Forty-three pitches in four innings. He was spectacular."

Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon followed Wood in order, each throwing an inning and combining for four strikeouts and only 36 pitches.

"The rest of the guys came in and they were very efficient 'cause they saw Travis go out there and do it," Maddon said. "So then here comes Grimmer and here comes Stroppy and here comes Ronny. 

"They all were really, really efficient. Good pitches, good location, good stuff. But Travis set the tone for the whole day."

"I love our bullpen," said David Ross, who caught the whole game. "Those guys are very impressive to me."

Wood picked up his third victory of the season on a day where he entered the game just seconds after sitting on the couch in the Cubs clubhouse. When he saw Hammel go down, he knew he might be needed, so he dashed out to the dugout and sure enough, he got the call to go into the game.

Maddon and the Cubs always claim Wood has a rubber arm, and he needed only 15 or so pitches to warm up before his four perfect innings. 

"[I was just focusing on] each hitter at a time and try to get the outs," Wood said. "Those are freak situations that happen - a guy gets hurt or in Hamm's case, it was just a cramp.

"So you're just out there to get outs for as long as they want you to. And then take it from there."

The Cubs got on the board in the fifth inning when Zobrist led off with a single and wound up on third after Dodgers right field Yasiel Puig booted the ball.

Heyward plated Zobrist on a 60-foot chopper down the first-base line, reaching safely for an infield single. He then came around to score the game's final run on Anthony Rizzo's double to right field two batters later.

The Cubs have won six straight games and have allowed just one hit to the Dodgers in their last 18 head-to-head innings dating back to last season.

Now the Dodgers have to contend with Jake Arrieta - who no-hit them on national TV the last time he faced them - Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Cubs breathing a sigh of relief after Jason Hammel's leg cramp

cubs_hammel_it_felt_like_a_cramp_05-30_640x360_695644227883.jpg

Cubs breathing a sigh of relief after Jason Hammel's leg cramp

Before anybody really knew what happened, Jason Hammel was sitting on the ground behind the pitcher's mound at Wrigley Field surrounded by Cubs trainers and coaches.

The veteran starting pitcher had just come out to warm up for the top of the third inning after he and Ben Zobrist struck out to strand the bases loaded for the Cubs in the bottom of the second.

He eventually got up and tried to throw a few more warmup pitches, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Chris Bosio ultimately decided to roll with Travis Wood, removing Hammel from the game after only 39 pitches.

Two innings later, the Cubs announced Hammel was being evaluated for right hamstring cramping.

After the game, Joe Maddon sounded optimistic about Hammel's status.

"It seems to have just been a cramp," Maddon said. "We just couldn't wait for it to settle down. You just don't know in that particular moment if it is a cramp. 

"We thought it was a cramp, but you just can't stand out there for 15 minutes and wait for it to dissolve or whatever. So we had to move it along at that point."

Maddon said the Cubs feel Hammel should be ready to go for his next start in five days.

Hammel - who said he's never dealt with a cramp like that before - iced and massaged his leg after being removed from the game and took an anti-inflammatory. 

But he felt good enough to joke after the game about how he gave up the only hit before the Cubs bullpen combined for seven perfect innings of relief.

"I blew the no-hitter!" Hammel said. "It makes me feel really small. I obviously wanted to stay in there. It just sucks. Something like that where it's on and off.

"I felt like after I stretched it and it was down on the ground and I threw the first pitch, I felt fine. Then the next pitch, it was back. It would've taken us six hours to get through the game if I stayed in there."

After two shutout innings Monday, Hammel now has a 2.09 ERA and 1.16 WHIP on the season and has been a revelation in helping the Cubs to the best starting rotation in baseball slotting behind Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey.

Hammel was pitching at an All-Star level (2.89 ERA) before running into a leg injury in early July last season. He was never the same after, posting a 5.03 ERA in his final 15 starts.

Over the winter, the 33-year-old Hammel responded by shedding some weight and rededicating himself to a training regimen designed to help take some pressure off his lower body.

After the hamstring/calf issue last July, Maddon had a quick hook with Hammel, who expressed his frustration at various points throughout the end of last year. 

But after the cramp popped up Monday, Hammel saw the big picture and wasn't upset with Maddon, who wanted to play it safe with the Cubs thinking World Series or bust.

"Made the right move," said Hammel, who bounced the ball on the mound in frustration after being removed from the game. "We're all stubborn when we're out there. We want to compete and finish what we started. But the end game is basically to make sure we're staying healthy and it doesn't really do any good to push it there. 

"I honestly felt like I drank the equivalent of Lake Michigan last night. Once it starts to get pretty humid and hot here, I always hydrate really well. I drank so much water last night. I really don't understand why I cramped. We'll figure it out."

If Hammel is forced to miss any time, Maddon said he would turn to Wood or Trevor Cahill for a spot start.

When asked if he feels ready for a spot start, Wood responded simply:

"I feel so. I'm always ready to take the ball."