Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

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Fire draw, will host Houston in elimination round Wednesday

The good news is the Fire is awaiting its first playoff match since 2009. The bad news is the Fire goes into Wednesday nights meeting with the Houston Dynamo with absolutely no momentum.

Its still possible for the Fire to wins its second Major League Soccer title, the first coming in the clubs inaugural 1998 season, but the road couldnt be much more difficult. If the Fire gets by the Dynamo, the next task will be a two-game home-and-home series against Sporting Kansas City, clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

The first game of that conference semifinal series would be at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Toyota Park if the Fire gets by Houston and thats a big if.

Sadly, it didnt have to be this way. Had the Fire won its last regular season game, its playoff outlook would have been much brighter. The Fire would have been second in the East and have a week to prepare for its first opponent. But, the Fire didnt win, the last match ending in a 1-1 draw against D.C. United before a sellout crowd (20,017) in Bridgeview.

That result left United (17-10-7, 58 points) solo second behind Sporting Kansas City (18-7-9, 63). The Fire (17-11-6, 57) finished tied in points with the third-place New York Red Bulls (16-9-9, 57) but the Red Bulls owned the tiebreaker with 57 goals scored to 46 for the Fire.

Thus, D.C. United and New York will join SKC in getting a weeks rest before their first playoff match. Both will have some momentum going, too. United finished the season 5-0-2 and after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. The Red Bulls needed to win their last game against Philadelphia to avoid the knockout match and got it with a resounding 3-0 CHECK victory a few hours before the Fire and United took the field in Bridgeview.

"Our conference was so tight, said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "This (match vs. United) wasnt the last game for us. Its behind us. Were still in a very good spot. We wanted a week to prepare. Thatd be better than a quick turn-around like this, but at least we dont have to travel. Our goal from the beginning was to be in the playoffs, and we are."

True, but having to play (and win) an extra game wont help the Fires chances of going deep into the postseason. Unlike most of this uplifting season the club finished it on a downer, going 1-3-1 in the last five matches. Two of the defeats were against Philadelphia and New England, conference rivals who had long since been eliminated from postseason contention.

And, as for settling for a draw with D.C. United, the Fire had only itself to blame. There were plenty of chances to win that one.

The Fire scored first, an electrifying 25-yard blast by Patrick Nyarko in the 16th minute. That was a promising start, since the Fire had never lost a match under Klopas when it scored first. That streak is still alive at 22 matches (17-0-5). The Fire also has a history of playing well in home finales, going 9-4-1 in its first 14. The Fire still hasnt lost a regular season home finale since 2005, but those stats are basically meaningless now.

A Fire breakdown in the 50th minute allowed Lionard Pajoy to head in the tying goal for United, but the Fire had plenty of opportunities to get it back. The club put nine shots on goal, many in the waning moments.

"We had four chances. Youre lucky if you get that many in a months worth of games," lamented forward Chris Rolfe, who was honored before the match as the Fires Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot winner for scoring the most goals.

Dominic Oduro put one shot high and another off the right post after entering the match in the 68th minute. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and reserves Alex and Guillermo Franco also had opportunities, too, but couldnt convert.

"Im proud of the effort of the group, said Klopas. "Theyve been consistent and put everything on the field. We took some risks, and you feel good about the chances youve created."

But theres a big difference between good chances and finishing them off. Klopas called a rare day-after-game Sunday training session to begin the Fires preparation for Houston. Though the Dynamo (14-9-11, 53 points) was a full four standings points behind the Fire, Houston was till comfortably in the playoffs after building a five-point advantage on sixth place Columbus.

The Dynamo may have the disadvantage of traveling to Wednesdays match, but should be well-rested. Coach Dominic Kinnear knew his club couldnt improve its position in its late Saturday night match against Colorado, so he gave his usual reserves plenty of playing time in a 2-0 loss. The key players who will take the field on Wednesday had only limited playing time against the Rapids.

Robin Ventura praises ex-teammate David Ross after night of ovations

Robin Ventura praises ex-teammate David Ross after night of ovations

On June 25, 2004, Robin Ventura took the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning of a 13-0 loss to the then Anaheim Angels.

It was Ventura’s lone pitching appearance in his big league career, one that ended that season after 16 years.

And who was behind the plate? Current Cubs catcher David Ross, who’s in the final season of his own lengthy major league career and who experienced quite the moment on Sunday night. In the Cubs’ final regular-season home game, a packed Wrigley Field stood in recognition of the backup catcher and his career ahead of each of his three plate appearances — the second of which ended in a solo home run — and then again when manager Joe Maddon lifted him from the game in the seventh inning.

The roaring ovations were unusual for a backup catcher who’s batting .233 (after hitting just .176 last season on the North Side), but according to Ventura — a teammate of Ross’ in L.A. in 2003 and 2004 — they were absolutely deserved.

“It’s great. Anything he gets I think is great,” Ventura said. “Not often do you see a backup catcher with such a response. But he’s a different guy, and he’s earned that. They wouldn’t do that if he didn’t deserve it. Inside their clubhouse, that’s probably where it comes from, and then it exudes outside, spills over outside of that. I’m sure I’ll talk to him in the offseason.”

Ross hasn’t received a city-by-city sendoff the likes of which Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, David Ortiz and even White Sox legend Paul Konerko have received in recent years. But he sure has enjoyed his final season in the big leagues. And he might enjoy it further as the Cubs have the best record in baseball and World Series expectations.

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Ventura had his own final season in the bigs a dozen years ago, and he was the manager during Konerko’s final year in 2014.

“I know a little bit of what he’s going through. But when a guy is at the end and he knows he’s at the end, you can have a little more fun,” Ventura said. “Paulie had some of that his last year where you can exert some energy elsewhere. And it’s still fun, and you spread it around the clubhouse a little bit more than you do just as a player.”

It might be difficult for fans who haven’t closely followed the Cubs over the past two seasons to figure out why Ross has become so beloved. But as Ross’ former teammate, Ventura understands.

“Numbers-wise, he’s not going to jump out off the page to you. But the guys that play in there understand what he brings to it,” Ventura said. “It’s hard to sit there and for people to understand that, as grueling as the season is and the personalities are in that clubhouse. But when you’re talking about a guy that’s played as long as he has, been on some winning teams and continues to bring the enjoyment and really the boyish stuff that he brings. And that’s part of his charm is there’s still a kid in there, even at 40 — what is he? — he looks like 48. There’s a kid in there, and that comes out when you see him or you’re around him.”

So back to that pitching appearance. Ventura fared just fine, giving up just one hit in a scoreless ninth inning. Ross must’ve been calling a good game, right?

“He never put down a signal,” Ventura said. “I didn’t throw hard enough for him to put down a signal.”

Adam Eaton still out of White Sox lineup, recuperating from crash into wall

Adam Eaton still out of White Sox lineup, recuperating from crash into wall

Out of the White Sox lineup the last two days after he crashed into a wall in Cleveland, Adam Eaton remained sidelined Monday, with manager Robin Ventura saying the outfielder needs more time to recuperate.

Of course, Eaton being the kind of player who crashes into walls to make catches, he wants back out on the field in the season’s final week.

“Feeling good,” Eaton reported to reporters ahead of Monday’s series-opener against the Tampa Bay Rays. “I hope to be in there tomorrow. I'm going to test the body parts today. Individually, I want to play until the end and finish strong. That's kind of my outlook as of right now.”

Eaton assumed he was held out of the lineup for the first of the four-game set on the South Side due to Monday’s pitching matchup. Ventura made it pretty clear, though, that that wasn’t the case.

“Yeah, he doesn’t feel that good,” Ventura said when informed of Eaton’s self-assessment. “He’s always going to tell you he feels good. Even if he’s getting better, tomorrow’s going to be a better day for him.

“He’s not playing because he’s physically still banged-up. He will be here, but he’s not going to play today. He’s still recuperating and getting better. But in talking to (trainer Herm Schneider), it’s just best that he doesn’t play today.”

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Eaton needed to be helped off the field by Schneider and teammate Carlos Sanchez on Friday after he made a catch on a deep fly ball off the bat of Roberto Perez and then crashed into the center-field wall at Progressive Field. Getting the wind knocked out of him, Eaton took and passed concussion tests, perhaps preventing a shutdown for the remainder of the season. But he’ll sit out his third straight game Monday.

Despite the concern over a possible concussion, Eaton said the most-affected body part was his hip.

“Biggest thing was my hip, to be honest,” he said. “I think that's what hit first and then kind of a whiplash. I hate to continue referring to a car accident but just kind of a jolt. Taking inventory and making sure everything's aligned again. The doctors there in Cleveland were great. They came over and did all the concussion protocol, making sure I didn't get any dumber, which I'm sure I did. I guess realigning some things and making sure all the body parts are functioning correctly.

“Feel much better today, every day's been getting better. We're going to test some parts out today and if all goes well, my hope is to be in there tomorrow. Hopefully I didn't get Wally Pipp’d and get replaced. I hope I can squeeze back in there.”

Taking a positive out of things, Eaton said he’s happy the crash illustrated the way he hopes to play the game, full go on every play, and that kids might see the catch and want to play the same way.

“As I’ve said the last couple days, it’s how I play and I'm proud to play that way. I've been brought up since I was a little kid to play hard. I hope a little kid at home sees it, that it is cool to make a catch for your team and take a double away, and they want to do that. Of course not getting hurt by any stretch of the imagination. But I was always that kid trying to rob people and taking two extra steps to make a diving play as a 12-year-old or 13-year-old. It’s fun to do it, but you pay the price for it of course.”

The catch might’ve looked pretty cool on the highlight shows. But Eaton wanted to make one thing clear.

“One of my buddies in Michigan said it looked epic,” Eaton said. “I told him it didn't feel epic.”