Illinois hoping Big 10 season provides identity

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Illinois hoping Big 10 season provides identity

CHAMPAIGN -- Who is Illinois? The schools new slogan is, "Our State. Our Team," but is this a team that even knows its identity?

The Illini are struggling to stay healthy in coach Tim Beckmans first year, which has led to many young players, including true freshmen, playing significant minutes. The biggest health issue, however, is at quarterback.

Junior signal-caller Nathan Scheelhaase returned to the starting lineup on Saturday for the first time since Illinois' win over Western Michigan on Sept. 1. His time behind center was brief, however. After a pair of turnovers, Beckman pulled the starter in favor of sophomore Reilly OToole.

After the game Beckman refused to be drawn into commenting about the quarterback controversy. He toed the party line, insisting that the starting position will be won over the next few days.

"We will evaluate the film and practice next week and make a decision against Penn State. We will make sure we have the one who performs best throughout the week at quarterback," Beckman said.

Likewise, the players played down any notion of a controversy at quarterback. OToole even praised his counterpart in advance.

"Scheelhaase just didnt have his burst tonight. He's close; hes getting better every day and next week, hell be great," the sophomore said.

As far as team identity goes, however, the players were not concerned that their non-conference season would define them. Likewise, the lack of clarity at the quarterback season was not going to distract the Illini from their goal of reaching a Big 10 championship.

"The only thing that affects the team is how many points we put on the board. Thats the only thing that matters at the end of the day," Scheelhaase said. "Everyones confident in what were doing at the quarterback position and we just have to go out as quarterbacks and execute."

Receiver Ryan Lankford echoed that sentiment, citing personal improvement as the key rather than consistency behind center.

"We have to do our job, we cant be worrying about who is starting. Youre one-eleventh of the team, youre just the position you play," he said.

The Illinois players indicated an eagerness to view the start of the conference season as a fresh start for the team. Each player mentioned 12112, the date of the Big 10 championship game in Indianapolis, as their primary goal and the only thing they want to focus on in the coming weeks.

Its still early, we have a lot of football left and we havent played our best yet, OToole said.

To get to their best football Lankford says the team should look to each other for support.

"Were a new team, this is a new era. We have to do things better, we have to come together. Were all weve got, so we have to band together," he said.

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

It’s World Series or bust for Cubs while carrying Aroldis Chapman’s baggage

Aroldis Chapman is the ultimate baseball mercenary for a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908. The Cubs say they are going into this with their eyes wide open, knowing the superstar closer comes with off-the-field baggage and plans to cash in as a free agent this winter.

For all the talking points about being good neighbors and family friendly, the Cubs care about money and winning, which makes them just like any other professional sports franchise.

Chapman behaved in Yankee pinstripes, handled the New York market and performed with game-over efficiency, going 20-for-21 in save chances. The Cubs wanted a lefty with a 105-mph fastball and a 15.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched career rate, making a 4-for-1 trade by rationalizing that they would rather be with Chapman in the playoffs than against him.

So the Cubs – and not the first-place Nationals or even-year Giants – had to deal with the bad optics and the lost-in-translation moments before Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Chapman did not make a good first impression while getting questions about domestic violence and the 30-game suspension Major League Baseball imposed to start this season.

But if Chapman gets the last out in October, does it even matter if he’s a good guy?

“Ugh,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Was Ty Cobb wonderful? I mean, I don’t know. All these different people that I’ve read about – something happened with (the Sox) in, what was it, 1919?

“At the end of the day, I’m here to get to know him on our terms – me and him. (And) he’s been a great teammate from everybody I’ve read or discussed (it) with.

“That’s the lenses I’m looking at it through right now.”

[RELATED: Hector Rondon says Cubs had to take chance and close Chapman deal]

Chapman joined a team that began the day with a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This is all about what Chapman can do in October and how his presence can help the Cubs survive three postseason rounds.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted that the Cardinals haven’t scored a run off Chapman since September 2011, back when Tony La Russa managed a World Series team.

“Again, he did do his suspension,” Maddon said. “He has talked about it. He’s shown remorse. And then everybody else has their right to judge him as a good or bad person.

“That’s your right. But I know there are times where I’ve been less than perfect. I think we’ve all been less than perfect in particular moments that nobody’s ever known about. 

“I want to get to know Aroldis. I think he can be a very significant member. And he’s got the potential, yes, to throw the last out of the World Series. And if he does, I promise you, I will embrace him.”

[MORE: Cubs make business decision to look beyond Chapman's domestic violence suspension]

Inside baseball’s conservative bubble, Maddon has to be the game’s most liberal manager, a hands-off, big-picture guy who lets his players run the clubhouse. The Cubs believe his positive vibes and presence will help Chapman’s transition.

“I’m probably the most non-judgmental person you’ve ever met,” Maddon said. “I don’t go in that direction. I do get upset sometimes when people jump to conclusions without knowing everything.

“(Gather) all the information for yourself and make your own opinion. Draw your own conclusion, as opposed to maybe hearing one thing and then all of a sudden jumping on a negative bandwagon.

“I want to get to know him, get to understand him, have good conversations with him. And then, maybe at that point, I could draw some conclusions. But never having been around him, it’s very hard for me to do that.”

Chapman’s Wrigley Field debut will be electric, the triple digits lighting up the huge video board. At that point, the focus should shift back onto baseball. But the equation doesn’t change in a bottom-line business. There is only one outcome that will truly make Cubs fans happy with this deal.

“They expect me to come here, do my job and try to guide us to the World Series,” Chapman said through coach/translator Henry Blanco. “Especially in this city, they haven’t won a World Series in a long time, so they want me to do everything I can to help us win.”

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

How Joe Maddon helped inspire James Shields' gem over Cubs

Joe Maddon's mere presence may have hurt the team he manages Tuesday night.

As the Cubs invaded U.S. Cellular Field for the final night on the South Side of this Crosstown series, Maddon's current team was tasked with facing one of his old friends.

James Shields pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay for seven years and the veteran right-hander took the hill for the White Sox Tuesday night, spinning a gem — 7.2 shutout innings allowing four singles and four walks.

After the game, Shields — nicknamed "Big Game James" by some — credited Maddon for his outing.

"I get amped up every game pretty much. But I always want to get amped up in front of my old manager," Shields said. "I have a lot of respect for Joe. He helped build me into who I am today. 

"I always want to go out there and show him, especially being 34 years old, that I’ve got this thing."

Maddon certainly noticed.

The Cubs manager admitted "that's what he looks like" when talking about Shields' outing.

The Cubs had pursued Shields in free agency prior to the 2015 season and came close to deal before the right-hander opted to sign with the San Diego Padres for four years and $75 million.

Part of the reason was Shields' competitiveness and desire to finish every game he starts.

"During the first part of the game, I went up to [John] Lackey and I said Shieldsy went to John Lackey Junior College at some point in his life," Maddon said. "I said I used to compare Shieldsy to you all the time back in Tampa Bay, whenever James would [refuse to come out of a game].

"So Johnny giggled about that. Very similar guys — highly competitive, believe they can beat anybody on any given day. You gotta love that about him. He's very good."

White Sox likely will place 2B Brett Lawrie on disabled list

White Sox likely will place 2B Brett Lawrie on disabled list

The White Sox will "probably" place second baseman Brett Lawrie on the disabled list before Wednesday’s Crosstown game at Wrigley Field, manager Robin Ventura said.

Lawrie initially was diagnosed with a tight left hamstring July 21 against the Detroit Tigers, causing a firestorm of speculation he had been traded when he was removed from the game. He was initially considered day-to-day after undergoing an MRI on Friday, and manager Robin Ventura said before both Monday and Tuesday’s games against the Cubs he could’ve been available in an emergency. 

But Lawrie suffered a setback sometime Tuesday, and with two games under National League rules at Wrigley Field requiring more bench pieces, Ventura didn’t want to head to Clark and Addison short-handed. 

“It just seemed like he was going backwards today, during the game, of his knee,” Ventura said. “There's no way you can go over there and play the National League rules with nobody on the bench.”

[MORE: Shields picks up bullpen as White Sox top Cubs again]

Infielder Carlos Sanchez was removed from Triple-A Charlotte’s game Tuesday night and is expected to replace Lawrie on the White Sox roster. 

Lawrie is hitting .248/.310/.413 with 12 home runs and 22 doubles over 94 games this season. 

Tyler Saladino has done well in his short stint in the starting lineup since Lawrie’s injury, going 4-15 with a walk. His walk-off single on Monday netted the White Sox their third win in what now is a four-game winning streak, the team’s first since May 6-9.