From Comcast SportsNetMILWAUKEE (AP) -- Ryan Braun skipped the Milwaukee Brewers' fan festival last January, remaining mostly quiet while he waited for a decision in his appeal of a 50-game suspension under baseball's drug policy.What a difference a year makes.The 2011 NL MVP was on hand Sunday as the Brewers held their annual winter party just weeks before the team is scheduled to report to spring training. And the focus was on Milwaukee's inexperienced rotation and carrying over last season's strong finish, not on his rocky stretch from a year ago."There's always so much optimism this time of year but I think there are more unknowns than this time last year because of the lack of experience with our starting pitchers," Braun said. "Last year, (Zack) Greinke and (Shaun) Marcum were guys with longer track records but this group is very talented. There's a lot of uncertainty but certainly a lot of talent."Well off the pace in the NL Central, the Brewers traded Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels last July. Marcum was bothered by right elbow tightness for much of the season, then signed with the New York Mets over the winter.Now Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers are part of a youthful group poised to take on a bigger role, and Chris Narveson likely will be back in the rotation if he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery that ended his 2012 season after just two starts."It's no different than when we went with our young positional players: Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks, Prince Fielder," general manager Doug Melvin said. "The reason we got Greinke and (Randy) Wolf a couple years ago was to bide time to give our younger guys the ability to develop in the big leagues. Now it's their time to do it on the big league level."Marco Estrada, there's only two guys with a better walks to strikeouts ratio in the major leagues. Michael Fiers had a better strikeouts per nine innings than a whole list of quality pitchers. I'm banking on some of their performance of last year in August and September."A year ago, the Brewers were coming off one of their most successful seasons since the franchise moved to Milwaukee. Braun and Fielder combined to lead the Brewers to the 2011 NL Central title and an appearance in the league championship series.But Fielder signed a big free-agent deal with Detroit last January and Braun was hounded by the suspension for much of last winter. He tested positive for elevated testosterone levels but arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of the slugger due to chain of custody issues involving the sample, throwing out the penalty during spring training.Braun responded with another monster season, hitting .319 with 112 RBIs and leading the NL in home runs (41), total bases (356) and OPS (.987). He finished second in NL MVP voting behind Giants star Buster Posey.The left fielder anchors a lineup that returns almost completely intact after leading the National League in home runs, RBIs, runs, stolen bases and extra-base hits -- quite the impressive feat for the first season since Fielder left. First baseman Corey Hart will miss the start of the season due to a right knee injury, but is expected to play this year."When Ryan is healthy, Ryan can have a better year than he had last year and a better year than he had the year before," manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's capable of doing that. We need to keep him on the field and keep him healthy."Braun is one of 14 members of the Brewers' organization slated for the World Baseball Classic. Pool play for the international competition begins in early March."It's a tremendous honor to represent your country," said Braun, who was born in Mission Hills, Calif., and played college ball at the University of Miami. "You don't know how many opportunities you'll get to do that -- this tournament only happens once every four years, and four years from now who knows -- for all of us -- what our health situation will be, where we'll be in the game, whether we'll even get an opportunity to be invited."For me, I think it was a no-brainer. As long as I was healthy, it was something I was definitely going to do."While the majority of Milwaukee's position players are back, the pitching staff is full of question marks. The Brewers completely rebuilt their bullpen, save for closer John Axford and setup man Jim Henderson. Veterans Mike Gonzalez, Tom Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop will fill some of the innings, with a crop of prospects expected to fill the rest along with rounding out the rotation.A couple of the young players got valuable experience last season after Milwaukee slumped to a 54-66 record on Aug. 19. The Brewers went 27-13 to finish the year.Braun thinks that experience will help in 2013."You've already seen them succeed at the highest level," he said. "It's one thing to be a prospect and have success in the minor leagues but to see Rogers and Peralta come up, Fiers, what he did all year ... to see all those guys come up and succeed at this level, it gives us as a team confidence that they can produce, succeed and thrive at this level."
It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.
That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.
That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.
This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?
Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.
Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.
The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.
Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.
The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.
The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.
Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.
"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."
Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.
The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.
"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."
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One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.
"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.
Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.
“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”