Taft revives memories of the past


Taft revives memories of the past

Kevin Siudut wasn't around at the time, of course. But Taft coach Brett Nishibayashi constantly reminds his players of the good old days, when Taft dominated the Chicago Public League's Red-North, when coach Frank Hood's teams won 21 or more games for six years in a row, when Kenny Pratt was one of the best players in the state, when Pratt and Enoch Davis and the 1992 team went 28-2 and reached the Final Four in the city playoff.

"When you look at the trophies in the case by the gym, you see what Taft used to be," said Siudut, a 6-foot-6 senior. "You see that and you think we should be doing it, too. We know Taft used to have a history where it owned the Red-North and went deep into the city playoff. We want to add to that.

"We see this season as a special opportunity. We want to make this season our own. The coach gives us quotes to us in the morning and gets our minds in the right place for practice and games. He always talks to us about what Taft used to be, about Kenny Pratt."

Siudut has a scrapbook full of his coach's quotes, about 90 of them according to his latest count. Each morning, he hands a quote to each player. If someone fails to pick up his quote, it means an extra suicide drill in practice.

"Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard," is one of Siudut's favorite quotes.

He knows what hard work is all about, on the basketball floor and in the classroom. He is an International Baccalaureate student. He has an excessive workload of challenging curriculum, beyond the Advance Placement level. He has a 3.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 31 on his ACT. He is interested in several Division III schools and wants to study business or accounting or financing.

"I'm a math guy. That's my thing," he said. "The IB program is a very rigorous program that gets you ready for college. It involved a lot of projects. But I also want to play basketball in college."

Siudut got bit by the basketball bug while watching Michael Jordan in his last years in the NBA. "He gave me a love for basketball. I started to play in the Biddy League, as much as I could," he said.

"I also played football, soccer and baseball when I was growing up. But I always knew basketball was my favorite sport. In basketball, anything can happen. A team that isn't supposed to win can win."

But academics always have been important, too.

"I always felt I was smart, that if I focused in school I had a lot of potential to learn," Siudut said. "The IB program kicked me in the butt, but it taught me a lot. It was tough in the beginning to adjust because it was so tough, especially with three hours of basketball practice, then three hours of homework. Now I realize how good it was for me."

Basketball has been fun, too, bouncing back from last year's 14-16 finish. Taft is 16-7 after starting 0-4. The Eagles have lost only three times since Thanksgiving and have won their first Red-North title since going to the Elite Eight of the city playoff in 2001. Awarded the No. 3 seed in the Public League tournament, they will face Jones on Wednesday in the opening round.

"We find a way to win," Nishibayashi said. "When Taft became a neighborhood school, the demographics changed. We used to get kids from the west, more athletes. Now the athletes go to Loyola, Notre Dame, St. Patrick, Lane Tech or Whitney Young. They have a lot of options. We have become the last resort in a lot of respects.

"All I am doing is being honest. When I talk to parents, I'm upfront with them. If you want to be a part of something, rebuilding a program that once was competitive in the city, I tell them, come to Taft. We are changing the culture. Kids have bought into my program. I don't want us to be a good team. I want us to be a good program.

"We were close to getting over the hump the last couple of years. But we have to learn how to win games. It is getting contagious. Now the kids believe they are supposed to win these games. I'm a big believer in hard work. All the coaches I've played for were big on working hard. If you work hard, you will get the results that you desire."

Nishibayashi, 33, a Taft graduate of 1997, played for Frank Hood. He was a 5-foot-5 guard who understood that he lacked physical tools so he had to be cerebral to be effective. He also worked for Bosko Djurkovic at Carthage College. Now he works for his father, Nick Nishibayashi, the athletic director at Taft who coached the basketball program for eight years.

"I played and worked for people who influenced me and propelled me into coaching," said Nishibayashi, who is in his fourth season after succeeding his father.

"This isn't perfect but it is very persistent. The kids believe they can win and compete. They are all blue-collar kids. Character is a big part of why we are winning. These kids feel like they are supposed to win. They play hard, play smart and play together. They believe if you play the game in the right way, you'll win more times that you don't."

Siudut, who averages eight points and eight rebounds per game, is part of the success story. Other starters are 6-foot-5 sophomore John Joyce (15 ppg), whom the coach targets as the team's only potential Division I prospect, 6-foot-5 senior Tim Reamer (16 ppg), 6-foot-2 junior guard Josh Doss (11 ppg) and 5-foot-5 senior point guard Taylor Kuehn (2 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Pozzi (3 ppg), a foreign
exchange student from Italy.

"This team is the first time in a while that all the kids work hard on both ends of the court," Siudut said. "We have a lot of fun. Winning is a lot of fun for us. We're a very close group of guys. We play for each other and have each other's back at all times. Playing for a team like this makes you want to hustle and dive for loose balls and stop the fast break. You know there are four other guys on the court and you want to do it for them."

He sensed this would be a special team since the end of last season, when Taft lost to a good Notre Dame squad without one starter. "It sent a message. We took a lot of momentum from last year. We had a good summer in a couple of leagues against quality teams like Oak Park," he said.

"Once the school year started, I knew it would be a special year because everyone was working hard. We even started conditioning a month before the season began."

"We don't shy away from good competition," Nishibayashi said. "Three of our first five games were against Zion-Benton, Notre Dame and Evanston. I wanted to change the culture with this group, make them understand what Taft used to be, that it wasn't a doormat, that it used to own the Red-North in the 1990s.

"Taft always won when I was growing up. I watched Kenny Pratt. He was as good a player as there was in the city. His All-America stuff is in the trophy case with the team picture of the Final Four team in 1992. We want to get back to the way it was."

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

In Game 1, Jon Lester doesn't quite live up to his World Series reputation: 'We got a long ways to go'

CLEVELAND – While the Cubs came into this World Series as the heavy favorites, the team with the global following and baseball’s best roster on paper, Jon Lester understood the challenge ahead. The Cleveland Indians would counter with their own Game 1 ace, a dynamic reliever changing the way we think about bullpens and a future Hall of Fame manager.

That’s how it played out in a 6-0 game that felt a lot closer, Corey Kluber pitching like a Cy Young Award winner, Andrew Miller handling the seventh and eighth innings and Terry Francona improving his record to 9-0 in World Series games.     

Welcome to “Believeland,” where the Fourth Street bars on Tuesday were buzzing more than seven hours before first pitch. That night, LeBron James and the Cavaliers would get their championship rings and watch the banner-raising ceremony at Quicken Loans Arena, just up the street from Progressive Field.

By the first inning – when pitching coach Chris Bosio had to walk out to the mound to talk to Lester – the red video ribbons lining the stadium said: “CLEVELAND AGAINST THE WORLD.” With the bases loaded, Lester had just drilled Brandon Guyer with a pitch, forcing in a second run, a sequence set in motion by walks to Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez’s soft infield single up the third-base line.

It didn’t matter that Lester would eventually settle down and pretty much control this Cleveland lineup. (Except for that rocket Roberto Perez launched off the left-field railing for a solo homer and a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning.) Or that the Indians didn’t run all over the bases, with Francisco Lindor going 1-for-2 in stolen bases. (“Whatever, it’s happened all year," Lester said.)

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This is Cleveland’s blueprint for October, maybe its only chance to win its first World Series since 1948.

“It’s always important (to get a lead), no matter what time of year it is,” Lester said. “It makes a manager’s job a lot easier. It makes your job a lot easier. When you give a guy like Kluber – who’s locked in from pitch one – two runs in the first, it makes his job a lot easier. I know the feeling on the other side. You’re just able to attack differently.

“With the bullpens and all that stuff that they’re setting up nowadays, all you got to do is get through six.”

Lester kept it a 3-0 game, but didn’t finish the sixth inning, a rare October night where he didn’t seem to be automatic. Until Tuesday night, he had gone 3-0 in three World Series starts, allowing only one earned run in 21 innings.

Lester won his two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, overlapping with Francona and Miller at different points. This is why the Cubs gave Lester a $155 million contract, to set the tone on the mound and within the clubhouse.

Near the end of a 103-win regular season – and even after winning the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years – Lester has offered colorful versions of: We haven’t done anything yet.

But Lester – the National League Championship Series co-MVP after putting up a 1.38 ERA against the Los Angeles Dodgers and watching the Cubs win both of those starts – also doesn’t do overreactions to losses.

“We got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “If we win tomorrow, we’re right back in it. Just like LA – everybody counted us out after Game 3. They said we were the worst best team in baseball. We’re here. We’re not giving up.

“I know my guys. I know my team. And I know that nobody in this clubhouse is giving anything up.”

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

Andrew Miller's outstanding postseason continues with escape to beat Cubs

CLEVELAND — Andrew Miller added another impressive chapter to an already legendary postseason performance on Tuesday night.

The Cleveland Indians reliever pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the seventh inning to preserve a three-run lead and help his team achieve a 6-0 victory over the Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series in front of 38,091 at Progressive Field.

Despite putting four men on base, Miller added two more scoreless innings to his 2016 playoff résumé. Miller also struck out more three batters, giving him 24 in 13 2/3 innings this postseason, the second most by any reliever in playoff history. Critical to the effort was the strikeout of Cubs veteran David Ross with a checked swing on a 3-2 slider to strand the bases loaded in the seventh.

“You’re just trying to see the ball as long as you can and stay up the middle,” Ross said. “The 3-1, that’s the one that kinda messed me up. It didn’t break as much, so now you’re like ‘OK, let’s protect and just battle.’ ... Looking back at it, I wish I just stood there and not swung at all. If I could rewind. If it were that easy. I wish it was. And then he’d throw one right down the middle and America hates me.”

Ross has had his share of success against Miller before, though it all came when the left-hander was still a struggling starting pitcher. The veteran catcher is 3-for-5 with a walk against Miller in his career. But that wasn’t the reason Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to stay with Ross instead of pinch hit for him with either Jorge Soler or Albert Almora Jr. with two outs in the seventh inning and Miller struggling for the first time all postseason.

With a man on and nobody out, Miller took over for Corey Kluber and walked Kyle Schwarber — only Miller’s third free pass of the postseason. Javy Baez followed with a single to load the bases.

But Miller rebounded quickly and retired Willson Contreras on a fly out to shallow center before he struck out Addison Russell. Based on his experience, Maddon thought Ross was the right man for the spot.

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“I thought David could hit him or David would accept his walk more than the other guys,” Maddon said. “David works good at-bats in that moment. So I felt good about him, actually. I felt better about him.

“I think with Soler coming off the bench or Albert they had less of a chance than David because I thought there was a two-fold opportunity to either get the hit or draw the walk.”

Ross worked the count to his favor quickly as he took a fastball for a ball, and after swinging and missing a slider, took two more balls to get ahead 3-1. But Miller dropped a slider in for a called strike and then turned to it once again, getting Ross to commit just enough for the third strike. The strikeout improved the Indians’ chances of winning by 26.5 percent, up to 94.7, according to fangraphs.com.

“I was trying to throw a really good one because if he hits it, it goes a long way,” Miller said. “That’s David Ross. I think even he would say, you can pitch to him, but if you throw something in his wheelhouse it’s going to go a long way and do some damage. Fortunate that it worked out. I threw a good one that was in a spot that he went after in the situation.”

Miller struggled again in the eighth inning as he walked Kris Bryant and allowed a Ben Zobrist single with two outs. But Miller — who allowed two hits and two walks for the first time all season in 77 appearances — struck out Kyle Schwarber to strand the pair.

The Indians’ key acquisition before the July 31 trade deadline threw 46 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since Sept. 8, 2011, when he was still a starter.

Indians manager Terry Francona wouldn’t commit to whether or not he’d use Miller in Game 2 on Wednesday. Francona cited how Miller bounced back after throwing 40 pitches in a Game 1 victory over Boston in the American League Division Series and would have been ready if needed. But any number of factors could keep Miller from pitching, and Francona is happy to have a 1-0 series lead in his pocket.

“I don’t know,” Francona said. “He was ready to come back and pitch the next night. I just think there’s a lot that can happen.

“But we won tonight. I think when you have a lead, you try to win.”