Tennessee RB Chris Johnson: Monster or myth?

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Tennessee RB Chris Johnson: Monster or myth?

The mantra of the Chicago Bears defense is to take away an opponents run game and make that team one-dimensional, then loose the pass rush.

The stop-run concept is sound. The Bears have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 18 straight games, not since Jahvid Bests 163 in the first Detroit game last season.

Whether that is a good approach to the Tennessee Titans, however, is a matter of opinion. It may be in their best interests to just let former All-Pro Chris Johnson run.

The Bears completely throttled Johnson the last time the two teams met (2008), allowing him just eight yards in 14 carries. The Bears lost that game 21-14 because they couldnt control journeyman QB Kerry Collins.

Making nice-nice

The Bears are paying the standard game-week compliments.

Chris Johnson is a homerun hitter, said linebacker Lance Briggs.

So is Adam Dunn for the White Sox and he strikes out a lot. A lot.

Johnson may well run amok. He has in his career, with an NFL-record four touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer. Not Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson nor anyone else has done that more than three times.

He exploded on the NFL with 2,006 yards in 2009, his second season. But the Titans were an 8-8 team that year and have only had one winning season (2011, 9-7) since Johnsons rookie season.

And the Bears are the NFLs best rushing defense at 77.9 yards per game.

Big stats vs. bad teams

But Johnson has been less than impressive over the past three years against good teams. Of his last 12 games rushing for 100 yards, only two have come against teams with winning records.

Johnson had four 100-yard games in 2011, against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Cleveland, teams with a combined record of 20-44. None of the four ranked higher than 25th against the run. His peak was 190 against the Buccaneers 32nd-ranked run defense.

This year, Johnson ran for 141 yards against the Houston Texans; the Titans were blown out by 24. He ran for 195 yards against Buffalo. The Titans needed a Matt Hasselbeck TD pass with 1 minute to play for a 35-34 escape from a team that is the NFLs worst against the run and close to firing defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.

The Titans lavished a four-year contract extension worth as much as 53.5 million prior to last season. They have not gotten their moneys worth, although Johnson helped set the market in which Matt Forte was working this year when he got his new deal done.

But while Hasselbeck has done damage to the Bears, Johnson is the declared source of most concern.

Hes lightning. He can hit a hole with a great deal of quickness, but its his ability to cut back and break outside, said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. I mean, hes something.

Just what exactly isnt always or entirely clear.

Phillies swept out of Wrigley with Cubs youth movement that includes Ben Zobrist

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Phillies swept out of Wrigley with Cubs youth movement that includes Ben Zobrist

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing here as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues as well as anyone after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

Zobrist launched a three-run homer off Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

That third-inning shot flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick and you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“I’m just glad he’s on my side now,” said Jon Lester, who regularly faced Zobrist while pitching for the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. “When you have guys that can not only hit for power, but can extend at-bats, it makes it very difficult.

“This guy doesn’t strike out a lot. He walks a ton. It seems like he’s always putting the ball in play. (We) have a guy that can switch-hit and do (all those things) in different parts of the order. 

“It just makes our lineup that much longer. It makes the pitcher work even harder.” 

Zobrist probably won’t win the National League batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base around 45 percent of the time. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

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John Lackey has been exactly what Cubs needed

Admit it, Cubs fans, part of you didn’t like the John Lackey deal, not after watching him pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and hearing about his reputation with the Boston Red Sox. 

Or at least Cubs Twitter didn’t automatically hail this as another genius move for Theo Epstein’s front office when Lackey’s two-year, $32 million agreement leaked before the winter meetings even started at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. 

But Lackey has been exactly what the Cubs needed, a snarling personality on the mound and a stabilizing presence in the middle of their rotation. Plus that big-game experience should come in handy for a team that will wake up on Memorial Day with the best record in baseball (34-14). 

Lackey shut down the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field, throwing seven innings in a 7-2 victory that completed a three-game sweep of a big-market team in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild. 

There really wasn’t much suspense for the holiday-weekend crowd of 41,575. Lackey (5-2, 3.16 ERA) had a seven-run lead with two outs in the seventh inning when he gave up his first and only run – a homer to Tyler Goeddel – and that now makes him 8-for-10 in quality starts in a Cubs uniform. 

Just look at how much the Cardinals have missed Lackey’s ability to eat up innings, beginning Sunday with a 4.48 rotation ERA that ranked 11th out of the National League’s 15 teams and now falling 9.5 games behind the Cubs in the division. 

White Sox bullpen falters again as Royals complete sweep

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White Sox bullpen falters again as Royals complete sweep

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Welcome to Kansas City, where all the impossibly bad things that could happen to the White Sox seem to materialize.

The White Sox bullpen coughed up a lead for a third consecutive game on Sunday afternoon and a miserable losing streak reached six games with a 5-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals in front of 36,624 at Kauffman Stadium.

Chris Sale was in line for his 10th win in 11 tries until the Royals rallied for three eighth-inning runs against Nate Jones and Matt Albers.

Instead of achieving what would have been a defining sweep of Kansas City, the White Sox were swept and head to New York with no answers on how to rediscover the winning ways that led them to victories in 23 of their first 33 games. The bullpen allowed 14 runs during the three-game sweep.

Just as they had on the previous two days, Kansas City’s bats woke up late Sunday.

After scoring six times in their final three at-bats on Friday and an improbable seven more in a ninth-inning rally on Saturday, they immediately put pressure on Jones, who allowed a run Friday.

Trailing by two, Lorenzo Cain brought the crowd to life with an opposite-field solo homer on a 3-2 pitch from Jones, a booming shot to make it 4-3. Eric Hosmer then scooted a 2-2 slider down the left-field line for a double. Jones walked Kendrys Morales and Paulo Orlando singled to load the bases. Brett Eibner walked to force in the tying run and Cheslor Cuthbert’s infield single off Albers put the Royals ahead.

Another stunning failure by the bullpen snuffed out a stopper-esque start by Chris Sale, who had the White Sox in position to end their streak.

Sale’s defense did its part to help out early.

What could have been a disastrous first inning ended with a spectacular double play by Austin Jackson. Jackson — who later exited the game with an undisclosed injury — raced back to make an over-the-head grab to rob Morales and then fired a strike to Tyler Saladino, whose perfect relay throw to first doubled off Hosmer. Earlier in the inning, Saladino ranged far to his left and fired to first to retire Alcides Escobar.

Melky Cabrera also turned in a gem in the second inning, throwing out Eibner as he tried to stretch a single into a double. Finally, Adam Eaton made his glove’s presence felt with a sliding grab to rob Whit Merrifield to end the third.

Those contributions helped Sale navigate some difficult waters against a team that has challenged him the past few seasons. Despite a 2.84 career ERA, Sale entered the start with a 7-9 mark against the Royals. He certainly looked as if he were headed for a 10th defeat in the first inning when Merrifield singled and the Royals capitalized on a dropped pop up by Jose Abreu as he slammed into the dugout railing. With new life, Cain ripped the next Sale pitch to deep center for an RBI double and he scored on Hosmer’s RBI single to make it 2-0.

The team’s most consistent force all season, Sale pitched out of big jams in the fourth and seventh innings, the latter coming with him at the 115-pitch mark.

Whereas some of his rotation mates have struggled, the lineup has experienced slumbers and the bullpen has had issues for the past three weeks, Sale has continued to deliver consistency in all but one start.

Sale allowed two earned runs and seven hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in seven innings. He threw strikes on 80 of 118 pitches.

Though the White Sox offense didn’t get a ton of early results, they made Edinson Volquez work.

The Sox pushed through for a second-inning run on three straight singles by Abreu, Brett Lawrie and Dioner Navarro.

Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Avisail Garcia sparked a go-ahead rally with a one-out walk. Saladino doubled to put two in scoring position. Eaton tied it with an RBI groundout and Jackson’s two-out single put the White Sox up by a run. Jackson’s seventh-inning, bases-loaded sac fly gave Sale and the White Sox breathing room as he made it 4-2. Had it not been for a spectacular diving grab by Orlando, Jackson may have had extra bases.