Underrated Hinrich continues to quietly impress

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Underrated Hinrich continues to quietly impress

When Kirk Hinrich rejoined the Bulls over the summer, it was a fact that he'd be expected to replace Derrick Rose as the team's starting point guard. But who knew that the veteran would also make up for the loss of Omer Asik as a shot-blocking force?

Obviously, that's a bit of stretch, but Hinrich's impact on the defensive end--he's blocked five shots in four preseason contests, impressive numbers for a 6-foot-3 guard, to go along with 1.5 steals per outing--and steadiness on offense has already earned significant praise from his new coach and teammates.

"Setting the tone for us, both offensively and defensively. Keeping us organized, recognizing what's going well, who's going well, what the defense is doing. Anytime you get the defense to overcommit in one area, to take something away, there's going to be something open on the back side. He has a good ability to read that and defensively, terrific," gushed Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "Terrific. Multiple effort, hard on the ball and he sets the tone for your defense."

Chimed in Carlos Boozer: "I love playing with him. He has a great, great sense of the game, man. Great flow, great feel, does a great job of making plays for all of us. Great defender, he has phenomenal hands."

Backup point guard Nate Robinson has already made strides as a floor general in the exhibition slate, but Hinrich is proving to be indispensable and could be on the way to joining former and current teammate Luol Deng as member of Thibodeau's exclusive club for players who don't get much rest during games. Coupled with the fact that the backup shooting guard spot is up for grabs and it's easy to envision the versatile Hinrich playing alongside Robinson in certain situations.

But Hinrich's value as a playmaker, after years of playing off the ball--first, upon Rose's arrival in Chicago; then after being traded to Washington, which had then-rookie John Wall; and finally, in Atlanta, where All-Star swingman Joe Johnson often dominated the ball and the Hawks were grooming Jeff Teague, older brother of Bulls rookie Marquis, as the team's future point guard--has been overlooked. Not quite as proficient an outside shooter as many believe him to be--though more athletic, as witnessed by his defensive presence and forays to the rim--Hinrich's floor generalship, beyond his 6.5 assists a night in the preseason, has been more impressive in light of all the new faces he's playing with.

Though he was familiar with Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, who was only a rookie when they were paired up, as well as fellow free-agent signee Vladimir Radmanovic, who was with him in Atlanta, Hinrich has had to adjust to the preferences of new backcourt partner Rip Hamilton, a former Central Division rival in a past life, and Carlos Boozer, a fellow All-American in the high school class of 1999. Thus far, not only has he been a good fit with his new teammates, but it's clear that he and Thibodeau are cut from a similar cloth.

"From knowing them over the years, my main focus is just trying to run the team and I'm improving at that. That's it, that's my focus. I'm not really worried about anything else, except running the team and playing solid," Hinrich told CSNChicago.com. "I've got great teammates, they're fun to play with.

"I'm really enjoying it right now. For whatever reason, some places, you fit. I thought I fit in really well in Washington with the system; we just weren't very good. It's just one of those things," he continued. "I thought it was a good fit for me and that was a big reason I decided to come here."

Still, Hinrich isn't satisfied with the early returns, for himself or the team as a whole. As the preseason winds down, he expects the Bulls to ramp up their play.

"We've got a couple more preseason games to try to tighten some things up and get ready," he explained. "We've just got to keep trying to tighten everything up so we're ready when it goes up for real.

"Not playing in spurts, more consistent on both ends," added Hinrich. "It seems like in some of these preseason games, we've kind of taken our foot of the gas in the second half and we just can't do that."

David Rundblad, Blackhawks mutually part ways

David Rundblad, Blackhawks mutually part ways

The Blackhawks and David Rundblad have mutually agreed to terminate the defenseman’s contract, as generalfanager.com reported on Monday night.

With the contract terminated, the Blackhawks will not carry any type of Rundblad-related cap hit. If the Blackhawks had bought out Rundblad, they would have carried a $133,333 cap hit this season and a $183,333 the next season.

Per generalfanager.com, the Blackhawks now have approximately $2.3 million in cap space.

Rundblad was placed on waivers on July 1. The defenseman spent part of the 2015-16 season playing in Switzerland. He returned to the Blackhawks last spring and played in three of the team’s seven playoff games against the St. Louis Blues.

But Rundblad could never find a consistent place in the Blackhawks’ lineup. General manager Stan Bowman talked in July of Rundblad wanting a fresh start.

“He’s still a young guy, wants to get back to playing a lot of hockey and that’s why he wanted to go to Europe mid-season. We were willing to honor that request. We’ll let him find a spot where he knows he’ll be a regular player every day,” Bowman said in July. “He has a bright future. We wish him well. But it’s hard as a guy trying to establish yourself in the NHL if you don’t play a lot of minutes. But I think we’ll see David back in the NHL in a few years. I think he wants to find a better fit where he’ll play a lot.”

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

White Sox bullpen taking pride in slogging through heavy, high-stress workload

It might be figuratively held together with chicken wire and duct tape at this point, and it hasn’t been entirely effective recently. But the White Sox bullpen can’t be criticized for a lack of effort. 

Over the last four days, White Sox relievers have had to throw 19 1/3 innings. To recap: Starter Jacob Turner only lasted 3 1/3 innings Friday against the Detroit Tigers, then Chris Sale was scratched from his start Saturday after blowing up over the team’s uniforms and earning a five-game suspension. The White Sox bullpen shouldered Johnny Wholestaff duties and threw eight innings on Saturday — right-hander Matt Albers started and pitched two of those innings despite throwing an inning in the team’s last two games — in lieu of the team’s All-Star ace. 

David Robertson, who pitched a third of an inning in relief Saturday, pitched twice on Sunday (he allowed three solo home runs to the Tigers to blow the save in his second game). Nate Jones appeared in the first three games of the Tigers series, too, totaling 2 1/3 innings. 

On Monday, both Jones and Robertson were given a much-needed rest day. So Zach Duke, Albers and Dan Jennings were called upon by manager Robin Ventura to cover seven outs against the powerful Cubs lineup. Albers blew the save, but Jennings’ strikeout of Jason Heyward with the go-ahead run on second set up Tyler Saladino’s walk-off single to net the White Sox a 5-4 win. 

“We’ve picked up a lot of innings lately,” Robertson said. “Everybody’s just giving it everything they got right now. It’s obviously, we would’ve loved to have nothing but zeros go up, but that’s not the way baseball works. We’re facing a lot of good lineups. And we’ve just hung tough and tried to at least give us a chance to win. Thankfully, we’ve been very fortunate to walk off these last three games.” 

It’s not just the volume of innings that’s taxing the bullpen, though. With three consecutive walk-off wins — the first time the White Sox have done that since Aug. 4-6, 1962 — have come plenty of high-stress pitches. Over the last week, the White Sox bullpen has the highest average leverage index in baseball, and that’s with this group shouldering the generally low-leverage early innings of Saturday’s game in place of Sale. 

“The more we work, the more proud we are of what we do,” Jennings said. 

Still, this group could probably use a breather. Without an off day until Aug. 1, though, the only way to get one is to be ruled out for a game, as Robertson and Jones were on Monday. 

“Hopefully we can rotate, I know there’s some other guys that I know might need a day so maybe hopefully Nate and Robertson are really fresh tomorrow and we can build off that,” Jennings said. “(Or) maybe we can get that eight, nine, 10-run win where we can kind of sit back and relax a little bit, hopefully.”

Manager Robin Ventura said he went with seniority in choosing who to cover Jones and Robertson’s innings Monday, which helps explain why he didn’t use 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer against the Cubs. Fulmer’s recent control issues — he only threw 12 of 30 pitches for strikes in blowing a lead against the Tigers on Friday — could’ve played a factor, too. 

“You’re trusting the guys who have been here,” Ventura said. “You’ve got some new faces that are out there, it would’ve been asking a lot to bring them in and put them in that.”

White Sox relievers have squandered leads in each of the team’s last four games, though: Fulmer on Friday, Jones on Saturday, Robertson on Sunday and Albers/Jennings on Monday. In addition to a short outing from Turner and no outing from Sale, the White Sox are missing right-handers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam from a group that looked to be fairly deep earlier in the season. 

The White Sox relief corps could certainly use a day off or at the least, as Jennings said, a blowout win where some of those young arms — Fulmer, Michael Ynoa and Tommy Kahnle — could polish off some low-pressure innings. But those easy wins have been few and far between this season: The White Sox only have three wins by more than three runs since May 14. 

So if that trend continues, this group is going to have to continue to cover plenty of high-stress innings without a break, at least for the next week. 

“Obviously the bullpen the last few days had to pick up the team, and we take pride in that,” Albers said. “Especially Nate and D-Rob were down today, shoot, they’ve been pitching every day too. Everybody else started to try to pick them up. That’s what we’re here for.” 

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.