When Eli talks, the Giants listen

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When Eli talks, the Giants listen

From Comcast SportsNetEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- When Eli Manning talks, the New York Giants listen. Making a rare mid-week address, the Super Bowl MVP told his teammates Tuesday to take care of personal business early so they can focus on preparing to play the New England Patriots in the super sequel in Indianapolis on Feb. 5. In other words, use the next 48 hours to buy tickets for family and friends, book air fares and hotel rooms and show up on Thursday ready to start practicing for the title game. Manning seemingly was ready to go on Tuesday. He had little to say about the 20 or so times the 49ers hit him or knocked him down during the 20-17 overtime win in the NFC title game in San Francisco on Sunday. The 30-year-old said he had a workout and was fine when asked about his health. He was more concerned about the Giants being ready for the rematch with Tom Brady and company. "I just told them a little bit how to prepare for this," said Manning, one of 15 Giants who played in Super Bowl XLII win over New England. "Just handle your business with tickets and get that stuff done, and just a few things on the mindset of this week. We have to have great preparation. Prepare this week like you are playing the game this week." Manning said the week leading up to the Super Bowl tends to throw teams off because they have to take bus rides to practice and their routine is thrown off. He believes the Giants will have 95 percent of their game plan practiced by Saturday, and they will be reviewing things in their week in Indianapolis. "Once we get out there, everyone will feel good about what we are doing, and now it will continue as dress rehearsal," Manning said. Punter Steve Weatherford, who is finally going to the Super Bowl after losing in the AFC title game the past two seasons with the Jets, appreciated Manning's message. ""Anytime he opens his mouth, it has some substance to it," Weatherford said. "He is not a guy who is going to bark a lot. He rarely talks actually. He is a very quiet leader. It was jovial in that team meeting but as soon as Eli got up to talk everyone shut up because they knew it was something important. He is a veteran. He has been there before and he knows what it takes to win, and he is a Super Bowl MVP and people respect him." Safety Antrel Rolle, who went to the Super Bowl with Arizona and lost in 2009, said Manning's message was excellent. "He doesn't say much and when he says something, he means it," Rolle said. "It's about business and that's basically what the message was about. We've got to go out there and take care of business. Everything else is for the spectators. Everything else is for your family and for your friends. We're going out there to take care of business." Players can purchase up to 15 tickets apiece for the game and kicker Lawrence Tynes said that can cause problems, especially deciding which members and friends gets the tickets. "I let my wife be the bad cop," said Tynes, who once again kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime to get New York to the Super Bowl. He also did it against the Packers in January 2008. Protecting Manning will be a big factor against the Patriots. The Niners sacked him six times and had at least that many hard hits on him. Guard Kevin Boothe said the line could have played better, but he added that San Francisco is an outstanding defense. He added Manning never went into the huddle and told the line they had to protect better. "He's a tough guy," Boothe said. "Nobody has ever questioned his toughness. He hung in there and made the plays when we needed them." Giants defensive end Justin Tuck was impressed "He doesn't get rattled," Tuck said. "He took a few good hits. He took a lot of hits, some that were like you look and go: "Nahhhhh" I was hoping I could get one on Alex (Smith) like that. But it just showed his toughness. I know I said Eli looked like the kind of guy who rarely sees the weight room but he's a tough guy and to get up and continue to fire the football and lead our football team the way he did with number of hits he took in that game, it's makes it easy to rally behind him." It also makes it easier to listen to him. NOTES: Manning had no regrets about his comment earlier this season that he felt he was in the same class with Brady. He admitted he can't always control how the answer is played by the media. He said his only concern now is getting ready to play the game. "My job is to play the game," he said. "It's your job to talk and make up stories." ...Tynes grew up in the Florida panhandle. He calls it the "Redneck Riviera."

Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

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Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist’s hot streak has earned the veteran newcomer to the North Side a lot of attention of late.

The Cubs’ everyday second baseman is hitting .325/.431/.600 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 11 games. But he’s also showed off some of that much-advertised versatility in recent games, too, playing both second base and right field in two of the last four contests. It’s the first move off second base this season for the guy who signed with a utility-player pedigree, moving all around during his time playing for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay.

That versatility can be found all over this Cubs roster, but perhaps no player has gained more attention for it than Javier Baez, who has taken on a utility role for Maddon.

And because the youth of this Cubs team always has fans and media members looking down the road a few years, the question was posed ahead of Friday’s game against the Nationals: Is Baez the next Zobrist?

In terms of starring as a career utility player — Zobrist made his first All-Star Game in a season where he appeared at seven different positions — Maddon doesn't think so.

“He’s probably going to settle in one spot on the infield. Probably,” Maddon said. “His defense, it’s really different in a good way. Zo was a shortstop, and we took him off shortstop. And he went to the outfield/second base … which really, his abilities are conducive to that. I’m not saying that Javy can’t be that. Of course he can be. But I think you might eventually want him to just nail down a spot, I think, probably in the middle of the field somewhere because he could contribute more there normally. But for right now, I love where he is at regarding this super-utility kind of an attitude.

“Is he going to be Zobrist? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”

Baez has wowed early this season with both his glove and his bat — he’s reached base in 16 of his 43 plate appearances this season — and he’s certainly been versatile, playing at five different positions already in just 15 games.

The versatility of Baez is perfect for Maddon, who loves putting players in every possible spot on the field and in the lineup. He’s done it with Kris Bryant, swapping the All Star between third base and the outfield, and Kyle Schwarber, who was set to play outfield and catch on a fairly regular basis prior to his season-ending injury on the season-opening road trip.

And in addition to being a puzzle piece that fits in numerous spots, Baez and his prowess with both his glove and his bat make it so Maddon can give some rest to another young infielder in Addison Russell without much of a drop in production.

“That’s a beautiful thing, and I think we’ve been able to do that all over the field with different guys when we give guys rest,” Maddon said. “Our guys that are in waiting are really good. So I feel good about that. It’s wonderful to be able to keep Addison strong mentally and physically during the course of the year, like you’re not losing anything by putting the other guy at shortstop. All this stuff … this is something that Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) had set up before I’d gotten here.”

The most glowing praise Maddon gave Baez on Friday had to do with his maturity and how the 23-year-old has changed in just his third season in the big leagues.

“He just really has accelerated maturity-wise,” Maddon said. “The maturation of his game and his outlook on the day is really staggeringly different than it was last year, and I’m not putting him down, he’s just really grown up quickly. To his credit. We’ve done a lot of talking with him, done a lot of explaining with him. He smiles easily right now, and he gets his role on a daily basis and how important it is to us. Give him all the credit in the world.”

Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."