Heat embrace villain role as playoffs continue

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Heat embrace villain role as playoffs continue

If anyone saw the events of Tuesday night coming, in which the Heat again embraced the villain's role in their second-round series with the Pacers, it was the Bulls. In their final regular-season trip to Miami, the Heat was the aggressor and perhaps went over the line in a string of incidents, including reserve James Jones' flagrant foul on Joakim Noah and subsequent ejection, All-Star guard Dwyane Wade's virtual tackle on longtime rival Rip Hamilton and league MVP LeBron James' unnecessarily hard screen on the diminutive John Lucas III.

While Miami's chippiness appeared to catch the Bulls somewhat unaware, the Pacers established themselves as a physical team in last spring's first-round series, which is why situations like backup big man Lou Amundson's unintentional elbow to Heat counterpart Udonis Haslem in Sunday's Game 4 and Tyler Hansbrough's flagrant foul on Wade in Tuesday's game weren't unexpected. Nor was Haslem's retaliatory flagrant on Hansbrough, although the onus should be on the game officials for not upgrading the call after review and possibly ejecting Haslem.

However, with upwards of a 30-point lead, only deep reserves on the court, the game in hand and the Pacers looking thoroughly defeated in the game's waning moments--recently-named NBA Executive of the Year Larry Bird called his team "soft," but more than an identity crisis, Indiana should be worried about the health status of starting forwards Danny Granger and David West for Thursday's Game 6--massive center Dexter Pittman leveled Pacers guard Lance Stephenson in the throat with a flying forearm. Now, Stephenson being the target is no surprise after he was caught on camera giving the choke sign during Indiana's Game 3 win, but Heat veteran Juwan Howard already confronted Stephenson before Game 4 and to make matters worse, Pittman was caught winking on camera after the dirty deed, which led to post-game concussion tests for Stephenson and could ultimately result in a broken collarbone.

Miami, still without All-Star forward Chris Bosh, looks primed to advance to the conference finals now that Wade has rediscovered his game and James has taken his own to another level. There, they're likely to face an experienced, yet banged-up Boston squad--future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, not to mention defensive stopper Avery Bradley, are dealing with injury concerns--which has the chance to close out pesky Philadelphia in a Game 6 matchup Wednesday, setting up a series between two teams with a chip on their respective shoulders that shouldn't lack for physical play and verbal confrontations.

Meanwhile, the West is comparably tame after the Spurs swept Vinny Del Negro's Clippers and the Thunder dispatched the tumultuous Lakers in a relatively easy five games, giving both teams plenty of time to rest and prepare for what should be a tremendous conference finals. With all of the flaws in the remaining East teams, the two Western Conference juggernauts appear to be head and shoulders above their potential NBA Finals competition, though in the postseason, nothing is set in stone.

They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

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They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs didn’t need any mimes, magicians or mariachi bands in the clubhouse. Joe Maddon didn’t have to reach into his bag of tricks to deflect attention away from his team’s offensive struggles or deflate whatever pressure his young hitters might have been feeling.

The Cubs showed why they have the best record in baseball and status as World Series favorites, jumping Michael Wacha for six runs in the first inning of a 12-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

If Maddon didn’t call this shot, the manager certainly alluded to it during his pregame media session when asked which hitter he thinks opponents focus on or worry about the most.

"It’s hard to name one guy," Maddon said. "I’m sure they’re concerned about (Jorge) Soler hitting .190-something, just knowing that at any moment he could just break out. If I were to look at our lineup, I’d be uncomfortable all the way down (with) the way David Ross is hitting right now. There’s no comfortable break in our lineup.

"It’s a definite American League East lineup from back in the day."

That’s the entire point for this franchise, how Theo Epstein’s front office kept betting on hitters in the draft, trades and free agency, trying to build a bigger, better version of those Boston Red Sox teams that bludgeoned opponents.

Within that first-inning ambush, Soler drew a bases-loaded walk that forced in a run, Ross drove a ball that soared over Randal Grichuk’s head and deflected off the center fielder’s outstretched glove for a two-out, two-run double. Pitcher Jason Hammel followed that up by drilling another two-run double to center.

Soler knocked out Wacha — a pitcher the Cubs beat in the playoffs last year — in the fifth inning with a two-run homer that had 100-mph exit velocity and sailed over the center-field fence.

Handed a six-run lead within 15 minutes of first pitch, before he ever stepped onto the mound, Hammel pitched into the eighth inning and allowed only one run, continuing another All-Star level first half (6-1, 2.17 ERA).

The Cubs (30-14) ended a three-game losing streak — the first one this season — and changed the subject with fans on Twitter and for the media wondering what happened to this team.

Up next for the Cardinals (24-22) on Wednesday afternoon is Jake Arrieta, a reigning Cy Young Award winner who’s 24-1 with a 0.99 ERA in his last 29 regular-season starts. No one needs to tell the Cubs to R-E-L-A-X.

"We’ve gone through a tough time recently," Maddon said. "Believe me, man, it happens to everybody. It doesn’t concern me. I’m not distraught over it. It’s just a part of our game. But I like our names. I like our lineup a lot. Our boys will put up some huge numbers by the end of the season."

White Sox bullpen in as 'good' a position as possible

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White Sox bullpen in as 'good' a position as possible

They merely hoped to survive the doubleheader, but members of the White Sox bullpen feel as if they’re well positioned for success.

The combined efforts of Mat Latos and Erik Johnson limited the number of outs covered by the White Sox bullpen to 16 in Monday’s doubleheader. Latos and Johnson completed 12.2 of the 18 innings played, which meant no White Sox relievers appeared in both games. Of the five relievers to pitch, Matt Purke’s 2.1 innings was the longest stint. Given they have eight relievers on hand, the White Sox like where they’re at as the pass the midpoint in a stretch with 17 games in 16 days.

“That’s about as good as you can do,” closer David Robertson said. “If we’d have had two wins it would have been a lot better. But it was a good job by the staff altogether, the starters and relievers. The defense played really well, saved us a lot of runs. It was a long day yesterday.”

White Sox manager Robin Ventura only used Purke in the nightcap. In the opener, he turned to Zach Duke, Matt Albers, Nate Jones and Robertson, a group that ultimately closed out a 7-6 victory.

Duke, who pitched in parts of two innings, said he had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t be used in the second game and the same likely went for Albers.

“They kind of give us an idea what the plan is going to be that way we’re not going to be caught off guard by anything,” Duke said. “But like I say, when the phone rings you find a way to get the job done.”

The White Sox added Tommy Kahnle to the roster before Monday’s doubleheader and kept him in the majors afterward, opting to send Erik Johnson back to Triple-A Charlotte. The White Sox still have eight more consecutive games to play after Tuesday’s contest against the Cleveland Indians before a day off next Thursday. Given they’re set to play the New York Mets in interleague, they may stick with the eight-man bullpen for now.

“We wanted to make sure we were covered down there,” Ventura said. “You never know how that’s going to go.”

'The butterfly effect' from Jason Heyward's return to Cubs lineup

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'The butterfly effect' from Jason Heyward's return to Cubs lineup

ST. LOUIS — Jason Heyward owns three Gold Gloves, gets on base 35 percent of the time and allows Cubs manager Joe Maddon to hit Ben Zobrist behind Anthony Rizzo. Even if the offensive numbers never match the external expectations for a $184 million player, Heyward’s presence matters.

"That’s the butterfly effect," Maddon said Tuesday at Busch Stadium, where Heyward returned to the lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals. "When they flutter their wings, something else occurs that’s not noticeable to the naked eye.

"It happens in Russia. It happens in '11/22/63.' So there are all these different moments that occur that we don’t really recognize because we only see the obvious."

Heyward’s absence didn’t fully explain a three-game losing streak or the offensive regression, and it might not have changed a 1-0 loss to San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner on "Sunday Night Baseball."

But after watching Friday’s jaw-dropping catch and headfirst crash into the AT&T Park wall, general manager Jed Hoyer admitted it felt like the Cubs dodged a bullet. Heyward somehow walked away with only a bruised right side at a time when the Cubs couldn’t afford to lose another corner outfielder.

"He’s not hitting .300, so obviously people think that he’s not playing well, which is so far from the truth," Maddon said. "He makes a great impact just by his presence as a great defender. He gets on base a lot. And then he permits us to reorganize the batting order."

Heyward went into Tuesday hitting .225 with one home run through 165 plate appearances and a .611 OPS that’s a 173-point drop from his career numbers entering this season. He had been feeling like he was getting his timing down again — and working through a nagging wrist issue — so we’ll see what the extra rest means for the butterfly effect.

"Sometimes the game’s going to get you," Heyward said. "You say 'turn it around,' but we’re doing OK. Right now, we’re not by any means complacent, but it’s a part of the season. You’re going to go through ups and downs. You’re going to go through stretches where the other team just has a better night than you do."