Cubs will find out if Dolis has what it takes

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Cubs will find out if Dolis has what it takes

ST. LOUIS One day late in spring training, Carlos Marmol agreed to translate for Rafael Dolis. Marmol has earned a reputation as someone whos always at his locker, win or lose, ready to take the heat.

As the media moved in for a nice and easy notebook item, one reporter asked Marmol to ask Dolis if he would like to close one day.

Close what? Marmol said and everyone laughed. What are you talking about?

Even if it didnt come out quite right, it was still a very good question. No one thought the answer would come about a month into the season.

Dolis had his baptism by fire into the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry on Tuesday in St. Louis, in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium. They celebrated a 7-6 walk-off win as Yadier Molina hit a two-out RBI single past diving second baseman Darwin Barney.

Dolis looked like he wanted to throw his glove to the ground. A Cubs team thats playing the percentages with spray charts and defensive positioning got burned on that one.

Its one quarter of a step from maybe saving a run, Barney said. Thats kind of how we play Yadi. Hes such a talented hitter. He can hit the ball to all fields. He tends to hit the ball up the middle or to the pull side early in the count.

If there was two strikes right there, I probably would have shifted over a little bit. Were committed to playing the middle. I wasnt shifted all the way over, but just enough for him to get it through there.

But it didnt have to come down to that in the ninth inning.

In the eighth, Matt Carpenter launched James Russells first-pitch fastball 422 feet into the seats in right-center field. The inning before, Kerry Wood walked two batters and allowed the game-tying run.

The Cubs wasted Alfonso Sorianos first home run this season, a game-tying shot in the ninth in his 120th at-bat. Those are the margins for a 15-21 team and an organization thats willing to go through the growing pains.

Manager Dale Sveum officially told Marmol he lost the job on May 4, the morning after another meltdown in Cincinnati. One week later, Marmol strained his right hamstring and went on the disabled list.

Dolis a 24-year-old rookie who had pitched in one game above the Double-A level until this season has emerged as a potential long-term solution for the ninth inning.

You never know the makeup of people, how they handle the last three outs, Sveum said before the game. Its not made for everybody. So hes obviously proven so far that the makeup is there for it. For a young guy that hasnt pitched a lot in the big leagues, I think thats the biggest thing.

There will be some trial-and-error stuff and understanding what goes into that.

Cubs people felt the same way about Marmol when they announced his three-year, 20 million contract on Valentines Day 2011. He was coming off a season in which he notched 38 saves in 43 chances.

Marmol has had issues with his mechanics, the feel for his slider and trusting his fastball. Hes back in Chicago receiving treatment for an injury thats considered relatively minor. Hell likely pitch one or two innings at Triple-A Iowa before being activated.

Who knows? Maybe the time away will help someone who has a 6.35 ERA, two blown saves and 16 walks in 11.1 innings.

But Sveum has said that he wont make changes just for the sake of making changes. This is a huge opportunity for Dolis, whos 2-3 with four saves, a 3.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP.

He got the groundball (Molina) just happened to hit it in a place he doesnt hit it very often, Sveum said before looking more broadly at his closer.

(Dolis) is not a big strikeout guy, so hes got to learn to throw his slider more. You cant keep throwing fastball after fastball. Hes got a good slider and hes got to use it. Hes learning that he needs to use that pitch more.

The overall bullpen issues compelled the Cubs to sign veteran reliever Mike MacDougal to a minor-league deal that will put him in Iowa. (They also acquired Hunter Cervenka, a Class-A left-hander in the Boston Red Sox system, to complete the Marlon Byrd-Michael Bowden trade.)

The Cardinals (21-15) arent exactly running away with the division. The Cubs now have 11 losses after leading, and have lost six games in the final at-bat.

Were playing good baseball, and were doing a lot of the little things right, Barney said, but in the end you got to start stacking up the wins.

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Corey Crawford will start but Marcus Kruger won't play yet when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

Scott Darling is coming off a 30-stop shutout in the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over Boston on Friday night. Coach Joel Quenneville said there was some consideration given to start Darling in this one, too, but, "at the same time we want Crow playing as much as he can to get back to the great pace he had prior to being away."

"He hasn't been bad. But certainly that's what we're looking for him to get back to," Quenneville said on Crawford. "I like giving Darls some consideration. We'll see but [Darling] certainly enhanced his positioning."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Meanwhile, Marcus Kruger skated with the Blackhawks for the first time since hurting his hand against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 30. He took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice but was not among the line rushes. Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is for either Tuesday or Thursday but, "knowing we have that [All-Star] break, we'll see how he feels and what our options are."

Kruger said he felt, "pretty close."

"I tried to take it day by day and prepare to play," Kruger said. "Obviously not tonight, but the next game we will see." 

BLACKHAWKS VS. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
6:30 p.m.
TV: WGN
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Chicago Blackhawks
Forward lines

Ryan Hartman-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Vinnie Hinostroza-Tanner Kero-Marian Hossa
Andrew Desjardins-Dennis Rasmussen-Nick Schmaltz

Defensive pairs
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Goaltender
Corey Crawford

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Marcus Kruger (right arm).

Vancouver Canucks (via Canucks)
Forward lines

Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Loui Eriksson
Sven Baertschi-Bo Horvat-Alex Burrows
Markus Granlund-Brandon Sutter-Jayson Megna
Brendan Gaunce-Michael Chaput-Jack Skille

Defensive Pairs
Alex Edler-Troy Stecher
Luca Sbisa-Chris Tanev
Alex Biega-Nikita Tryamkin

Goaltender
Ryan Miller

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Anton Rodin (knee), Ben Hutton (hand), Jannik Hansen (knee), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Philip Larsen (upper body), Derek Dorsett (back).

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

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USA TODAY

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

Remember when the season began and we were talking about the likelihood of Illinois ending a three-year NCAA tournament drought?

Yeah, about that.

The Fighting Illini were again walloped on the road Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, their fourth road defeat in as many games during conference play. Against Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the losses have come in extreme fashion, by a combined total of 73 points, an average of 18.3 points.

And those numbers would be much bigger if not for a garbage-time 18-6 run to close out Saturday's 66-57 loss to the Wolverines. The game saw Michigan's lead grow as big as 21 with fewer than six minutes to play. It was another blowout, even if the final margin of defeat was in single digits.

How this continues to happen is frankly somewhat mind boggling. Illinois entered the season with experience, health and depth and have kept all of those traits throughout the campaign. But the experienced players who were believed to lead the Illini to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, Groce's first season, simply haven't shown up.

Malcolm Hill has, and he deserves a pass in this critique. Hill, the only Illinois player who scored in double figures Saturday, ranks fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 points a game. He also ranks in the top 20 in rebounding (5.9 rebounds a game), free-throw percentage (79.4 percent) and minutes played (32.4 minutes a game).

Maverick Morgan, too, has been a bright spot. He's shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for fourth in the Big Ten, and is averaging 13 points a game over the last 10 games.

But where has everyone else gone? After a stellar non-conference season, Tracy Abrams' production has fallen off a cliff, and he's just 1-for-21 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition. Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn't been very reliable, averaging almost two points fewer per game and shooting almost five percent lower from 3-point range than he did during his freshman season a year ago. Mike Thorne Jr. was supposed to be the team's starting center, but he's not even averaging 15 minutes a game. Second-year guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan have barely seen the floor. Michael Finke has had good games and quiet games. This veteran team is more and more reliant on freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols for sparks that only rarely come.

The biggest issue has been the defense, with the team allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. That number has been significantly worse in conference play, up to 50.8 percent. Saturday was better, Michigan shooting only 45.1 percent and only 40 percent in the second half, when its lead grew largest. But the Wolverines, also a poor defensive team, clamped down on the Illini, who only shot 45.8 percent and more importantly turned the ball over a whopping 17 times, leading to 22 points for the home team.

With consistently subpar defense and inconsistent offense — a win over the same Michigan team just 10 days earlier saw Illinois drop 85 points on red-hot 64.2-percent shooting; where was that Saturday? — has been a recipe for disaster.

Coming into the conference season, it seemed Illinois was a prime contender for a spot in the Big Dance's field of 68. After all, only one disastrous week prevented the non-conference season from being a success. The Illini scored wins over name-brand opponents North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri, with that nightmarish week featuring losses to West Virginia and Florida State, the current Nos. 7 and 10 teams in the country.

But despite the high rankings of the Mountaineers and Seminoles, that resume has weakened. North Carolina State is just 2-5 in ACC play, and Missouri has just five wins this season, a nasty record that includes 10 straight losses. BYU and VCU aren't at the top of their respective mid-major conference standings.

That has made Illinois' conference showing all the worse as the tournament hopes flicker. The two wins have come at home against Ohio State and Michigan teams that stumbled out of the gates themselves. The losses, as chronicled above, have been convincing to say the least, and the one that came at the State Farm Center, against Maryland, featured an ugly second-half collapse after Illinois went to the locker room with a lead.

With typical bottom-feeders like Penn State and Nebraska improving their play this season, there aren't many noticeably winnable games remaining on Illinois' schedule, with just the season-finale at Rutgers looking like a surefire win, though the Scarlet Knights are no longer winless in Big Ten play after beating the Huskers on Saturday. What it means is a gauntlet the rest of the way for the Illini. There are plenty of home games, but does the venue matter when the Illini are playing like this and their opponents are of a significantly higher caliber?

Groce's seat is undeniably warm, and the heat could crank up if the campaign progresses as it has played out to this point. Would a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament invite mean Groce's tenure would be over in Champaign? That's difficult to say, as Groce has secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season. Illinois' best recruiting work in years would be in real danger if he's axed before his Class of 2017 arrives on campus.

But the on-court results are starting to get predictable, and not in the way games were predictable back during Illinois' glory days a decade ago. 

How about this: Last week's 23-point shellacking at Purdue was the 12th loss by 20 or more points of the Groce Era, which is in its fifth season. Bruce Weber, who coached the Illini for nine seasons, had three such losses during the course of his entire tenure. Prior to Weber, it was Bill Self, who had one such loss in his three seasons. Prior to Self, it was Lon Kruger, who had four such losses in his four seasons.

You have to go all the way back to 1980 to find the last time Illinois missed the NCAA tournament in four straight years.

Right now, the future is a mystery. What we do know is that the present is not going well.