Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

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Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein told beat reporters that he could write their stories for them. The Cubs president of baseball operations already saw their angles.

Epstein didn't know when it was coming, but at some point he predicted the headlines would scream: The honeymoon is over.

The city isn't there yet, even if the Cubs had lost five of their first six games. As much as fans will demand to see Epstein riding on a float down Michigan Avenue, deep down they seem resigned that 2012 will be a bridge year.

Epstein watched batting practice from behind the cage on Thursday at Wrigley Field and then walked into the Cubs dugout.

Holding a dark suit jacket in his hands, the collar to his white dress shirt open, Epstein declined when a reporter jokingly asked him to write the lede.

"No, we've been in every game," Epstein said. "We just got to grind through it. These things even out."

A few hours later, almost everything fell into place in an 8-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. A lineup that had scored 19 runs in the season's first six games dropped eight on Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and went 7-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

There was Alfonso Soriano flicking a broken-bat, two-run single into right field, then stealing second base and crossing home plate with dirt covering the front of his uniform.

There was Matt Garza, one out away from a complete-game shutout, firing the ball into the seats behind first base. Who writes this stuff?

"No, I'm not discouraged about anything," Epstein said. "We just got to keep grinding. We faced some pretty good pitching. We haven't really locked in our approach yet. Our right-on-right performance hasn't been exemplary yet, but we'll get there.

"We got to make things tougher on opposing starters. It's tough to win games when they can be as efficient as they've been. Even early in the season, with the lower pitch counts, it keeps them in the games late. When you go starting pitcher, setup guy, closer, it's tough to win.

"You got to try to get into the other end of their bullpen. You do that by grinding at-bats, seeing pitches, having a disciplined approach. So we'll get there. We're a week into the season. We're finding our way."

No, the Cubs aren't relentless like those Boston Red Sox teams that used to grind out at-bats and play deep into October. You can't just rewire this lineup, flip a switch and expect it to be patient.

But the rotation has been better than advertised, and you've noticed how aggressive the Cubs have been on the bases. Dale Sveum projected calm after the bullpen meltdowns and doesn't carry himself like a first-year manager.

That's why catcher Geovany Soto pointed out they're only one pitch away, and second baseman Darwin Barney said you don't pull the chute in Week 1.

"Yeah, we've had a couple nights where we haven't had the best of luck," Garza said. "But I'll take the way we're playing over anything right now. The record might not show it, but we're playing good baseball.

"We're running out balls. We're making other teams panic. We're pitching, throwing strikes, playing catch.

"That's good baseball right there. The hits and the offense will come. But as long as we keep pitching and playing defense, we'll be all right."

Epstein has promised that his front office will block out all the noise on talk radio and shrug off what's written online and in the newspapers. The sky is falling in Boston, where the Red Sox also woke up on Thursday with a 1-5 record.

"Tough starts are always amplified," Epstein said, "no matter where you are, because there's no reference point for anybody when you're that early in the season.

"When teams have tough weeks at the start of the season, it gets a lot more attention than it would if it was the middle of August somewhere. No matter what team you're talking about, they're getting into the grind of the season.

"I'm not going to talk about another team, other than to say, 'Hey, they have a ton of time, they'll be fine.'"

The Red Sox will be celebrating Fenway Park's 100th anniversary on April 20. Every ex-player and manager has been invited to that game against the New York Yankees, for what should be a blowout ceremony.

This week Terry Francona told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that he has no interest in attending. The former manager felt like his reputation was stained by anonymous sources on the way out of town last year.

Epstein grew up not far from Yawkey Way and helped build two teams that won World Series titles and changed New England forever. Will he be there?

"No, we have a game that night," Epstein said.

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

The Bears have reportedly found a new offensive line coach.

According to multiple reports Monday, Jeremiah Washburn will become the team's new offensive line coach, replacing Dave Magazu.

Washburn worked as an assistant offensive line coach this past season with the Miami Dolphins under Adam Gase, the Bears' former offensive coordinator.

Prior to his season in South Florida, he spent seven seasons with the Detroit Lions, working three of them as the team's offensive line coach after three as an assistant offensive line coach.

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This past season, the Bears ranked 17th in the NFL in rushing with 1,735 yards as a team. Only eight teams allowed fewer sacks than the Bears, who saw quarterbacks dropped by opposing defenses just 28 times. Bears quarterbacks were hit 73 teams, also a top-10 mark in the league.

The Bears also committed a good number of holding penalties, 1.68 per game, which was only bested by seven teams.

Magazu was a longtime member of John Fox's staffs in Chicago, Denver and Carolina.

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Patrick Kane was summing up the Blackhawks' weekend, one that didn't go well in terms of points.

"Good way to kind of judge ourselves, where we're at," he said Sunday night. "Might be a little bit of a wake-up call to see how good we really are."

Well, in a way, it is. You can't really compare Friday's loss to Washington and Sunday's loss to Minnesota on performance; the Blackhawks didn't show up for the first game and were much better in the second. Nevertheless, it was the same result in each. The Blackhawks' lengthy hold on first place in the Western Conference ended, with the Wild taking over following Sunday's 3-2 victory.

It's not a sound-the-alarm situation, but the Blackhawks are certainly cognizant of the missed opportunity last weekend and that they came up short against the league's best.

Artem Anisimov agreed with Kane's assessment.

"We just need to play better. All four lines need to play better in all areas of the ice. Just be better in the little things," Anisimov said. "Back check, put stick in the right position, box the guy out, short shifts. All little things need to be better."

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Many of the little things that were absent against the Capitals were back against the Wild. But coach Joel Quenneville wasn't happy with mistakes made on goals allowed, especially the first two. And while Kane and the second line were a consistent scoring threat against the Wild, the other three lines weren't. It's a problem that's plagued the Blackhawks a good deal this season, even when they were stringing together victories.

There is no reason to think that, because of this weekend's results, the Blackhawks are going to falter against strong teams. They've done well against others already this season. They beat Montreal earlier this season, when the Canadiens were healthy and steamrolling everyone. They beat the New York Rangers when the Rangers and former Blackhawks backup goaltender Antti Raanta were on their respective hot streaks.

Still, Kane's analysis is correct: This should get the Blackhawks' attention. The Wild have beaten the Blackhawks in eight consecutive regular-season games now and will face them three more times this season. They have two more meetings with the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them soundly in November.

The Blackhawks' long reign atop the Western Conference standings is over. They’re currently second in the Central Division, with an eight-point cushion over the St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks have done fairly well this season. But this weekend was a reminder that they can be better.

"The game (on Friday) was kind of like a shock to the system thinking maybe you're one of the top teams in the league, or being able to compete with one of the top teams, and we obviously got thoroughly outplayed. We came back (Sunday night). It was pretty even in chances. We might've even had more so, just kind of didn't pull it out," Kane said. "But (when) you've played two of the better teams in the league and lose, there's got to be room for improvement, right?"