Theo Epstein's not hitting the panic button


Theo Epstein's not hitting the panic button

MIAMI - The Cubs will have to do something to shake up this 3-10 team. It just won't involve promoting Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson, or making any other type of panic move.

The Cubs flew out of Miami after Thursday's 5-3 loss to the Marlins, which completed a three-game sweep that should help take the heat off Ozzie Guillen.

The Cubs are saying the right things and sticking to baseball, not politics. Their clubhouse is more professional without Carlos Zambrano, who warmly greeted Theo Epstein by the batting cage.

But the changes won't happen overnight. A road trip that began with some promise - beating the Cardinals after they raised their World Series banner - ended on a five-game losing streak.

The Cubs were outscored 34-10 during that time and the schedule doesn't get any easier from here, not with the Reds and Cardinals coming into Wrigley Field.

"You don't want to do any kind of panicking 13 games into the season," manager Dale Sveum said.

The fans would love to see Rizzo and Jackson, top prospects who are supposed to be foundation pieces for years to come. But the president of baseball operations isn't the reactionary type.

"Those guys are continuing their development at Triple-A," Epstein said. "We're also not giving up on guys after a homestand and a road trip. Guys need time to get into the rhythm of the season and show what they can do. Baseball's best understood from bigger samples and from a distance sometimes.

"No one wants to get off to this kind of start and the lineup's not performing really well right now. It's a little bit early to be thinking about those kind of moves, and specifically with your better prospects.

"Once they're fully developed, then you look and see how it fits into the big picture, what's going on with the big-league team."

Epstein - who met the team in Miami after a scouting trip for the draft - could be thinking about incremental moves. Like adding another bullpen piece, especially if Kerry Wood's right shoulder doesn't feel better by the weekend.

But the 2012 Cubs were built on starting pitching, and the Marlins (7-6) knocked out Jeff Samardzija in the fourth inning. Samardzija (2-1, 5.71 ERA) gave up five runs on eight hits and five walks. The Cubs got swept, even with the top of their rotation going this series.

"We got to win, man, that's really all there is to it," Samardzija said. "Pitchers got to pitch better, position players got to play positions better. It's all-around. There's not one thing that we need to improve on. Everybody needs to improve. It starts with yourself."

As a team, the Cubs have hit only five home runs. Alfonso Soriano doesn't have an extra-base hit yet. Marlon Byrd (.075) continues to spiral downward. Geovany Soto (.167) is also struggling at the plate.

"Nobody's going to put our head down right now," outfielder David DeJesus said. "It's not like we're coming here to just hang around and have fun. We want to win baseball games and we just got to get better as a team.

"We got to focus and take every at-bat the way professionals do. And I feel that will lead to better, big innings and Ws in the win column."

This front office has promised to block out all the noise. Sveum sees effort, and there's not much he can do with the lineup. The clubhouse chemistry seems to have improved. But it still might be time for some earplugs.

"There are things we can do," Epstein said, "smaller moves that we can make, and probably will make, over the course of this season to try to put together a club that can be more competitive - (while) also looking out for the best long-term interests of the organization.

"View those things through that lens - not through what we look like two weeks in. You got to keep the big picture in mind sometimes."

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

With less than 2 minutes to play in the first half the Bears had gained a total of 45 yards, and had zero pass completions (2 attempts) and zero points . By the end of the half they had 115 yards, Matt Barkley had completed 4 of his last 6 passes and the Bears adjourned for halftime with a 7-6 lead.

For the second straight week Barkley engineered a comeback, this time for a win, and running a two-minute offense that, curiously perhaps for an inexperienced quarterback, seems to suit Barkley even more than the offense run a normal speed. More than one player said that 70-yard drive to finish the first half was a tipping point, on all sides of the football.

The turning point “was that two-minute right before the half,” said right tackle Bobby Massie. “Everybody just executed, did what we needed to do and drove right down the field. Then we come out after the half and drove right down again. It was good.”

More than just good for the offense. “I think that really spurred both sides of the ball to be motivated to finish the game strong,” said Barkley, who got the Bears into the end zone twice in last Sunday’s Tennessee game, and nearly a third, within the final 10 minutes, running 35 plays over the span of those minutes.”

This time the result was the highest point total (26) this season and scores on four out of five possessions beginning with that hurry-up score to end the half.

Quarterback: A-

Once again Barkley was beset by dropped passes, although nowhere near the avalanche of them that defeated him against the Tennessee Titans. Barkley shook off the conditions and poor start to complete 4 of 6 passes on the final drive of the half, for 64 yards – the entire passing production for the half.

Barkley followed a shaky first half with a solid second, completing 7 of 10 passes for 128 yards and zero interceptions, a significant key with the 49ers unable to do much of anything against the Bears defense. Barkley effectively convinced coaches that he could operate in the adverse conditions with passing and not simply handing off to Jordan Howard.

“I thought [the way] he handled the two-minute drive before the half, we had to open it up some and throw the ball,” said coach John Fox. “I thought he executed outstanding.”

Barkley finished with 11-of-18 passing for 192 yards, no touchdowns but no interceptions and a passer rating of 97.5.

Running back: A+

In a game that demanded effective rushing, Jordan Howard delivered a statement game, his fifth in the last eight with 100 rushing yards and 115 total yards of offense.

Howard rushed for 3 touchdowns, giving him five on the year, and carried 32 times, an average of 3.7 that belies the overall, which involved the chemistry of the run game, now averaging 4.4 yards on the season . “He’s fun, man,” said guard Eric Kush. “We block our butts off to try to give him something. Even if it’s not the prettiest block, we try to finish our blocks and give him a chance.”

Howard displayed power inside as well as burst on the Bears’ outside-zone runs that exploited the San Francisco edges. He carried 10 times in the first half, then 22 in the second.

“I’m definitely ready to be that workhorse,” said Howard, who now has 883 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns despite not starting until game four. “Even though they might know the run is coming, they still have to stop it.”

Receivers: B+

Josh Bellamy, replaced in the starting lineup by Deonte Thompson after his drop-laced game against Tennessee, had perhaps one the streakiest game of the Bears year. Bellamy again suffered with drops that included lost TD catches, but Bellamy rebounded to match his career-best 4 catches against Tennessee but with 93 yards and a long of 31 and others of 24, 22 and 16 yards. Bellamy also was handed the ball on an end-around for 12 yards.

All of this despite two egregious drops, one of a potential TD ball with Bellamy two steps behind his defender. “He came up to me and said, ‘Keep feeding me,’” Barkley said. “I’m not going to stop giving those guys the ball… .I’m going to keep coming back to them for the rest of the year.”

Cam Meredith remained in the starting lineup and caught 3 of the 4 passes thrown to him, with Thompson and tight end Daniel Brown catching 2 each.

Offensive line: A

With the adverse weather conditions expected, coaches made a specific challenge to the offensive line to take over this game against a struggling San Francisco front. Guard Josh Sitton was active but still limited with an ankle injury, so coaches stayed with Eric Kush at left guard and were rewarded with some consistent blocking in the run game. Kush executed combination blocks and worked to the second level. Kush and Charles Leno repeatedly dominated the San Francisco left side as the Bears pounded with the run and never let up in the snowy conditions.

“With the conditions, you had to run the ball,” Leno said. “The O-line just tried to come together, not worry about the record and win one week at a time.”

The result was another 100-yard rushing day for Jordan Howard, with 3 touchdowns, and 142 rushing yards, high for the season. “Today the offensive line got great push like they always do,” Howard said.

Barkley was sacked once, in the fourth quarter, on a breakdown in one-on-one blocking by tight end Daniel Brown.

Cody Whitehair going down in the fourth quarter with a leg injury was a blow, but Whitehair was able to return later in the period. The Bears had Sitton dressed and part of field-goal unit, and Sitton came in at right guard and Ted Larsen moved over to center.

Coaching: A

The obvious overall effort and preparation of a 2-9 team for a game of virtually no import to the season was noteworthy, as the Bears again played with intensity and efficiency throughout, including recovering from first-half gaffes on special teams that put the Bears down 6-0.

The defense schemed for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by staying almost exclusively in a 3-4 front, utilizing three down-linemen and two outside linebackers to pressure Kaepernick and with the speed to thwart his runs. The result was the worst game of Kaepernick’s career, with 20 rushing yards and 4 passing, vs. 25 yards lost to sacks.

The offense held to a run-based mindset and plan, even when the 49ers turned two special-teams mistakes into field goals for the first two scores. The 49ers also relied primarily on man-to-man coverage, committing an extra defender to run defense, but the Bears were willing and able to challenge downfield knowing that the San Francisco pass rush was hampered by the field conditions.

“Props to Dowell[Loggains, offensive coordinator] and the whold coaching staff for getting us ready and making adjustments like that during the game,” Barkley said.

Special teams was again mistake-prone with mental breakdowns compounded by physical mistakes.

Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets


Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets

Here are some of the top stories from Sunday in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls back in action against Trail Blazers

Tune in tonight for Chicago Bulls Charities Night

Blackhawks score late but can't get past Jets

Bears offense finds groove in win over 49ers

Winter meetings preview: Why teams will find trying to copy a ‘Cubs Way’ rebuild is easier said than done

White Sox revamp would mean fewer 'stopgaps' and 'half-measures'

Significance of Bears win over 49ers lies beyond records and score

Five Things from Blackhawks-Jets: Offense still anemic

Bears' Matt Barkley 'showing the world' he can be a starting QB in the NFL

Lars Johansson excited for Blackhawks call-up