This time, Cubs think Rizzo can live up to the hype

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This time, Cubs think Rizzo can live up to the hype

The 38,516 fans had filed out of Wrigley Field. The players had showered and left the clubhouse, about to enjoy a wide-open night in Chicago before the off-day.

After Wednesdays 8-6 win over the San Diego Padres capped by Darwin Barneys first walk-off homer on any level the Cubs shifted to their No. 1 priority.

Baseball czar Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer watched Max Fried, a high school lefty from California, throw from the mound. Chairman Tom Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney hung around the batting cage.

Manager Dale Sveum tossed batting practice to Carlos Correa, a shortstop from Puerto Rico. Executives, scouts, coaches Randy Bush, Tim Wilken, Oneri Fleita, Shiraz Rehman, Chris Bosio, Dave McKay all took in the scene.

The Cubs (18-32) could have as many as 40 prospects come through the North Side before the June 4 draft. Its all part of being thorough, one of the buzzwords in Epsteins front office.

Keep that in mind the next time someone asks about top prospect Anthony Rizzo, whose right wrist is said to be feeling better, which should allow him to go back to crushing the Pacific Coast League.

Scouting guru Jason McLeod drafted Rizzo for the Boston Red Sox, and was involved in the Adrian Gonzalez and Andrew Cashner trades with the Padres. The Cubs executives who promoted Rizzo last season felt like they cut corners, and it wont happen again.

Its dj vu, McLeod said. We went through the exact same thing last year and couldnt be happier with him. (Its) not the numbers hes putting up. Its the development that we talked about. He has been working on some things mechanically, his approach (and) his day-to-day routine.

Because he went through (that) last year with the anticipation in San Diego, and the struggles once he got up, its made him a better player mentally, because hes much stronger coming out of that.

I think hes in his finishing stages now, and it shouldnt be too long before hes up here.

To reset, the Padres were sinking below .500 last June, and werent getting enough production out of first baseman Brad Hawpe. So Hoyer promoted Rizzo, who had hit .365 with 16 homers and 63 RBIs in 52 games at Triple-A Tucson.

That line mirrors what Rizzo has done so far at Triple-A Iowa .354 average with 17 homers and 46 RBIs in 48 games. What he did last season in San Diego hitting .141 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats has been seared into everyones thinking.

Padres manager Bud Black understood when a reporter mentioned how Cubs fans have become obsessed with Rizzo.

Thats just like our fans were it hasnt changed, Black said. Hes putting up tremendous Triple-A numbers that get people excited, which they should, because hes a great, talented young player.

When he came to us, I think the hype (got to him). Initially, he tried to live up to it, meaning he tried too hard. He was probably a little bit amped, overly excited, and when you take that into the batters box, youre not yourself.

Theres a big difference between Triple-A pitching and major-league pitching. Theres a learning curve and Anthony in a small sample size of at-bats with us hadnt quite gotten there yet.

Hes still a guy that can continue to grow as a player, as I suspect he will. The thing about Anthony is hes a bright kid. He has the ability to make adjustments.

Hoyer has said that no minor-league player should be viewed as the savior for a major-league offense. The Cubs had no intention of doing anything just for show during a 12-game losing streak, and they responded by scoring 24 runs during this three-game sweep of the Padres (17-35).

Late June looks like a more realistic timeframe for Rizzo. Hoyer made a point to say that Rizzo was only 21 years old last season, and skipped college after the Red Sox took him in the sixth round of the 2007 draft.

Padres first-base coach Dave Roberts who played high school ball with McLeod in San Diego and won a World Series ring with the 2004 Red Sox says Rizzo has what it takes.

Hes going to be a nice player, Roberts said. I think that last year we were forced to kind of bring him up here and he might not have been ready. You know, he probably wasnt. But I think in that situation, our hand was forced.

Will a nice player be enough for desperate fans? Are there still holes in the swing? Will the hype be overwhelming?

The Cubs certainly feel like theyve done their homework on Rizzo, who overcame Hodgkins lymphoma while in the Red Sox system and has been described as mature beyond his years. He had to go through the screening process the Cubs are using now.

You see a lot of ability and talent, but you really dont know the character, Sveum said. You give somebody a lot of money, sometimes you just dont know the background, so everything you do that way is risky when youre building.

You really need character people. But its a lot of things: Can you handle playing in a city like (Chicago)? Can you handle playing in the playoffs? Can you handle the pressure of these kind of things? So youre always looking for that.

Pretty soon, the Cubs are going to have to find out with Rizzo.

Big Ten champions: James Franklin's journey at Penn State reaches unbelievable point unbelievably fast

Big Ten champions: James Franklin's journey at Penn State reaches unbelievable point unbelievably fast

INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State is the Big Ten champion.

And while historically, that might not be the most surprising phrase in the world, recent history makes that accomplishment almost absolutely unbelievable.

James Franklin arrived in State College less than three years ago, succeeding Bill O'Brien and taking over a program that was entangled in the after effects of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, with sanctions imposed by the NCAA that included severe scholarship limits and a bowl ban, among other things. Meanwhile, there were plenty of after effects that weren’t being imposed by the NCAA but by a large number of Penn State fans, mostly criticisms of the university’s attitude toward longtime coach Joe Paterno and why the crippling results of the scandal hadn’t been quickly overcome.

There was a lot working against Franklin’s team, both inside and outside the Penn State community, and while also competing in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, it seemed winning — at least winning big — was a long way off. Franklin’s first two seasons ended in 7-6 finishes and trips to low-level bowl games. And that looked like success, given the circumstances.

But fast forward to Saturday night in Indy, where Franklin got to hoist the Big Ten championship trophy. Perhaps a trip to the College Football Playoff could follow Sunday.

Nobody could’ve predicted this. Nobody did.

It’s amazing, really, this 11-2 season that’s featured a win over second-ranked Ohio State and a conference championship. What's more amazing is the timeline, that this journey has reached this point this fast.

“You know, it's hard for me to think about it as just this season,” Franklin said. “It's been a challenging three years. I’ve learned a lot about myself. Learned a lot about my family. I've learned a lot about this community and the men in that locker room, the coaches, the players, the doctors, the trainers, everybody. So for me it's not just the season. It's all the hard work and all the positive steps that we've been taking for three years. It didn't always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn't easy. Those steps weren't downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany. And that's kind of how I look at it.”

Franklin was under a great deal of pressure as recently as early on this season, when after a 2-2 start his athletics director had to provide a vote of confidence in the face of questions about his job status. Restless fans who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the challenges that came with digging the program out from under the weight of the scandal were demanding winning football.

Well, how’s this for winning football?

Franklin’s been the focal point because he’s the head coach, but the players have had to deal with these challenges, as well. Franklin’s decisions to redshirt guys who could’ve helped the team earlier in his tenure with the hope of future success meant hovering around .500 in each of the past two seasons. That also meant decreased depth in practice and on the roster in general. It meant a lot of players having to learn on the fly. Now that work has paid off. In the form of a championship.

“It’s a great culmination of all the hard work and effort we’ve put in over the past five years as a family,” center Brian Gaia said. “(We’ve been) through two different coaches. It doesn’t matter, we play for each other. And then we start buying in, start playing for everyone in the program. It’s just a culmination of that today, a championship.”

And now maybe that division within the fan base can cease, too. Instead of worrying about how the university should treat the legacy of Paterno, those fans can start recognizing the legacy Franklin is building.

But most of all, Saturday's win is a gargantuan accomplishment for this team and this group of players to block out the noise and all the extra stuff that comes with being Penn State, stuff other programs don’t have to deal with, and win.

They’ve won nine games in a row. And now they’re the kings of the Big Ten.

“It means a lot. For this community, for Penn Staters past, present and in the future. It really is transforming this university, and it’s bringing a sense of happiness to this school,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “All the things that we’ve been through and all the things that we’re still kind of going through, we were able to overcome all of that. And for us to still be a family after all of that and seeing guys really care so much about each other and so much about this team, it is obviously why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.”

Trace McSorley the biggest star, but receivers just as amazing in Penn State's title win

Trace McSorley the biggest star, but receivers just as amazing in Penn State's title win

INDIANAPOLIS — A star was born Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

While he was good enough this season to earn All-Big Ten Second Team honors, the world finally got to meet Trace McSorley, Penn State’s sophomore quarterback who led an incredible comeback effort as the Nittany Lions were crowned Big Ten champions. He was sensational, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns as one big throw after another dug Penn State out of a three-touchdown hole against one of the best defenses in college football.

“The numbers and the performance speak for itself,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said of his quarterback. “He did amazing today. He did a great job leading our team. He did a great job of not getting too high, not getting too low, staying even-keeled and knowing exactly what we had to get done, and that’s exactly what we did.”

McSorley was hounded early by the Wisconsin defense, a unit boasting a terrific linebacking corps starring pass-rusher supreme T.J. Watt. Watt constantly pressured McSorley in the first half, hitting him on the first play of the game even after he handed the ball off and crunching him on a sack that turned into a fumble forced and recovered by Watt.

But McSorley didn’t waver, not when Watt took the ball away from him and not when a bad snap over his head resulted in a defensive touchdown for the Badgers. Instead, McSorley did what he’s done best all season long: hit home runs.

The celebration might irk some opponents, but McSorley’s mimed baseball swing and admiration is perfectly applicable to the way he gets this offense to explode. He pitched four touchdown passes Saturday night, the first three coming from 33, 40 and 70 yards away from the end zone. His home-run balls turned the game completely around against one of the best secondaries in the land.

The 33-yard bomb to Mike Gesicki turned a 14-0 game into a 14-7 game in the first quarter. In the second quarter, a missed tackled helped spring Saeed Blacknall on the 40-yard score. But his third touchdown pass of the day was perhaps the biggest, a 70-yard strike to Blacknall on the Lions’ first offensive play of the second half, a play Hamilton said broke the Badgers’ defense.

“I think it was after the first touchdown of the second half, the 60-yarder by Saeed. You sensed a shift in their defense,” Hamilton said. “They were hanging their heads, they were blaming other people, things like that. You kind of realized we just brought this down to 14 points, now it’s seven points, now we’ve got ‘em. We scored on the next drive, they were completely shot after that. We just had to keep going out there and worrying about ourselves, and that’s exactly what we did.”

The next drive featured a picture-perfect throw from McSorley to running back Saquon Barkley for a 18-yard touchdown, which tied the game. The next drive featured some more chunk passing plays and ended in a go-ahead touchdown run by Barkley, which gave Penn State the lead for good.

Another second-half comeback for the Lions. This one against one of the best defenses around.

“We started going a little more tempo. We felt in the last two-minute drive (in the second quarter), they didn’t handle our tempo too well. So we came out second half really wanting to push that and go as fast as we could, get them on their heels a little bit,” McSorley said. “And just felt that we had some matchups outside that we really liked and wanted to take advantage of it. They were playing a lot of man coverage, single high safeties. We just wanted to let our guys work. That was kind of our second-half game plan.”

McSorley got the award and he’ll get the headlines and the hype, but this sensational offensive performance was just as much the work of the guys McSorley was throwing to. Gesicki, Blacknall and Hamilton turned in one remarkable catch after another. Yes, McSorley was good, but it didn’t even seem to matter how well he threw it because those guys were catching everything.

“It did kind of feel like that,” McSorley said. “Even if they were covered, I felt like I could throw it up and they’d make the catch, they’d come down with it.

“It was impressive seeing those guys work 1-on-1. You’ve got complete trust in them. The biggest thing is it gave our offense confidence that we had guys on the outside that were going to go up and make those plays. I think that was a big part of why we came out in the second half and decided to throw it deep a little bit and try to take advantage of our matchups outside because of how those guys were playing. We had tremendous confidence in them. They had tremendous confidence in themselves. So I think that was a big part of it for our offense, those guys were making those kind of plays, just to trust them and let them be playmakers.”

And this is all before even really mentioning Barkley, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and star running back who made plenty of impact Saturday night, too, totaling 103 yards and two touchdowns rushing and receiving.

But it was perhaps Barkley who put it best in referencing Hamilton’s pregame mantra, a perfect expression of how far this offense has come.

In the last two seasons, with McSorley’s predecessor Christian Hackenberg under center, the Penn State offense couldn’t do a darn thing. This year, after the hiring of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and the insertion of the more mobile McSorley — and the all-around dominance of Barkley — the Lions are an offensive juggernaut with more weapons than any defense can handle.

“DaeSean Hamilton says it before every game: If one of us eats, we all eat. If one of us balls, we all ball out. We’re playmakers, and we’ve got to step up and make plays,” Barkley said. “I think those guys made some crazy plays. Saeed two touchdowns, (Hamilton) going over people’s heads catching everything, Mike made a big play for us, sparked us, and Trace has been doing an unbelievable job getting the ball to them and trusting them.

“The wide receivers are just playing tremendous for us. In my opinion, best wide-receiver corps in the Big Ten. Might even be the best wide-receiver corps in the country.”