Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

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Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

SAN DIEGO Josh Vitters hadnt watched the play that put him on SportsCenter.

Vitters dove to his right and fully extended his body, sliding over the third-base line. He hopped up and fired to first to beat Cameron Maybin, who was fast enough to steal 40 bases last season for the San Diego Padres.

That was only the first groundball Vitters had ever seen in the big leagues, and that reaction in the sixth inning on Monday night loosened him up a little bit. It seemed like an answer to all the questions the Cubs have about his defense.

That made the highlight reel, but the more revealing moment probably came hours earlier, when he approached third-base coach Pat Listach and asked to take extra groundballs before batting practice.

Vitters didnt realize that you had to clear it first with stadium officials to reserve the field in advance. But there he was on Tuesday at Petco Park, taking groundballs hit by Listach, and thats essentially where hell be some five hours before every game the rest of this season.

I know that my hittings going to be there regardless, Vitters said. My defense is whats going to take me to the next level.

Theyve told me what I need to do. So Im going to do everything and more and see what happens. (Lets) see where my abilities and the skills that I can learn up here take me.

Thats the entire point of the final eight weeks of the season, whether or not Vitters finds himself in the lineup that night. He came off the bench on Tuesday and collected his first big-league hit, a two-run double in a 7-4 loss to the Padres.

Baseball America ranked Vitters as the best pure hitter among high school players in the 2007 draft, and it has been a slow, steady climb for the No. 3 overall pick since then.

Vitters will turn 23 later this month, and though he didnt look at this as a make-or-break year, he did wonder what the regime change at Clark and Addison could mean for him, where he fit into Theo Epsteins rebuilding plan.

I thought about it a little bit Im not their guy, Vitters said. They didnt pick me or maybe dont even like me. But that was before I even met the people. It was a great experience getting to meet them at the Cubs Convention and speaking (directly) to them. They made me feel really comfortable and really didnt put any pressure on me. I think thats what allowed me to excel and play up to this level.

Vitters went out and developed into a Pacific Coast League All-Star in his first season on the Triple-A level, hitting .304 with 17 homers, 68 RBI and an .869 OPS at Iowa.

By Sunday, Vitters was running on no sleep and flying with Brett Jackson from Des Moines to Dallas to Los Angeles we were kind of like zombies on the plane and making their big-league debut at Dodger Stadium.

That was pretty neat, Jackson said. Weve come up through the minors together and I like to say Ive taken him under my wing as my little brother. But I had some stuff to learn from him hitting this year. Man, that guy can hit.

Vitters was only 17 years old when the Cubs drafted him out of Cypress High School in Orange County, Calif. The Cubs felt like he would benefit from his friendship with the self-assured Jackson, who is almost a year older and went to Cal-Berkeley.

Vitters is also tight with Anthony Rizzo. As teenagers, they played together on an elite travel team in national tournaments. Back then, Vitters was a bigger name than Rizzo, who fell to the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round.

Vitters understands the changing nature of expectations, how you should never believe the hype, whether youre a stud or a bust. Cubs fans keep gazing into the future and breathlessly awaited the arrivals of Rizzo and Jackson. The future is now, so its time to go to work in an empty stadium.

It sounds like its just going to be like that until we have a contending team, Vitters said. Theyre always going to want the next best hot thing thats coming up until we can put together a team thats going to be winning lots of ballgames.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Cubs' MVP Kris Bryant signs multi-year deal with Adidas

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USA TODAY

Cubs' MVP Kris Bryant signs multi-year deal with Adidas

Kris Bryant just keeps on winning in 2016.

Two months after leading the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years, Bryant signed a multi-year extension with Adidas.

"It's a phenomenal time to be partnered with Adidas with all the energy and momentum that the brand has right now," Bryant said via a press release. "Adidas embraced me as part of the family from the start."

Bryant was named National League MVP after hitting .292 with 39 homers and 102 RBIs. He hit .308 with three homers and 8 RBIs in the postseason.

Bryant first signed with Adidas in 2014 after the Cubs made him the No. 2 pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.