What we learned about the Cubs in April

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What we learned about the Cubs in April

PHILADELPHIA Cubs executives joked about leading the league in press conferences during the offseason. They talked a very good game, viewing things through different lenses and laying out the parallel tracks.

Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod will be judged on what happens across the next five to 10 years. Theyve made it clear that they will prioritize the future over any short-term gain.

The Cubs closed out April at 8-15 with Mondays 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in front of another sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

It tied together a few emerging themes. The Cubs took away from their bullpen over the winter, and Rafael Dolis gave up the pivotal two-out, two-run double to Placido Polanco in the eighth inning.

This season is all about identifying core players for the future, and the rookie reliever will learn on the job.

Bryan LaHair who had just drilled a two-run shot that tied the game in the eighth looks like a piece to the puzzle. He has reached base safely in 19 straight games, grinding out at-bats the way Epstein believes will become a fundamental part of the organizations identity.

LaHair has hit five of the teams nine home runs, a power outage you could have predicted maybe not to this degree after the front office passed on the big bats on the market. The last time the Cubs finished a month at nine or less was August 1981.

Ive said that from Day 1: Were going to play hard and were not going to give in or give up, LaHair said. Thats just the type of team we are now. Hopefully, it turns around.

Overseeing it all is Dale Sveum, the first-year manager hired to grow into the job and become the next Terry Francona.

Sveum has begun to establish a work culture. He projects calm and doesnt overreact, writing things off as a few hiccups here and there, nothing out of the ordinary.

Obviously, you want better results, Sveum said. The pitchings been OK. The starting pitchings been probably well above average on most days. Its just a matter of us being able to score runs and hit the ball out of the ballpark and create some opportunities to get leads.

The defense has been OK, nothing spectacular, but guys are making strides there.

The efforts been tremendous, the way we ran balls out. Our preparation (for) a game has been as good as Ive seen.

The rotation (4.20 ERA) has essentially kept the Cubs competitive on most nights. Chris Volstad (6.11 ERA) gave up four runs in the first inning on Monday, but kept the Phillies (11-12) scoreless over the next five.

Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija have looked like two frontline starters you can build around.

We have five guys who are going to give everything they got, Garza said. We know what we got to do and we know how we got to win and its all starting pitching.

The starters almost have to be perfect. The Cubs scored more than four runs only six times in April. It was a cruel month for Geovany Soto, whos hitting .127 with one RBI, and Ian Stewart, though his .169 average is somewhat offset by his plus defense.

Starlin Castro (.333) looks like he will develop into a No. 3 hitter, though he has shown lapses in concentration at shortstop (seven errors).

It stinks when youre not winning, especially when you know how hard guys work, utility man Jeff Baker said. The only thing you can do is show up tomorrow and keep grinding and hopefully it will turn.

The Cubs have repeatedly said that they will not bring up Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson just to provide a spark.

Rizzo whos hitting .384 with seven homers and 23 RBI in 22 games and Jackson (28 strikeouts in 89 at-bats) will develop at their own pace at Triple-A Iowa. Their promotions will have almost nothing to do with whats going on with the big-league club.

Trading Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox (and paying most of his salary) for a young pitcher with upside (Michael Bowden) pointed in the direction the Cubs are heading.

The clubhouse makeover is far from over, and the rumors will go into overdrive as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.

Will the fans tune this team out? Business operations knew the optimism generated by the Epstein hire would help at the box office.

Through 13 home games, the Cubs are drawing an average of 37,121, though that reflects tickets sold and not the actual number of bodies at Wrigley Field.

Garza says its going to be a lot of fun this summer. Check back in another month.

Its not the best start we ever had as a team, but you got to hang in there, Soto said. You got to be here for each other as a group in good times and in bad times. You got to pull together.

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

The storyline has already been formed: If the Bears are forced to go with undrafted Cornelius Edison as their center, the 2016 season is lost.

“I mean, how ridiculous to think that an undrafted free agent could be the starting center for the Chicago Bears, and they win,” deadpanned Jay Hilgenberg, making less than no attempt to mask the irony in his voice.

With very good reason.

Because Hilgenberg himself came into the NFL as an afterthought, undrafted out of Iowa in 1981 and then going on to an 11-year career with the Bears, capped by a Super Bowl ring in 1985. Seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections.

Ridiculous.

Edison may come nowhere near the heights reached by Hall of Fame nominee Hilgenberg. Or of Hall of Fame Miami center Jim Langer, also undrafted. But Hilgenberg has a strong bit of advice for Edison, who started Saturday in the Bears preseason game vs. Kansas City and could be their starter on Opening Day, depending on health elsewhere on the interior of the Bears offensive line.

“I would say to him, ‘You’re in an NFL camp because you can play football,’” Hilgenberg told CSNChicago.com. “Don’t let how you entered that camp take anything away from you. You deserve to be there. You just need to prove it a little bit more than the first-rounders.’”

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It may not always be easy, of course.

Hilgenberg, who fought his way onto the final roster in 1981, once famously turned to then-teammate Revie Sorey on the bench during a blowout of the Bears in Hilgenberg’s first season, and said, “Revie, we’re the worst team in the NFL.”

Sorey, never one to duck the truth, nodded.

Hilgenberg added, “And I’m the worst player on this team.”

Again, no disagreement from Sorey.

“So that makes me the worst player in the NFL, doesn’t it?” Hilgenberg concluded.

Silence from Sorey.

Hilgenberg turned out to not be the worst player in the NFL, but not without epic struggles, and he knows what Edison will be going through. And how the young center can make it.

[MORE BEARS: Rookie class making much-needed impact]

“To be honest there is always a little insecurity in you,” Hilgenberg recalled. “I had confidence that I belonged but I had to fight every day. And the truth is, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I was going to make it.

“I didn’t have Plan B. I didn’t want to go back to Iowa then, so I didn’t have Plan B.

Hilgenberg used teams’ not drafting him as motivation, and Bears teammates recalled him savoring facing supposed elite defensive linemen, No. 1 picks, and handling them. Beyond his attitude, however, was a method.

“I played against a lot of big, strong guys in the NFL, and I wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Hilgenberg said. “As soon as you learn how to play with the right fundamentals, you learn that there’s no Supermen out there. If you can play fundamentally and with good technique, you can block anybody… .

“Offensive line play is honestly all about how bad you want it. How much are you willing to do? How important is it to you? What does it mean to you?”

Edison is in the process of answering those exact questions.

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

On Thursday, Dwyane Wade appeared on an ESPN special for The Undefeated to talk about gun violence. The next day, Wade's cousin was shot and killed in Chicago.

Nykea Aldridge was pushing a baby stroller in the Chicago neighborhood of Parkway Gardens when she was shot and killed. Aldridge was 32 and a mother of four.

Police said she was not the intended target and one person was taken into custody as a result of the incident.

Wade's words during his appearance on the ESPN panel took on extra meaning after Friday's shooting.

"It's important for all of us to help each other, to go back and say 'You know what, where did this start, how did this start? Let's see how we can change there,'" Wade said on ESPN. "It's deep-rooted and this is something that didn't start today. This is something that's not going to end tomorrow. But this is something that we can start a conversation, we can start the work today and hopefully eventually we can stop it."

Wade tweeted after the shooting.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

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A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.