Chicago Cubs

Bulls hope to regain swagger against Rockets

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Bulls hope to regain swagger against Rockets

HOUSTONA dominant defense. A nightly advantage on the glass.

A bench that not only maintained, but extended leads on a consistent basisor, in the case that the starters were behind, often took control of the game. Chemistry that led to teammates recognizing the hot hand and when they didnt have it going themselves, making timely plays that didnt involve scoring.

The aforementioned traits were all hallmarks of the Bulls the last two seasons and while they may eventually reappear, in the present, theyre largely absent. It goes without saying that in sidelined superstar Derrick Roses absence, the squad doesnt have that one, dynamic, game-changing equalizer to rescue them, but that didnt stop past editions of the Bulls from being successful in their blue-collar, hard-nosed fashion.

The departure of the Bench Mob has been perhaps overly discussed, but while the reputations of their individual abilities is now more myth than factit must be remembered that upon Tom Thibodeaus arrival over two years ago, the Bulls bench wasnt exactly mythologized and to be honest, the group was regarded as a bit flawed and underwhelming before they hit their stridethe spirit of the departed reserves, including holdover Taj Gibson, is what made them special. But throughout the young campaign, that nightly passion, determination and most significantly, defensive focus, have dwindled.

Its more the process. I want us doing the right things and so, every game, you evaluate the things that you think are necessary to win and for us, its always the same. Its the defense, the rebounding, the inside-out, the low turnovers, the sharing the ball, Thibodeau explained before the teams Tuesday afternoon practice at the Toyota Center, where his team will take on the Rockets, one of his many former employers, Wednesday evening.

When you evaluate are you doing things correctly, you can sometimes do things correctly and they opponents can make shots. The problem is, when youre not doing things correctly, to understand the difference and make the necessary corrections, so you can improve and right now, theyre a number of things were doing, and some things were doing well.

We started off the season not challenging shots as well as I would like. I think were covering the three-point line better, but our turnovers, putting opponents into the open floor has hurt us, particularly on the road, so thats something that we have to change, and then we have to play for 48 minutes. Right now, theres some good sequences, some bad sequences, but we have to be more consistent, continued the coach, who noted that well see how it unfolds, when asked specifically if there would be changes to his rotation.

The second quarter has been an area we have to clean up. Offensively, were starting the games strongly. Were inside-out, were shooting a good percentage, were scoring. But the tone of the game is not a defensive tone and then in the second quarter, were being hurt in a lot of different areas, mainly the turnovers. So, thats something that we have to get corrected and then, were in a hole and we usually make a run to come back, but thats difficult to overcome, particularly on the road, when youre fighting a double-digit deficit.

Against the Rockets, a similarly spiraling team and losers of three consecutive outings after a fast start to the season, the Bulls will look to bounce back before returning to the Midwestthey will fly back to Chicago after Wednesdays game, then play Saturday in Milwaukee to conclude their annual Circus Trippreferably with a record over the .500 mark. It wont necessarily easy, however, as reeling Houston does possess talent, as Jeremy Lin, last seasons phenom, combines with early-season blockbuster acquisition James Harden for an explosive backcourt, and former Bulls backup Omer Asik anchors one of the NBAs youngest team in the middle.

Harden is a great player, so he keeps a lot of pressure on you. Its his ability to shoot, his ability to put it on the floor and then, of course, his ability to draw fouls. Then, you combine him with Lin in the backcourt, very dynamic and then, they run the floor extremely well. They play with energy, they shoot a lot of threes, Thibodeau said. Chandler Parsons is one of the most underrated players in the league. Hes really coming on strongly and so is Patrick Patterson.

We know that defensive transition and covering the line will be critical.

So will getting back their old swagger.

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”