Chicago White Sox

Competition vs. friendship on the O-line: Bears aim to stay close

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Competition vs. friendship on the O-line: Bears aim to stay close

Because it pushes already competitive individuals sometimes even more, competition for positions is a good thing.

Dont necessarily tell that to the players with jobs at risk, particularly along the offensive line, traditionally the closest-knit group on any football team.

Long-time Bears center Olin Kreutz always maintained that the most unpleasant time in his distinguished career was the 1999 training camp and preseason competition he went through vs. Casey Wiegmann.

The reason had nothing to do with acrimony or bad feelings between the two. It was that each knew that the loser was someone who deserved to be an NFL starter.

Kreutz went on to become a six-time Pro Bowl center and started 183 games for the Bears. Wiegmann was voted to the AFC Pro Bowl as a member of the Denver Broncos and at one point had a 127-game streak of consecutive starts.

Then 2012 training camp has been the proving ground for JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams at left tackle. Both have started at the position; both have started at right tackle as well.

Unless a calamity befalls Gabe Carimi at right tackle, either Webb or Williams will no longer be a starter.

In a meeting room and position group built on closeness, a measure of strain among friends would be understandable.

Not at all, insisted center and Bears co-captain Roberto Garza. Both guys are true professionals and weve spent a lot of time together, but this obviously has nothing to do with the friendships.

Its got everything to do with them just showing the coaches that they deserve to be the starting left tackle. Nothing gets in between us.

Competitions are going on elsewhere. Chilo Rachal and Ricky Henry are challenging guards Chris Spencer and Lance Louis. But the starters in each case are established rather than in the kind of competition involving Webb and Williams.

And much of the upheaval along the offensive line over the past couple of seasons has been the result of injury rather than straightforward Player A beating out Player B.

The one with arguably the most to lose right now is Williams, who becomes a free agent after the 2012 season. But Webb is desperately in quest of establishing that he was not the pass-protection disaster that he became in 2011.

Its a big position to be in for both guys, Garza said. Its Chris contract year and JMarcus is trying to establish himself as well. So its going to be very competitive and important for our team.

Both know the stakes and the terms of the competition.

It doesnt affect me too much, Webb said. You just got to come out here and do your job, get better every day and help your team out.

For Williams, who has lost tackle jobs before, theres always pressure, he said. Everyone has a job to do the whole team and we just got to come out and do our best to be explosive and take care of our part of the bargain.

Avisail Garcia's 'big head' isn't getting in the way of defensive improvements

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USA TODAY

Avisail Garcia's 'big head' isn't getting in the way of defensive improvements

Avisail Garcia's "big head" almost cost the White Sox on Friday night. At least, that's Reynaldo Lopez's humorous theory. 

With the game on the line and the Royals' tying run dashing for the plate, Garcia slipped a bit before making a clutch recovery to nail Whit Merrifield. The craziness continued after the tag as Narvaez caught Lorenzo Cain drifting off first base to seal a win. 

"I was watching the game on the TV here," Lopez said, "and then when I saw the hit from Cain, and I saw that Avi fell down because he has a big head, I was concerned but at the same time I saw that his throw, he has a good arm and he made a very good throw." 

Just your average 9-2-4-6 double play to end a game on the South Side, right? 

"Obviously, when he slipped we took a little gasp," Renteria said. "But we were talking about his body control to be able to maintain himself enough to get up and make the throw that he did. Unbelievable. It's pretty exciting finish to a ballgame that kind of got a little ugly early on."

Ugly is an apt way to describe the first few innings. Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada both made errors in the Royals' six-run third inning, and Lopez capped it off with a wild pitch that allowed Eric Hosmer to score. But it went from an eyesore loss to an overzealous "we could make noise in 2019" rebuild win from there, and Garcia's defense -- of all things -- played a significant role. 

Garcia's outfield assist in the ninth was his second of the game. The first, an absolute strike to cut down Alex Gordon in the sixth, didn't involve a slip, though. 

And while much has been made of Garcia's breakout year with the bat, he believes his defense is hugely improved, too. 

"I think 100 percent," he said. "I just try to get better every day with hitting and defense. That’s baseball so get better in everything."

He has 12 outfield assists on the season, up from five a year ago. And despite his overall fielding percentage being down, his strong arm may give him a stronger defensive reputation. 

"Since last year, he's always had an excellent arm," Renteria said. "I think his accuracy is something to be pointed out too because as off balance as he was, he's made some throws to the plate that have been really spot on."

Renteria attributes Garcia's accuracy to the outfielder putting in extra time with Daryl Boston. 

"(Boston) has those guys throwing, and none of you guys are out there watching them work, but they'll throw quite a bit to the bases, especially second base," Renteria said. "They'll get deep and they'll work on doing that, so that's just a part of their routine."

The evolution of Avi carries on. 

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

MILWAUKEE – “Yeah, that really killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” John Lackey said sarcastically late Friday night, dismissing a question about what’s happened to the Cubs since the Milwaukee Brewers made their statement against the defending World Series champs two weekends ago. “Come on, dude, it’s 162 games. Things happen.”

The Cubs are 9-1 since then, but Lackey was in no mood to talk about this finishing kick in the National League Central race, probably because manager Joe Maddon gave him the quick hook in a Big Boy Game, pulling him with a runner on and no outs in the fifth inning. But that’s what’s happening here, the Cubs sprinting away from the Brewers and peaking at the right time.

The Brewers are gasping for air after these pulsating back-to-back nights at Miller Park, the Cubs again coming from behind to win in 10 innings and close in on their second straight division title and third playoff appearance in a row, something this franchise hasn’t done since the run capped by the 1908 World Series title repeat.

After a hard-earned 5-4 win, the Cubs knocked the Brewers back to third place and chopped the magic number to eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals down to five, meaning the clinch party could be in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse next week.

“We played fine that series, actually,” Lackey said, referencing three games where the Cubs lost 2-0, 15-2 and 3-1, allowing the Brewers and Cardinals within two games of first place. “S---, you can lose in this league and still play good. That’s why it’s the big leagues.”

Actually, it looks like the Cubs responded to the challenge from an upstart team, the crowd of 40,116 and a playoff environment.

“It’s been amazing,” Carl Edwards Jr. said. “It actually felt like last year’s World Series when I came in the 10th inning.”

Edwards notched the last five outs this time – with All-Star closer Wade Davis unavailable because he did the same thing the night before – part of a group effort that included a guy whose right elbow hadn’t allowed him to pitch since Sept. 8 (Hector Rondon) and a lefty swingman who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning three days ago against the Tampa Bay Rays (Mike Montgomery).

Lackey’s response when asked about the bullpen’s performance – three runs allowed in 11 innings – halfway through a four-game showdown: “They’ve been asked to do a lot…and they’ve really stepped up and done a great job.”

“In order to win, you’re going to need contributions from non-All-Star players at times,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re going to have to get contributions from players stepping up because of someone else’s bad performance or someone else’s injury.

“You want your best players to play best in these situations. But ultimately that won’t always happen. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re going to need some contributions from other guys.”

That’s been crucial for the 2017 Cubs. The game-winning run scored when Tommy La Stella – the pinch-hitter who had been dealing with a groin injury recently and personal issues that led him to walk away from the organization last summer – drew a bases-loaded walk against All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

If you want to see a grinding approach for October, just look at Jon Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat against Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning, which led to a leadoff single, Ben Zobrist’s two-run single up the middle and a 4-3 lead after Lackey’s slow start.

Yeah, the Cubs look locked in now.

“I’m so proud of the way our guys (respond),” Maddon said. “They get hit a little bit, maybe something to the solar plexus, but we still keep going.”