Cubs break through the wall with Alfonso Soriano

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Cubs break through the wall with Alfonso Soriano

There is the perception of Alfonso Soriano as the entitled 136 million star, and the reality for those who are around him every day.

Soriano is a flawed player. He doesnt make it look easy. He is 36 years old and cant run the same way he used to. Left field really isnt his natural position.

But Soriano has never shown that he feels the weight of his contract. Always smiling and upbeat, he shrugs off the boos and stands at his locker to face the media. Even if thats not worth 54 million across the next three years, its also not insignificant.

Soriano cant change who he is. But he still wants to improve his defense. He robbed Carlos Gomez during Wednesdays 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, charging in and leaning forward to squeeze the ball near the top of his glove as he fell to the ground.

The night before, Soriano made a running catch in left before bouncing off the bricks and ivy. The guy who once said he was almost afraid of the wall stole a hit away from Aramis Ramirez, and chased Gomez back to first base with a strong throw.

This is what new first-base coach Dave McKay has been preaching to Soriano since the start of spring training.

McKay has the credibility of someone who spent 26 seasons on Tony La Russas major-league coaching staff. McKay won rings with the Oakland As (1989) and St. Louis Cardinals (2006, 2011).

I hear the fans (have been) a little hard on (Soriano), McKay said. But a lot of that is the way he played his game in the outfield. (Its) not being aware of how you look sometimes and changing that.

Dont jog to a ball. Get to it and get it in real quick. Dont hold the ball. Theres a cutoff man out there your job is done. Get it to him as quick as you can.

Sorianos speed is gone after a series of injuries quad, calf, knee, hamstring diminished a 40-40 threat. He concentrated on his agility and endurance while training at the Cubs academy in the Dominican Republic during the offseason.

I feel good, Soriano said. My legs feel fresh. Thats the most important thing. I can run and not even think about it.

Heres another pleasant surprise for Cubs fans: Soriano approached McKay on Tuesday and asked to skip the grounders and balls off the fungo bat so that he could practice fielding the line drives hit over his head.

Yeah, from the other side, you dont see how hard he works and how much he cares, McKay said. What a great guy. Gosh, you want him to do well. You (think) if theres a way of helping him get better, it would be great to be able to be a part of that.

The balls in his court. Its all up to the player. You just cant tell him to be better. But I love the guy. (Hes) never backed off a minute working and has come to me about needing to work on (certain stuff).

As manager Dale Sveum might say, this isnt rocket science or reinventing the wheel. Its attention to detail. McKay broke down the video and saw that Soriano was catching the ball four or five different ways.

When McKay teaches the outfielders, he does it in a direct way that tries to simplify things. Its all about increasing your sense of awareness.

Look back every hitter maybe two or three times a hitter and see that warning track, know how large (it) is, McKay said. Dont just be standing out there in one spot and all of a sudden the balls hit and (youre not) sure where the wall is.

Same thing (with the sun). Look up, dont come in the dugout and say, Wow, the ball got right into the sun. Know where it is, look up and have a plan of escape. (When) a right-handed hitter hits a ball, it tails one way. (With) a left-handed hitter, it tails another way, so dont let it come into the sun. (Its) things like that.

Soriano has been open to all these ideas, and the Cubs think he can be a leader in a clubhouse that has seen a lot of turnover.

Sveum has also done a good job of managing expectations. The manager defused Sorianos posing at home plate by calling it a natural habit, and stressing that the streaky hitter will be a big part of this lineup.

Hes been working his butt off every single day, trying to get better, Sveum said. The legs arent going to allow him to do a lot of things (with) speed. But as long as he catches what hes supposed to and throws to the right bases thats all anybody can ask for.

Hes in there for his bat and Daves done a great job working with him and positioning him and making sure nothing gets over his head. Hes (playing) deeper. We keep slugging percentage down that way, to make teams get two and three hits instead of one.

Soriano is rich and famous beyond anyones wildest dreams, but thats not the only way to keep score. He got paid, but still wants to get better. Hell show up ready to work tomorrow.

Yeah, man, every day I put the uni on, its like a new experience for me. Its exciting, Soriano said. I dont feel like I have 12 years in the big leagues. I just feel like this is my first year. I got the same hunger.

In or out of the NCAA tournament? Where every Big Ten team stands with one week left in the regular season

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USA TODAY

In or out of the NCAA tournament? Where every Big Ten team stands with one week left in the regular season

There's one week to go in the Big Ten regular season.

Thing is, though that means just two games apiece for the 14 teams, seemingly nothing has been determined yet. Just a game separates Purdue and Wisconsin at the top of the standings, and a trio of squads — Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan State — are tied for third place a game behind the the Badgers. Mathematically, any one of those five could win at least a share of the Big Ten title.

The picture isn't much clearer when it comes to the NCAA tournament. The teams that were locks a week ago are mired in losing stretches now, and teams that figured to be on the bubble are rising in the standings, creating an entirely new group of bubble teams.

This year has been a mediocre one for the conference, making it hard to peg which groups belong in the field of 68 or not. Seemingly, though, that's a national trend, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had seven Big Teams in his projection on Monday.

With one week left in the regular season, here's a team-by-team look at who it looks like will go dancing, who doesn't have a chance and who still might have some work to do.

Illinois Fighting Illini

In or out: Hard to say

John Groce's team is surging, blowing out Nebraska over the weekend to pick up its fourth win in its last five games. That stretch includes two wins over a stumbling Northwestern team, wins that are unfortunately losing heft as the Wildcats keep piling up late-season losses. But there's no doubting that the Illini are playing a much better brand of basketball lately, with defense powering wins. The last two Illinois opponents have scored fewer than 60 points. Playing better against the likes of Nebraska and Iowa won't mean much without a signature win in there. Wednesday night brings an opportunity against Michigan State. Win that one, and the Illini would suddenly — and miraculously, given a 3-8 start to conference play — be in the conversation for a spot in the Dance.

Indiana Hoosiers

In or out: Hard to say

For some reason, the Hoosiers have remained in the "will they or won't they" conversation despite a dreadful season. Saturday night's win over Northwestern stopped Indiana's five-game losing streak, but with the Cats mired in their own losing stretch — and blowing that game with a last-second foul — how impressive is that win, exactly? Indiana sticking on the NCAA tournament bubble despite its 6-10 conference record and current 10th-place standing is a little head-scratching, but it's hard also to completely discount the resume, which features those early season non-conference wins over Kansas and North Carolina. A win like those the rest of the way — like in Tuesday night's bout with rival Purdue — could crank the conversation up surrounding the Hoosiers' candidacy for a spot in the Dance.

Iowa Hawkeyes

In or out: Out

It was a brief flirtation with the NCAA tournament bubble for the Hawkeyes, but it looks like Fran McCaffery's young team will have to wait till next year. Maybe things change if Iowa deals yet another loss to Wisconsin on Thursday night. After all, the Hawkeyes already have wins over Purdue, Michigan and Maryland teams all seemingly destined for the Dance. But with a max 18 possible wins in the regular season, would that be enough to even start the conversation? After all, these selection-committee folks have a long memory (as evidenced by the fact that they're still talking about Indiana), and Iowa had that disastrous run during non-conference play where it dropped five of six. It would seem Hawkeyes' fans' eyes should be on next season's tournament.

Maryland Terrapins

In or out: In

Mark Turgeon's team is on a three-game losing streak after getting thumped good by Iowa over the weekend. But already with double-digit wins in the conference and a whopping 22 wins overall, it would seem nothing could knock the Terps out of the field of 68. That doesn't mean, of course, that their seed won't take a beating from this losing stretch, which has featured losses in five of their last seven games.

Michigan Wolverines

In or out: In

The Wolverines seemingly played their way into the Dance with a big win over Purdue on Saturday. Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the conference right now, a winner in five of its last six games. From flirting with disaster to a surefire lock, Michigan is a No. 8 seed in Lunardi's latest projection, and that number could go even higher if the Wolverines keep things going. The two games that remain on the regular-season schedule come on the road, where Michigan has won only twice this season. But those games are against a struggling Northwestern team and a beatable Nebraska team. If the Wolverines win both games, that's closing the season on a seven-out-of-eight run to produce an even more favorable Big Ten Tournament matchup. Talk about getting hot at the right time.

Michigan State Spartans

In or out: In

Much like their in-state rivals, a big win over the weekend figured to secure a tournament spot for the Spartans, who took care of business against a stumbling Wisconsin team on Sunday in East Lansing. A team that's found itself in that "last four in" discussion this season seems safe with a No. 9 seed in Lunardi's latest projection. A brutal non-conference season that featured five losses will stick in the memory of the committee, but since Sparty has picked up wins over Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and two over currently red-hot Minnesota. Freshmen Nick Ward, Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston are playing real well right now, and Michigan State has won four of its last five. Holding off Illinois on Wednesday night would do the Spartans a lot of good. A win this weekend over Maryland might lock things up.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

In or out: In

There's no Big Ten team hotter than the Gophers, who have won seven straight, a streak that includes wins over tourney-goers Maryland and Michigan. Minnesota's playing great on the offensive end and scoring a lot of points. More importantly it's redeeming a midseason five-game losing streak that had at least this observer questioning what all the fuss was about. Well, there's no questioning that anymore, and the resume looks terrific: a 12-1 non-conference record with a win over Arkansas and the only loss to Florida State, plus a potential top-four finish in the Big Ten with wins over Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Maryland. The cherry on top would be a win in the regular-season finale over rival Wisconsin. Oh, and given their current streaking, the Gophers might be the favorite heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

In or out: Out

Conference play started with such promise for the Huskers, who won their first three Big Ten games. But they've won just three Big Ten games since and at 6-10 are tied with three others in the second-to-last spot in the conference standings. Glynn Watson Jr. and Tai Webster have been good this year, but it'll be a third straight year without an NCAA tournament trip. But considering that Tim Miles-led appearance was the program's first since 1998, there's certainly no reason for Nebraska brass to have anything but full confidence in its head coach.

Northwestern Wildcats

In or out: Hard to say

Maybe I'm being an alarmist, but Northwestern's crash-and-burn finish to the regular season puts into question what was very recently lock status for the Wildcats. Chris Collins' crew was 7-2 in the Big Ten when Scottie Lindsey had to take a four-game absence with mono. Since, the Cats have lost five of seven — including two to Illinois — and can't do a thing at the offensive end. Saturday night's collapse at Indiana was the latest and most painful way Northwestern has lost during this recent stretch. The final two regular-season games come in Evanston, but they're against really good Michigan and Purdue teams. It's not difficult to envision the regular season ending in a four-game losing streak with losses in seven of nine. Would that be enough to kick Northwestern out of the field of 68? It remains to be seen. Lunardi still has the Cats at a No. 10 seed a week after assuring everyone they were a lock. If they keep losing — and what if that includes their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, too? — will he have to change his rosy outlook?

Ohio State Buckeyes

In or out: Out

The worst year of the Thad Matta Era is about to come to a merciful end. A 10-3 non-conference season with losses to UCLA and Virginia set the Buckeyes up for a potential tourney run, but they started league play with a four-game losing streak and never recovered, just last week snapping a three-game losing streak with a win over Wisconsin. There's a chance to end the season on a positive note with two winnable games left against Penn State and Indiana. That could dig Ohio State out of the bottom four and avoid the dreaded Wednesday games in the Big Ten Tournament. But certainly right now, nothing seems possible — short of an unexpected conference-tournament run to a championship — that would vault it into the Big Dance.

Penn State Nittany Lions

In or out: Out

There are a lot of reasons to be excited in Happy Valley, and it looks like 2018 is a real possibility for the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. It won't be 2017, though, as everyone can tell. But the play of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, not to mention plenty of other guys who aren't Philly freshmen, has to have people pleased with the direction Patrick Chambers is taking his program. Winnable games remain against Ohio State and Iowa, plus there's potential noise to be made in the Big Ten Tournament. It could all end up with just the second above-.500 finish of the Chambers Era.

Purdue Boilermakers

In or out: In

One of the most obvious locks in the conference, the Boilers will likely enter the Big Ten Tournament as the popular pick to win the whole thing, and they'll likely enter the NCAA tournament with the best chance of any Big Ten team to make the deepest run. That being said, not everything is perfect in West Lafayette. Purdue is coming off a weekend loss to Michigan, that after sweating out a midweek overtime win at Penn State. Both those games came away from home, and getting back to Mackey for Tuesday night's showdown with rival Indiana should be a positive for Matt Painter's bunch. The regular-season wraps against a stumbling Northwestern team in Evanston. There's no reason to doubt the Boilers will get an invite to the Big Dance, but already the selection committee's boxing out of the Big Ten from its top 16 a few weeks back looks prophetic.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

In or out: Out

Yes, Rutgers is still residing in the 14th spot in the Big Ten standings, but in the first year under new head coach Steve Pikiell, the Knights have certainly played better than their record indicates. That doesn't mean they'll upset Maryland or Illinois in this final week or that they won't finish with just two league wins. But if Pikiell's group can get just one more win this week or in the Big Ten Tournament, it will have doubled last season's win total.

Wisconsin Badgers

In or out: In

The Badgers are a lock, but if they want anything besides a first-round exit, they better figure out what the problem is and fix it fast. If Wisconsin hadn't racked up 21 wins by early February and if the Big Ten wasn't so mediocre this season, this recent stretch of four losses in five games would be looked upon as an epic collapse. Instead, Greg Gard's group is just one game back of first place in the conference standings and could still manage the Big Ten Tournament's No. 1 seed even with this stretch of poor play. Coming off back-to-back road losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, Wisconsin gets its shot at redemption Thursday night against Iowa before a big weekend bout with red-hot Minnesota. The Badgers don't have to worry about their NCAA tournament spot vanishing, but their AP top-25 ranking is about to disappear.

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

Michal Rozsival, Jordin Tootoo extensions give Blackhawks flexibility at expansion draft

The Blackhawks agreed to one-year contract extensions with defenseman Michal Rozsival and forward Jordin Tootoo, the team announced Tuesday.

Rozsival's deal is worth $650,000 while Tootoo's deal carries a $700,000 cap hit, according to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.

The move gives the Blackhawks two players eligible to be exposed during this summer's expansion draft.

NHL teams must expose two forwards and one defenseman that have played at least 40 games in 2015-16 or more than 70 in 2016-17, and they must be under contract in 2017-18.

[MORE: The Blackhawks' 9-1 February by the numbers]

Rozsival and Tootoo meet those requirements, which means the Blackhawks can now protect Ryan Hartman, who is also eligible.

They are allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goaltender. 

Rozsival, 38, has one goal and one assist in 16 games this season, often serving as the team's extra defenseman. Tootoo, 34, has no points in 36 games.