This Cubs losing streak goes to 11

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This Cubs losing streak goes to 11

PITTSBURGH Rafael Dolis lifted his head to the sky and all his body language seemed to say: What else could go wrong?

Fireworks went off at PNC Park, lighting up the Pittsburgh skyline on Saturday night. With the bases loaded, Dolis had hit Matt Hagues left side with a pitch, forcing in the game-winning run.

A sellout crowd of 38,132 watched the Pirates hang around for a 3-2 victory. That ninth inning was another snapshot of frustration for the Cubs, whove now lost 11 games in a row.

This is the 11th losing streak of 11 or more games in franchise history, and this group is feeling that weight.

Paul Maholm who went five innings and walked five batters couldnt stop it against his old team. Giving up two runs is too much with this lineup. This probably isnt what he envisioned when he signed with the Cubs last winter.

Were going through a skid, Maholm said. Theres nobody in here pointing fingers at each other. We got to go win the game. We cant expect it to be given to us. We got to go out there and play hard like we have been and come up with hits, come up with big pitches and get it done. Thats our focus.

These are strange days for the Cubs (15-31). In the ninth, they watched Dolis walk Josh Harrison while he was trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt. And Dolis struck out emerging star Andrew McCutchen before it all unraveled.

The frustration level is building. You saw it when Starlin Castro screamed and threw his bat and helmet to the ground. With runners on the corners, Castro had whiffed on an 85 mph curveball to end the threat.

Moments earlier in the seventh inning, Blake Lalli had been thrown out by several steps at home plate. The night before, Castro had struck out in a similar situation against Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan to end the game.

Think Castro has been pressing, trying to do too much?

You could say that about everybody right now, manager Dale Sveum said.

The Cubs hadnt scored a run in 20 innings until the fourth, when Alfonso Soriano deposited Kevin Correias 90 mph fastball into the center-field seats.

In the fifth, Castro snapped the teams 0-for-26 streak with runners in scoring position, lifting a ball into the right-field corner and racing for a game-tying, two-out triple.

Thats the problem we try too hard because we want the big hit, Soriano said. We forget that we have to be more relaxed and let it happen. This game is not too easy, but sometimes we make it harder.

Sometimes, you have to let it go and play one at-bat, every pitch, not try to do too much. And I think now everybodys trying to do too much because were struggling offensively.

Even if Theo Epstein is essentially writing this off as a year for trial and error, and the manager and his coaching staff were hired to rebuild everything, this is still a results-oriented business.

Its only Memorial Day weekend, not the heat of September, and this is a last-place team, not a playoff contender. But the clubhouse knows that everyone is watching. There are veterans who could be moved by the trade deadline, and younger players who may never get a better opportunity to show they belong in the big leagues.

The Cubs havent experienced a losing streak like this since 1997, when they lost their first 14 games of the season. Theyll have to somehow keep it together.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse is great, Sveum said. Nobodys really hanging their head or pouting or anything like that. I think theyre doing a great job of keeping their head up and going about their business.

The preparation and the work ethic are outstanding. Theres nothing you can gripe about there. Were just not getting it done in the nine innings. We have to go out there and perform.

By the bye: Blackhawks keep rolling following break

By the bye: Blackhawks keep rolling following break

When you're on a roll, you hate disrupting it for anything.

The Blackhawks probably felt that in some respect heading into the new NHL-mandated bye week on Feb. 12, but the need for rest usurped any worry on that front. Still, when the Blackhawks reconvened last Friday, the question remained if they could pick up where they left off on that pre-bye, five-game winning streak.

As coach Joel Quenneville said of the unusual break, "we talked about it going into it: you don't know how you're going to come out of it."

Apparently it hasn't been a problem.

The Blackhawks have won two of their first three out of the bye, including their 5-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night.

Coming out of this break hasn't been easy for a lot of teams. The Blackhawks, like 11 other teams up to this point, lost their first game out of it. But in that loss to Edmonton, the Blackhawks played well. That continued on Sunday in Buffalo and on Tuesday in Minnesota. Now back in a rhythm schedule-wise, the Blackhawks are hitting their stride performance-wise.

"I thought we played a good game against Edmonton but we still felt there'd be some good will down the road. I thought we continued on with these next two on the road, probably played the same way going into it. So it's been a good stretch for us, and much better than we were at the beginning of the year," Quenneville said. "I like the improvement in our game."

A big part of the Blackhawks' success is finding their four-line rotation.

Jonathan Toews was joined by Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik early in the Ice Show trip, the three were given time to mesh and it's paying productive dividends. The second line is always a threat. Their third and fourth lines are a great combination of defense, skill and youth.

As the lines have started rolling, so have the Blackhawks. Each line had someone score against Buffalo. The top line thrived vs. the Wild. 

"I think all year we kind of expected the offense, coming from Arty's [Artem Anisimov's] line and maybe my line, but what's making us a really good team is our third and fourth line going out there and just battling every shift, just working, giving other teams no time, no chance to make plays with the puck," Toews said. "I think when you can rotate four lines like that, everyone starts to pick up their pace and their speed and then you just rotate in and it doesn't matter who scores on a given night. We're getting contributions from all over the place and it makes you a dangerous team and a tough team to beat."

Instead of taking steam out of the Blackhawks' sails, the bye appears to have re-energized them.

"Yeah it was good for our team," Ryan Hartman said. "We had a few guys who didn't get [rest during] the all-star break. They were still playing, and it was nice for those guys to get away from the rink and kind of get in the sun and take your mind of hockey for a bit, refresh the brain and body. I think we all needed those couple days of rest. As it's looked the last couple of games we've looked fresh and we've been bringing it almost a full 60. I wouldn't say we're quite playing a full 60 but we're really close and that was crucial for us."

Playing a full 60 was one of the Blackhawks' biggest problems earlier this season. Much like the four-line rotation, it's showing up at the right time. The Blackhawks have a great opportunity this week to get closer to the Wild, who started their break on Wednesday.

The issues that plagued the Blackhawks earlier this season are starting to dissipate. They weren't sure how they were going to come out of this break. So far, they've followed rest and relaxation with a rejuvenated game. 

"We're just rolling four lines now. Every line can score and every line's playing the best hockey," Panik said. "That's helped us."

Bears add another assistant coach to John Fox's staff

Bears add another assistant coach to John Fox's staff

John Fox and the Bears have added another assistant coach.

Zack Azzanni is leaving the University of Tennessee to become the Bears' new receivers coach.

Azzanni has been with Tennessee since 2013 as a receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Prior to that, he spent time at Wisconsin, Western Kentucky, Florida, Central Michigan and six seasons at Bowling Green.

Azzanni was on Urban Meyer's coaching staff at Bowling Green in 2001-02 and also coached Pittsburgh Steelers superstar receiver Antonio Brown at Central Michigan. Under Azzanni's tutelage at CMU from 2007-09, Brown totaled 305 receptions for 3,199 yards and 22 TDs, earning a sixth-round draft selection in 2010.

Curtis Johnson spent 2016 as his first season in the role of Bears' wide receivers coach, but announced he was leaving after the Senior Bowl to take a job with the New Orleans Saints.

It's unknown if Azzanni will get a chance to coach Alshon Jeffery (who is currently a free agent) but the incoming coach will have an important job in molding young receivers like Kevin White and Cameron Meredith.