With Cutler back, season on the line in next three games

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With Cutler back, season on the line in next three games

The Bears expect to have Jay Cutler back as their starting quarterback after reportedly being cleared by an independent neurologist checking for concussion symptoms lingering from the head blow he took against the Houston Texans.

On the other side, the Minnesota Vikings wont have wide receiverkickoff returner Percy Harvin, unable to practice all week because of an ankle injury.

Make those two significant personnel positives tilting in the Bears favor. Harvin leads the Vikings with 62 catches, nearly double the next-highest total of 34 for Kyle Rudolph, and leads NFL with a return average of 35.9 yards.

But the Cutler return is a game-changer, literally, both for what it brings to the offense in production and in presence. Put another way, the Bears believe theyre a good team with Cutler.

And right now they need to feel something positive on offense, after two games with a combined one touchdown, two offensive-line demotions,

Cutler for his part had a week off to observe (at a distance since he did not make the team flight to San Francisco) and presumably gain a small bit of urgency from not being able to help teammates in a dire situation.

Its different because I really didnt take part in the meetings or practice, Cutler said. It was kind of like a bye week. When you get hurt its an isolated feeling. Your identity with the team is gone and its a helpless feeling not being able to help them and not be where you want to be, out there with the guys.

Now hell have that chance.

Three and done?

Cutlers return comes at a pivotal juncture. The remaining six games are all against NFC teams, four of the six against NFC North opponents.

As much as coaches and players point to the fact that the Bears are still 7-3 after consecutive losses to Houston and San Francisco, only once in franchise history (1979) has a Bears team lost three straight games and reached postseason.

And that team needed to win seven of its last eight to get in. Since this team doesnt have eight, only six, this game becomes a borderline absolute must whether the Bears like it or not.

We have three losses, coach Lovie Smith said. Must? Theres nothing about must when you have three losses. Its a game we want to win in the worst way. We look at every game, its about this week and we need to get a win in the worst way. But big picture it doesnt really say that.

Its Minnesota, a division home game and we havent played well in a couple of weeks. We need to win.

Viking struggles

The Vikings will say the same. They defeated the Detroit Lions last week but lost their two before that to approach the brink of sinking into the mass of mediocrity.

Coach Leslie Frazier is 0-3 against his old team and none of his Vikings units scored more than 14 points against the Bears.

The past is the past, insisted running back Adrian Peterson, who has been less than dominant after demolishing the Bears in 2007-08 as a young Viking. Its different guys they have on their front. Theyve got different guys offensively. Were looking to turn things around.

Turnaround Tice?

Peterson and the Vikings are not the only ones in search of a turnaround or at least major course correction.

The anticipated progress of the offense under first-time coordinator Mike Tice with new weapons like Brandon Marshall and a line returning No. 1 pick Gabe Carimi has not happened. The Bears are 30th in yardage per game (299.4) and are 31st in passing.

Tice is pointing thumb, however, not the finger.

After watching the San Francisco debacle, Tice had some of his harshest criticisms for himself.

It was hard to watch, Tice said. It should have been hard to watch yourself, because thats your resume. And right now my resume is not very good. Im the one calling the plays. Im the one leading the offense and I have to do a better job. I have to find a way to do a better job for us, for all of us, the players, and for my peers that I work with and for the fans.

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

Joe Maddon doesn’t have any concerns about new Cubs closer Wade Davis

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs studied all the MRIs and analyzed every pitch Wade Davis threw last season, poring over the information on the All-Star closer. During the winter meetings, Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore even took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to give Davis a physical exam.  

The Jorge Soler trade wouldn’t be announced until athletic trainer PJ Mainville met with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. The Cubs got another read on the flexor strain in his right forearm that twice put Davis on the disabled list last season.

Davis now has a 19.64 ERA through five Cactus League appearances – and the complete confidence of a manager who isn’t connecting those dots.

“The injury’s really not an issue,” Joe Maddon said Sunday at the Sloan Park complex. “He feels really good right now. He kind of thought that whole thing was a little bit overblown last year, according to (what he told) me. Because even in talking to him in the offseason: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. I feel really good.’”

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays while Davis broke into the big leagues as a starter and began the transition to reliever. Everything clicked in Kansas City’s bullpen, with Davis blowing away hitters and notching the last out of the 2015 World Series.

“I’m watching him,” Maddon said. “He’s throwing the ball really well easily. That’s what’s really encouraging to me. From the side, there’s no bumping and grinding and…” Maddon made a grunting noise to illustrate his point: “There’s none of that. It’s easy. I look up at the gun and I’m seeing 94, 95 and sometimes 96 (mph). It’s like: Wow, I have never seen him do that in camp.”

Across the last three seasons, Davis allowed three home runs while piling up 234 strikeouts in almost 183 innings. This spring, he has twice gotten only one out, like Saturday’s 29-pitch, four-run appearance against the Colorado Rockies. Overall in March, he’s given up eight earned runs, nine hits and five walks in 3.2 innings.  

“Honestly, I’ve know him long enough that it’s not” a concern, Maddon said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he’s actually throwing better than he normally does in spring training. The biggest problem he’s having right now is command.

“Velocity looks good. The break on the breaking ball looks good. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants it. And this guy is normally the kind of pitcher that can dot it up really well.

“But everything else looks really good to me, (because) I had him back with the Rays and in spring training you always saw him throwing like 86, 87, 88 (mph). I’m seeing easy 94-95. I’m seeing sharp break on some breaking stuff. It’s just bad counts and bad command right now.”

This isn’t the Cubs saying Carlos Marmol or Jose Veras is our closer. A guy with a 0.84 ERA in 23 career playoff appearances doesn’t care about Cactus League stats. As long as Davis is healthy, there should be no doubts about the ninth inning. Check back next week amid the sea of red at Busch Stadium.

“A lot of it’s just an adrenaline rush sometimes,” Maddon said. “A lot it’s just a moment that you can’t recreate here. You can’t do it. It’s impossible.”

Nick Delmonico takes advantage of fresh start with White Sox

Nick Delmonico takes advantage of fresh start with White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Given he was almost out of baseball just two years ago, White Sox farmhand Nick Delmonico never imagined he’d be where he is now.

But the former Baltimore Orioles/Milwaukee Brewers prospect feels like he has rid himself of the off-the-field issues that stunted development early in his career.

In 2014, Delmonico served a suspension for unauthorized use of Adderall and later asked for and was granted his release by Milwaukee. Now with a fresh start with the White Sox, he heads into the final week of camp with an outside shot at the roster. Though he’s likely to start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, Delmonico knows he has made tremendous progress both on and off the field the past two years.

“I definitely did not see this,” Delmonico said. “I’m very blessed to be here.

“It feels awesome. It feels like I’ve accomplished a lot just in my life to get here. Just being around my teammates is one of the biggest things I enjoy every day, just coming to the ballpark. I’m very happy and honored to be able to come here everyday.”

The White Sox weren’t sure what to expect when they signed Delmonico, 24, to a minor league deal on Feb. 11, 2015. A sixth-round pick by the Orioles in 2011, Delmonico received a $1.525 million signing bonus. He was traded to Milwaukee in July 2013 in exchange for closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Delmonico received a 50-game suspension for Adderall in 2014, which he told the Charlotte News Observer he’d used since high school for attention deficit disorder (ADD). Delmonico told the Observer he informed Milwaukee that he no longer wanted to play baseball, changed his phone number and asked for his release. He was placed on the restricted list on July 28 and never played in the Brewers farm system again.

The White Sox signed Delmonico seven months after his final game with Milwaukee and he returned to the field that June.

Delmonico requested privacy when asked about switching teams but acknowledged, “I had some past issues with some stuff that I’d like to keep to myself,” he said.

Delmonico started the 2015 season at Single-A Kannapolis and was promoted a week later to Double-A Birmingham. He finished the season with a .733 OPS and made an additional 76 plate appearances at the Arizona Fall League.

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Last season, Delmonico combined to hit .279/.347/.490 with 17 homers between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte in 110 games. That earned him an invite to big league camp, where Delmonico has displayed a swing refined the past two seasons.

Current third-base coach and former director of player development Nick Capra said Delmonico has worked hard to go from a pull hitter to one who uses the entire field. He entered Sunday hitting .268/.328/.589 with nine extra-base hits this spring in a team-high 61 plate appearance this spring.

“This kid has made a complete turnaround from when we first got him in camp,” Capra said. “He’s done everything. He’s done probably more than we expected him to do. He’s in a really great place. He has a personality that people kind of gravitate to and it’s been a blessing to have him around and see the smile on his face when he comes to work every day.”

Originally a third baseman, the White Sox have moved Delmonico around this spring. He’s logged time at first base and also in the outfield as they try to improve his versatility. If Delmonico performs well at Charlotte, there’s no reason he couldn’t eventually find his way to Chicago and succeed in the big leagues.

“We’re continuing to try to explore his ability to play third base,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He can obviously play first. We’ve started using him in left field. He’s a young man that has a bat to carry. Can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Gives you good at-bats. There’s something to him about his personality and the way he carries himself, which is infectious, which we like.”

Delmonico praised the family-feel that has been prominent in the White Sox clubhouse this spring. He had some jitters coming into his first big league camp but hasn’t allowed them to hinder anything.

He likes how Renteria and his staff have brought a young group of players together. And best of all, he’s happy to be in the right place to enjoy the experience.

“It definitely gives you confidence what you do here,” Delmonico said. “You’ve got to keep moving forward. The biggest thing for big league camp for me is learning as much as I can from everybody. And learning from myself, I’ve been able to handle things and try to pick up as much as I can.”