Frustrated Danks on early struggles: It sucks

747643.png

Frustrated Danks on early struggles: It sucks

John Danks is in the first year of a 65 million deal that's paying him to be the ace of the White Sox. He's under team control through 2016, so one bad month shouldn't cast a pall over the next five seasons.

But April has been cruel to Danks, who hasn't come close to pitching like the ace the White Sox expected. The lefty again struggled with control Friday night against Boston, walking four and allowing seven runs in 5 23 innings as the White Sox fell to the Red Sox 10-3 at a chilly U.S. Cellular Field.

"I'm not okay with it at all. I stole two wins and pitched like crap the other ones," a frustrated Danks said of his start to the season after the game. "That's way too inconsistent. That's the deal."

Danks was quick to dismiss the notion that the 40-degree temperatures and stiff winds played a part in his rough outing.

"The Red Sox had to play in it too. That's just an excuse," Danks said. "I'm not gonna use that. Daniel Bard pitched his ass off today in that weather. Part of the game. We're up here in Chicago, we know it's going to be cold early in the season, and more often than not that'll be advantage pitcher. And it sure as hell wasn't tonight.

"You gotta make pitches, you gotta do your job and I didn't do it. That's the part that stinks."

After not allowing a walk on Opening Day in Texas, Danks has issued 15 free passes in 24 13 innings over his last four starts. Equally as concerning, he's only struck out 16 and allowed four home runs. And his ERA has ballooned to 6.23.

"Walks have bit me in the ass all year to this point," Danks sighed. "It's definitely something we're going to have to focus on, that and keeping the ball in the ballpark. It's frustrating, it sucks. It sucks to go out there and get your hat handed to you. We're all competitive, we don't want that to happen, and what are you gonna do? Try to be ready for the next one."

Danks isn't a stranger to slow starts, though. Through the end of May last season, Danks had a 5.25 ERA with 25 walks, 46 strikeouts and 11 home runs allowed in 70 13 innings. Eventually, Danks turned things around -- he had a 3.69 ERA with 21 walks, 89 strikeouts and 8 home runs in 16 starts after Memorial Day.

But this season's struggles have been more pronounced. Danks' changeup hasn't been up to par, as he's either struggled throwing it for strikes, struggled commanding it in the zone or both. He's thrown plenty of good ones -- about one in every five has resulted in a swing and miss -- but the bad ones have hurt.

Without a good changeup, Danks is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, featuring only a fastball and cutter. And since he's not Mariano Rivera, he's had issues.

"It was hit or miss. When I was able to keep it down, and really try to stay on top of it, it was good," Danks said. "But, you know, just struggled with kind of everything. That's the frustrating part of it, I felt good, I felt like I had good enough stuff to give us a chance to win and didn't. Wasn't able to do it."

There were stretches where Danks looked like a 65 million pitcher Friday night. He retired 10 in a row in the middle innings, but that stretch of success was sandwiched between a bevy of walks and hits.

Danks knows he's only made five starts. There's plenty of time for him to turn things around, and he remains hopeful -- even if he doesn't quite know why he's run into this maddening malaise.

"It's just been inconsistent, just gotta keep working on it and -- I don't know," Danks shrugged. "We're going to keep working at it. I know I have it in me, and hopefully starting next outing we'll get on the right track."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Bulls considering re-signing Derrick Rose

rose.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Bulls considering re-signing Derrick Rose

On the latest edition of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Mark Schanowski is joined by Mark Lazerus (Chicago Sun-Times), Jordan Bernfield and Anthony Herron. 

The panel talks Yoan Moncada's debut and which White Sox prospect will be next. 

The Cubs are now just one game behind the Brewers, are they officially back? 

Finally, could the Bulls actually be considering re-signing Derrick Rose? 

Listen to the SportsTalk Live Podcast below. 

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

willson_contreras_0720.jpg
USA TODAY

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

This is slowly becoming more like Willson Contreras’ team, whether or not the Cubs add a veteran catcher like Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline. Yadier Molina took the in-game, All-Star photo of Nelson Cruz and Joe West, but Contreras is coming for moments like that, too.

In a Cubs clubhouse filled with calm, serious young players who were fast-tracked to Wrigleyville, Contreras is the one who got left exposed in the Rule 5 draft at the 2014 winter meetings and spent parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut.

As much as the Cubs needed that ice-cold demeanor from guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to end the 108-year hex, they will use Contreras’ fire to try to win the World Series again.

“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras said. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”

The Cubs flipped a switch after the All-Star break, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves and moving to within one game of the Milwaukee Brewers, their play screaming at Theo Epstein’s front office to keep buying. Contreras caught the first 45 innings of that six-game winning streak where the rotation finally clicked and hit .409 (9-for-22) with two homers, three doubles and seven RBIs on that road trip.

Contreras is a power source when a 49-45 team talks about going on a run and the defending World Series champs point to all this room to grow in the future. The model will be staring at Contreras this weekend at Wrigley Field when the Cubs try to keep the St. Louis Cardinals down (46-49) and give their front office something to think about (sell?) between now and July 31.

“We look at Yadier Molina,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said. “We know that he’s just an intelligent baseball player. I always try to remind Willson: 'That’s what we’re trying to accomplish, making you not only a threat offensively and defensively, but with your mind.'

“He’s always listening. He wants to learn. He plays with high intensity, high emotion. I always challenge him to be a smart player. That’s the best compliment you can get.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

After a disappointing first half where it looked like the vaunted pitching infrastructure might collapse — and veteran catcher Miguel Montero went on an epic rant that could have foretold a divided clubhouse in the second half — Contreras seemed to be in the middle of everything.

With Contreras behind the plate, Jake Arrieta began his salary drive toward a megadeal, Jose Quintana dazzled in his Cubs debut, Jon Lester recovered from the worst start of his career and John Lackey pitched well enough to delay any awkward conversations about going home to Texas instead of going to the bullpen.

“It was never tough,” said Arrieta, who has chopped his ERA from 5.44 to 4.17 since the middle of May. “It was just a matter of him getting to understand what we like to do as starters.

“He’s learned really quickly. He’s a tremendous athlete back there. I’m very confident that I can bury a curveball, or I can throw a changeup in the dirt, and I know that guy’s going to block it, even with a guy on first or second base. There’s not a ton of guys around the league that you can feel that much confidence in.

“Willson’s been great, and he’s only going to get better.”

Quintana, who breezed through seven scoreless innings against the Orioles (12 strikeouts, zero walks) after that blockbuster trade with the White Sox, gave this review of Contreras: “We were on the same page really quick, believe me. We talked before the game about how we want to go, how we want to call our pitches. He called a really good game, and I appreciate that.”

The Cubs will still be looking for a more-PC version of Montero, whether it’s someone like Avila, who works for his dad, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila, or circling back to an old target like Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (essentially off-limits to a division rival when the Brewers shopped him last summer). Dropping Montero in late June forced Victor Caratini up from Triple-A Iowa, making Contreras the senior catcher with a World Series ring at the age of 25.

“It’s almost like a quarterback in the NFL — there’s so much for them to absorb,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When you come from the minors to the major leagues as a catcher, most of the time in the minor leagues, you’re just developing physical abilities, physical tools, blocking, footwork, throwing, maybe pitcher/catcher relationship.

“But understanding the calling of a game — it’s hard to really develop that on the minor-league level. You have the manager, then maybe a pitching coach and there’s a lot going on. You don’t have that time to put into the game plan or to sit down and talk to this guy. It’s a little bit more superficial. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way — it’s just the way it is.”

Whatever the Cubs do next, it will be with the idea of preserving Contreras in mind. Of the six big-league catchers qualified for the batting title, only two other catchers — World Series winners Buster Posey (.917) and Salvador Perez (.824) — have a higher OPS than Contreras (.822) so far this season. Among National League catchers, Contreras also has the most errors (13) and runners thrown out (19). Outside of Bryzzo, Contreras has the highest WAR (2.6) on the team.

If you think Contreras is emotional, energetic and entertaining now, just imagine what he will be like when he really knows what he’s doing.

“He asks all the right questions,” said Borzello, who won four World Series rings as a New York Yankees staffer. “We go over every game, and between every inning, we talk. We’re working in the right direction. I think he wants it as much as anyone I’ve ever been around.”