Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

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Getting defensive: Cubs trying to shift the odds in their favor

CINCINNATI These plays wont make the highlight reel, and will never draw as much attention as Starlin Castro making an error.

You may not have noticed if youve been tuning into the Bulls, or listen to the noise about Castro changing positions. But watch enough of the Cubs and youll see balls that look like base hits, except a defender is already there.

This isnt a reason to print playoff tickets, and no one is saying this is a great defensive team. Front offices not to mention media types and casual fans have struggled to measure defense.

But these defensive shifts and calculated positioning offer insight into the type of organization team president Theo Epstein and manager Dale Sveum are trying to build.

Its a 90 percent rule, Sveum said Wednesday. If a guys going to hit a ball here 90 percent of the time, then why dont you play there?

Its like playing blackjack. You dont hit on 16. If you have a 10, you better hit on 10. Its the same factors sometimes. Youre just playing the odds. And if the odds are in your favor to do something, then you need to take advantage.

Scan the field during the second inning on Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park. Jay Bruce, a powerful left-handed hitter in the middle of the Cincinnati Reds lineup, steps to the plate.

Castro shifted to the other side of second base. First baseman Bryan LaHair moved close to the line. Second baseman Blake DeWitt played in between them. Third baseman Ian Stewart almost moved to short.

Everyones on the same page, second baseman Darwin Barney said. It gives us all something to work on together and develop a game plan. (Its) just feeling prepared. There were sometimes in the past where I felt like we were out-prepared. This year I dont feel like thats the case at all.

Sveum really got into the B.A.T.S. video system as the third-base coach with the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2005. As a high school quarterback, he was good enough to turn down a scholarship offer to Arizona State University.

Sveum became a film rat at Fenway Park. As much as the Cubs wanted the Red Sox model, they also seem to be getting a version of Bill Belichicks New England Patriots.

Sveums detailed spray charts resonated with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer during the interview process. They looked at the game through similar lenses and made a significant investment in the teams video capabilities.

Even with better technology, the players still have to buy in. Carlos Zambranos ideas of where the infielders should be didnt always match up with the coaching staff, and Marlon Byrd could be a bit of a freelancer at times in center field.

The Cubs know that hitters want to drive the ball from left-center to right-center, a kind of V-formation, so they will pinch up the middle to try to take that away.

Before each series, third-base coach Pat Listach will watch the last 100 groundballs from each position player on the opposing team, because swings can change over the course of a season. That right there is a database of 1,300 at-bats.

Were trying to play the percentages, Listach said. The charts dont lie.

There are other variables, like breaking it down with two strikes and charting which balls were hit hard and which ones were not. Utility man Jeff Baker credited Listach and first-base coach Dave McKay, who works with the outfielders.

Theyre busting their tail and no one really sees that, Baker said. They kind of just stay down at the end of the dugout and position guys.

Its frustrating as a hitter when you square a ball up and you hit it into a shift, or someones playing you where they normally dont play you, and youre out. It can start to wear on you a little bit.

The second part is our pitchers have been executing their game plan to where were playing a shift on a guy and theyre still throwing it where they need to throw it. You can put a shift on somebody, a dead pull hitter, the pitcher pounds him away and it makes you kind of look like youre not on the same page.

I dont think people realize how much time our coaching staff puts into it. From the top to the bottom, (theyre) prepared.

That culture is what Sveum will be judged on during his first year on the job. The Cubs will keep trying to beat the casino.

Were doing a lot of homework, Barney said. Were trying to come out with a game plan (and) as many cards in our back pocket as we can.

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The Blackhawks were finally getting healthy and now may be missing a key player once again. That depends on how Niklas Hjalmarsson feels after suffering an upper-body injury against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

It was certainly the toughest part of the Blackhawks' victory, a 6-3 triumph that has the Blackhawks closing in on the Wild. We'll see what the Hjalmarsson update is over the weekend. Until then, let's look at the notables from this one.

What Worked: The offense. We'll give an honorable mention to the penalty kill, which snuffed out all of the Coyotes' chances including a double minor that overlapped the second and third periods. But the offense was just buzzing again. Here's another shocker: the top line is still working just fine. The trio got things started with Nick Schmaltz's goal just 37 seconds into the game (Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik assisted). And much like in their meeting with the Coyotes earlier this month, the Blackhawks needed just about every bit of that offense. While we're on this topic...

What Didn't Work: The first-period defense. The Blackhawks looked like they were in good shape up 3-1 but then they gave up two goals within a minute late in the period. Michal Rozsival had a rough start in his first game since Jan. 15, but overall, the Blackhawks' defense through that first period looked discombobulated. Obviously, it didn't help that the Blackhawks lost Hjalmarsson during the first, either.

[RELATED: Patrick Kane nets hat trick as Blackhawks cruise past Coyotes]

Star of the game: Patrick Kane. One game after Jonathan Toews recorded a hat trick Kane did the same, scoring his 21st, 22nd and 23rd goals of the season. On a night in which the Blackhawks dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen, Kane got a little extra playing time. His first goal came on a first-period shift with Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero, the second off a long pass from Brent Seabrook and the third with his usual line mates.

He Said It: "I didn't play much before I got hurt, then I missed four weeks with my injury. It wasn't easy but definitely the way the team's playing now, it made it easier for me. It felt like the first game of the season for me but glad we got the victory and glad I was back playing. I enjoyed it." — Michal Rozsival on returning to the Blackhawks' lineup. 

By the Numbers: 

6 – Number of times, in their last eight games, the Blackhawks have scored five or more goals.

342 – Assists for Jonathan Toews, who tied Dennis Hull for 12th all-time in franchise history in that category.

35 – Combined points for the Blackhawks' top liners Jonathan Toews, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik in their nine games together. The breakdown in those nine games: Toews has 16 points, Panik 10 and Schmaltz nine.

1997 – The last time the Blackhawks had hat tricks in back-to-back regular-season games. Alexei Zhamnov and Eric Daze had them on April 11 and April 13, 1997, respectively.