Chicago White Sox

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.

Lucas Giolito puts together another strong outing in White Sox loss to Astros

Lucas Giolito puts together another strong outing in White Sox loss to Astros

HOUSTON — He didn’t have his best stuff against baseball’s top offense on Tuesday night, but Lucas Giolito had his changeup.

The young White Sox pitcher showed once again that when he has confidence in an offspeed pitch he’s able to overcome situations where his fastball might not be as good as he’d prefer. Trust in the changeup and a good command of the fastball were more than enough to put together another strong performance.

While Giolito took the decision in a 3-1 White Sox loss to the Houston Astros, he once again earned plaudits for his pitching.

“He was really good,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “His changeup's very good. He obviously can spin a couple different breaking balls. It looks like a heavy fastball. So, a really impressive young starter to be able to navigate the lineup in different ways and get guys out in different ways and really compete.”

Perhaps no one hitter better demonstrated Giolito’s ability to compete than his sixth-inning showdown with Astros No. 5 hitter Marwin Gonzalez. Having just issued his first walk down 2-1 with two outs and a man on second, Giolito threw both his two- and four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball during a lengthy at-bat. With the count full, Gonzalez fouled off six consecutive fastballs before Giolito threw a changeup in the dirt for the whiff on the 12th pitch of the at-bat.

It was one of 18 changeups Giolito threw, with 11 going for strikes.

“The changeup was a good pitch for me aside from a few I left up in the zone,” Giolito said. “I had a lot of confidence in it and that was probably the offspeed pitch I was most comfortable going to in situations.”

Given his fastball velo was an average of 92.2 mph, confidence and comfort were critical. Houston entered the game with a team slash line of .282/.345/.479 and averaging 5.47 runs per contest. The American League West champions offer few easy outs and were clearly the sternest test to date for Giolito, who has never pitched more innings in a season than his current 167 between Triple-A Charlotte and the majors.

Even though the velo isn’t where he’s wanted it in the past two outings, Giolito has pitched well enough. Giolito produced his fourth quality start in six outings in the big leagues as he limited the Astros to two earned runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.

“Felt pretty good about it,” Giolito said. “It was one of those days where I didn’t have my best stuff working. Had a lot of trouble getting the ball to the extension side. That’s something to work on this week going into the next start. But I felt good about how I pitched tonight for sure.”

The White Sox feel pretty good about the production they’ve received from Giolito, who struggled with consistency earlier this season at Triple-A and dropped down in the prospect rankings as a result. The right-hander said he’s pleased with how he’s learned to be more composed on the mound this season. He’s also clearly gained confidence and trust in his stuff.

“Based on everything we saw, the skill set that he would be able to manage his ability on the mound to attack the strike zone,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s throwing his breaking ball more effectively now, the changeup as well.”

“All in all he’s doing what he needs to do. He’s kept hitters off balance. His ball has some life. He has angle. We’re happy with how he’s continued to develop.”

Giolito’s offense didn’t do what it needed to earn him a victory despite another big night from Yoan Moncada. Moncada went 3-for-4 with three singles and shortstop Tim Anderson extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a ninth-inning single.

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon finally sees Cubs playing with the right 'mental energy'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Joe Maddon looked back on the perfect baseball storm that hit the Tampa Bay Rays and played all the greatest hits for local reporters, waxing poetic about the banners hanging inside Tropicana Field, stumping for a new stadium on the other side of the Gandy Bridge, telling Don Zimmer stories, namedropping Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and riffing on sabermetrics and information buckets.

But the moment of clarity came in the middle of a media session that lasted 20-plus minutes, Maddon sitting up on stage in what felt like the locker room at an old CYO gym: “We only got really good because the players got really good.”

There’s no doubt the Cubs have the talent to go along with all the other big-market advantages the Rays could only dream about as the have-nots in the American League East. Now it looks like the defending champs have finally got rid of the World Series hangover, playing with the urgency and pitch-to-pitch focus that had been lacking at times and will be needed again in October.    

Maddon essentially admitted it after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, watching his team beat Chris Archer and work together on a one-hitter that extended the winning streak to seven games and kept the Milwaukee Brewers 3.5 games back in the National League Central.

“You’re really seeing them try to execute in moments,” Maddon said. “When they come back and they don’t get it done, it’s not like they’re angry. But you can just see they’re disappointed in themselves.

“Their mental energy is probably at an all-season-high right now.”

Six days after the Cubs moved him to the bullpen, lefty swingman Mike Montgomery took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, when Tampa Bay’s No. 9 hitter (Brad Miller) drove a ball over the center-field wall. Maddon then went to the relievers he will trust in October – Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis – with the All-Star closer striking out the side in the ninth inning and remaining perfect in save opportunities (32-for-32) as a Cub.       

“We want to go out there and prove every day that we’re the best team in baseball,” said Kyle Schwarber, the designated hitter who launched Archer’s 96-mph fastball into the right-center field seats for his 28th home run in the second inning. “The way our guys are just going out there and competing, it’s really good to see, especially this time of year. It’s getting to crunch time, and we just got to keep this same pace that we’re going at.

“Don’t worry about things around us. Just keep our heads down, keep worrying about the game and go from there.”     

In what’s been a season-long victory lap, Maddon couldn’t help looking back when the sound system started playing The Beach Boys and “Good Vibrations” echoed throughout the domed stadium, a tribute running on the video board and a crowd of 25,046 giving him a standing ovation.

“It was cool,” Maddon said. “I forgot about the bird, the cockatoo, I can’t remember the name. Really a cool bird. I told (my wife) Jaye I wanted one of those for a while. But then again, she gets stuck taking care of them.

“I was just thinking about all the things we did. You forget sometimes that snake. I think her name was Francine, like a 19-year-old, 20-footer. And then the penguin on my chair. You forget all the goofy stuff you did. But you can see how much fun everybody had.

“I appreciated it. They showed all my pertinent highlights. There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”

But within the last week, you can see the Cubs getting more serious, concentrating on their at-bats and nailing their pitches. There is internal competition for roster spots and playing time in the postseason, when Maddon becomes ruthless and doesn’t care at all about making friends. This just might be another perfect storm.

Montgomery – who notched the final out in the 10th inning of last year’s World Series Game 7 – put it this way: “I feel ready for anything after how this year’s gone.”