Irish have to clear one final hurdle

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Irish have to clear one final hurdle

LOS ANGELES -- Notre Dame's won a handful of big games this season, but none with the implications Saturday's showdown against USC will carry.
While Notre Dame has only played three true road games this season, they head to Los Angeles seasoned away from Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish went into a hostile environment in East Lansing and pasted Michigan State. An even more hostile environment yielded an even better result a month and a half later, with Notre Dame marching to a 30-13 win over Oklahoma in front of the largest crowd ever at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. And two weeks ago, Notre Dame dispatched a weak Boston College team while dealing with the knowledge of Alabama's stunning loss to Texas A&M that afternoon.
And those are just the road games. While there's plenty of luck to point to, Notre Dame learned what it takes to win close games, beating Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU and Pittsburgh by an average of 4.6 points.
"We've been playing in big games all year and it's not like this is the first time we've had to go out and play a big opponent on a big stage," center Braxston Cave said. "We've been there, we've done that, and now it's just a matter of us going out, executing and playing our game."
While a chance to earn a title game bid accounts for plenty of motivation, there's an added bonus to beating USC for Notre Dame. It's a game that hasn't really been a rivalry in the last decade, with USC winning nine of the last 10 meetings.
"Well, it's not a great rivalry right now," coach Brian Kelly said. "We haven't won enough games. They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry."
Cave, who grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, knows the history of the contest, and he'd rather be able to tell people he was part of the Notre Dame class that started to turn things around against USC.
"It's more of a self-pride thing," Cave explained. "Any time your name is associated with something, you want it to be in a positive way. You don't want be like yeah, I was part of that stretch where we only one one game or this or that."
Even a comment from Max Wittek -- Matt Barkley's replacement guaranteed a USC win -- won't be enough to reignite the Notre Dame-USC rivalry. That'll happen on the field.
"We're going to stay focused, we're going to stay poised, we're going to stay composed and that's what we need to be able to get our game plan in and get whatever we need to do in place before we get worked up about a comment," senior wide receiver John Goodman said.
No matter the outcome of Saturday's game, though, the rivalry will be at its highest pitch since the 2005 Bush Push game. But no matter how important it is to Notre Dame players, coaches and fans, it takes a seat far in the back to the team's title aspirations.
The light is on at Grace Hall for the first time in 19 years, reminding anyone near campus that the Irish are No. 1. Notre Dame graced the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. One win means a trip to Miami to play for the national championship, which would be the first time Notre would enter a game playing for a title for the first time in 24 years.
Notre Dame, though, has dealt with plenty of outside distractions this year, both positive and negative. They're a mature group, one that hasn't been through this kind of success but has acted like it since narrowly escaping with a win against Pittsburgh.
"We know we got one shot to get to 12-0," Cave said, "and if we don't stay focused and do our job then we have no chance of accomplishing that."

Cubs not worrying about a thing after split with Marlins: 'We're right there'

Cubs not worrying about a thing after split with Marlins: 'We're right there'

MIAMI – Jon Jay walked into a quiet clubhouse late Sunday morning, turned right and headed directly toward the sound system in one corner of the room, plugging his phone into the sound system and playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

The Cubs outfielder whistled as he changed into his work clothes at Marlins Park, singing along to the lyrics with Anthony Rizzo a few lockers over: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.” 

That’s what the Cubs keep telling themselves, because most of them have World Series rings and the National League Central is such a bad division.

“The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 4-2 loss left the Cubs treading water again at 38-37. “We’re solvent. We’re right there. We’re right next to first place.”

The Cubs will leave this tropical environment and jump into the deep end on Monday night for the start of a four-game showdown against the Washington Nationals in the nation’s capital.

Miami sunk the Cubs in the first inning when Addison Russell made a costly error on the routine groundball Miami leadoff guy Ichiro Suzuki chopped to shortstop, a mistake that helped create three unearned runs. Martin Prado drilled Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch fastball off the left-center field wall for a two-out double and a 3-0 lead. Montgomery (1-4, 2.03 ERA) lasted six innings and retired the last 10 batters he faced.

“Keep The Floaties On” sounds like an idea for Maddon’s next T-shirt. The 2017 Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 or two games under .500 at any point this season. The 2016 Cubs didn’t lose their 37th game until July 19 and spent 180 days in first place.

“That’s what was so special about it,” Rizzo said. “We boat-raced from Game 1 to Game 7 with a couple bumps in the road, but this is baseball. It’s not going to be all smooth-sailing every day. You got to work through things.”

As MLB addresses long game times, why Mark Buehrle’s zippy pace is worth highlighting

As MLB addresses long game times, why Mark Buehrle’s zippy pace is worth highlighting

Sometime in the future, near or far, Major League Baseball will probably begin using a pitch clock to penalize sluggish hitters and pitchers.

The sport without a clock will, someday, have a clock. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian offered that as one of his predictions for what baseball could look like 20 years from now, which would be one of Rob Manfred’s signature reforms as commissioner. 

This kind of change wouldn’t be necessary, though, if more pitchers were like Mark Buehrle. 

“Buehrle was hyper,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “He wanted to go, go, go.”

No pitcher since 2007 — when Pitch F/X began calculating “pace” — worked faster than Buehrle, who averaged 16.7 seconds between pitches. Only 56 qualified pitchers since 2007 can be considered to work “fast,” i.e. with an average time between pitches of 20 seconds or fewer (it’s a list that includes fellow former White Sox left-handers John Danks and Chris Sale). And that’s only 12 percent of the 473 qualified pitchers in the last decade.

Buehrle’s 99-minute complete game against the Seattle Mariners in 2005 still is the only nine-inning contest to be completed in fewer than 100 minutes since 1984. There was that memorable 1:53 duel with Mark Mulder and the Oakland A’s in 2003, and both Buehrle’s perfect game and no hitter lasted 2:03. 

Of course, Buehrle didn’t just work quick, he pitched well while zipping through innings. Buehrle finished his career with a 3.81 ERA, made four All-Star teams and threw at least 200 innings every year from 2001-2014. He had a .572 career winning percentage, too, so Cooper knew about Buehrle would give the White Sox a chance to win in about six out of every 10 starts.

“But you also know it’s going to be about two hours and 10 minutes, too,” Cooper added. 

A given game’s length isn’t all about the pace of the pitcher, of course. Batters can slow things down by stepping out of the box and calling for time, and games can feel like a slog with replay delays and mid-inning pitching changes. 

Still, how quickly a pitcher works usually dictates the pace of a game and how long it takes to be completed. Cooper wondered why hitters didn’t step out more against Buehrle to disrupt his rhythm, but perhaps the answer is that everyone on the field gets caught up in the quick pace set by the pitcher. 

“Everybody tells me they were so happy when I pitched for a quick game, but every time I was on the bench in between my starts, it was a 3, 3 1/2 hour game and it wasn't very much fun,” Buehrle said. “I think some of these games do get too long. Pitchers take their time, hitters get out of the box. I don't get all that but that's just the way I worked. I just grabbed the ball and went.”

Maybe adding a pitch clock with penalties affecting the count will force pitchers and hitters to find a quicker rhythm. That was one of the hallmarks of Buehrle’s career, and those snappy starts are one of the reasons why No. 56 was such a popular player on 35th and Shields. 

Former manager Ozzie Guillen, in summing up Buehrle's mentality, also offered some free advice for fixing baseball's pace-of-play problem: “Just throw the ball, get people out and have fun.”