Last year's Final Four darling does it again

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Last year's Final Four darling does it again

From Comcast SportsNet
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Shaka Smart and Co. pulled off the first major surprise of the NCAA tournament. Yep, VCU is back again. Bradford Burgess hit a key 3-pointer with 1:33 left and the 12th-seeded Rams held off Wichita State 62-59 on Thursday night. Smart was one of the tournament's biggest stars last year when he coached VCU to victories over Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, making the Rams just the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. The run ended when they lost to Butler in Houston. This VCU team moves on to a matchup with fourth-seeded Indiana (26-8), which advanced to Saturday's game with a 79-66 victory over New Mexico State at the Rose Garden. "We have different guys doing different things than last year's team," Burgess said. "We want to make our own mark on this year's tournament." Still, there are already similarities to last year's run. Just take a look at the last few frantic minutes of this one. With 12 seconds left and the Rams clinging to a 62-59 lead, Smart was so animated during a timeout that he swooped down on his team at midcourt and started strategizing. The intense huddle was eventually brushed back to near the bench by the referees, but the Rams (29-6) came out of the timeout and buckled down defensively, hurrying Wichita State center Garrett Stutz's errant 3-point attempt before the final buzzer. "Our guys did a good job executing our defensive plan," Smart said of those final seconds. "They didn't get a good look at a 3, and that's what won it for us." The Rams led by as many as 13 in the second half, but Wichita State (26-6) closed to 54-53 on Stutz's layup with 5:39 left. Troy Daniels hit a 3-pointer for the Rams, and Joe Ragland answered with his own for the Shockers. Toure Murry made a 3 that gave Wichita State the lead, but Burgess came back with his big shot to give the Rams a 60-59 edge. Darius Theus then tacked on a runner before Stutz's last-chance attempt was off. "I was kind of the last option on top, and VCU read the play well," Stutz said. "By the time I got the ball I knew there wasn't enough time to go for a two. Couldn't have been more than 2 or 3 seconds left." Said VCU guard Rob Brandenberg: "Everybody was on the same page that last (defensive) play." Burgess finished with 16 points, and Theus and Daniels had 10 points apiece for the Rams, who edged Drexel 59-56 in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament final to make it to the NCAAs. Because of their unexpected run last season, the Rams were expected to give the Shockers trouble. Even President Barack Obama picked them to advance. Ragland finished with 15 points after getting off to a slow start. "They obviously pressured the ball and the first half we didn't handle it as well as we should have," Ragland said. "The second half we handled it pretty well and had a chance to win the game." Wichita State was ranked No. 18 in the final The Associated Press poll. The Shockers won the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference, but lost to Illinois State in the semifinals of the conference tournament. It was the first NCAA tournament appearance for Wichita State since 2006, when it advanced to the regional semifinals. There were lots of missed shots on both sides early, but Rob Brandenberg hit a 3-pointer to put VCU in front 17-13 midway through the first half. Wichita State put together an 11-0 run to make it 24-21 with 5:27 left. Carl Hall capped the surge with a layup. Treveon Graham broke the VCU scoring drought with a jumper and Burgess added a 3-pointer, sparking a 13-1 run that lifted the Rams to a 34-25 lead at the break. Burgess scored 13 points during a dominating first half, except for an errant 3-pointer that fell far short of the basket. Virginia Commonwealth stretched the lead to 41-29 after Brandenberg's layup. His jumper a short time later gave the Rams a 46-33 lead, but Ben Smith had a layup before David Kyles scored five quick points to trim VCU's lead to 46-40. Ragland, who was quiet most of the first half, made a 3-pointer with 7:23 left and Stutz tapped in a shot to get Wichita State within one at 54-53. "They came at us with kind of a dose of our own medicine and pressed us," Smart said. "I thought it gave us troubles for part of the second half but we hung in there and made all the big plays in the end."

Former White Sox slugger Jim Thome taking his talents to MLB Network

Former White Sox slugger Jim Thome taking his talents to MLB Network

White Sox fans who miss Jim Thome will get to see the ex-slugger’s mug a whole lot more soon.

Thome won’t be rejoining the White Sox lineup, but he is adding television analyst to his job description, supplementing his gig in the White Sox front office with regular appearances on MLB Network.

“I’m excited,” Thome told reporters Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field. “The opportunity came up of maybe doing it, and then the first thing I thought of was my job with the White Sox. But it all worked out.

“I love baseball. I think being around baseball and talking hitting and maybe sharing some of the stuff that I learned over a 22-year-career, maybe to help kids, coaches, just in general maybe share a little input. Learn a lot of stuff from a lot of great people: Hall of Famers that are on the show, players that I played with, players that I competed with. And to me the biggest thing, when you leave the game, you miss that teammate camaraderie atmosphere that I think this gives you.”

Thome doesn’t know what his schedule will be or which of the network’s many shows he’ll be appearing on. He won’t be a full-time analyst, but he will be sharing his expertise on the art of hitting alongside his fellow players like Sean Casey, Al Leiter, Billy Ripken, Dan Plesac and plenty of others.

Per MLB Network, Thome’s first appearance will be May 1.

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Thome, who works with the White Sox as a special assistant to general manager Rick Hahn, is most looking forward to doing a little teaching on the show that he hopes gets through to some younger players.

“I’ve got a lot of drills I did when I played. So if I can teach that to the game, but also maybe to our youth side of the sport and also the college side,” he said. “Maybe you say something that helps a player and he goes out and does well. And that’s what it’s all about.”

This move to TV isn’t necessarily something that Thome ever expected, though it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to fans and observers who remember his personality from his playing days.

“I didn’t (ever think about doing this). I have to say, I never thought about, ‘Would I ever be an analyst? Would I ever get on the media side?’” Thome said. “I always say in baseball you never say never. If an opportunity comes up that fits your family schedule and then your work schedule — my work schedule is this job with the White Sox. That’s really important to me because I’ve been here now almost five years. To me that’s important.

“So to have them all mix and translate and feed off one or the other, being around here maybe will help me on the other side as well. That was the most important thing for me.”

Of course, White Sox fans might be curious about another part of Thome’s future career: Will he ever return to the dugout?

After Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura served as the team’s managers for a combined 13 seasons, speculation over whether some other former White Sox could ever sit in the manager’s chair has been fairly common, and Thome has been part of those “what if” conversations along with guys like A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko.

“Again I answer that kind of the same thing with this, you never say never. If an opportunity comes up and you feel it’s a great opportunity, you know, think about it, getting a manager’s job would be a tremendous opportunity,” Thome said. “So I would definitely have to think about that, yes.”

As White Sox bats heat up, Todd Frazier feeling like himself after bumpy start to 2017

As White Sox bats heat up, Todd Frazier feeling like himself after bumpy start to 2017

Three games do not a comeback make, but Todd Frazier is feeling like his normal self again.

Frazier’s been battling a host of health-related issues since the start of 2017, including injuries to his finger and oblique that hampered him in the spring and most recently a bout with the flu that cost him six of eight games and saw him lose 10 pounds.

But the last three games have been more like it for Frazier, as the White Sox third baseman has gone 4-for-12 with five RBIs, four runs scored, three doubles and a pair of walks. In Tuesday’s win over the visiting Kansas City Royals, Frazier had a pair of doubles, matching his total from his previous 12 games.

“It was weird to start off with the finger on something weird that happened last year and that turned into a cast. And then the oblique. It has been a crazy ride,” Frazier said after Tuesday’s game. “That’s why this game you’ve got to work your butt off in the offseason and be ready now, and I feel like I’m getting back to where I need to be.

“I feel fine. I’m good. I’m trying to lift as much as I can. Maybe a little soreness from lifting trying to gain some muscle and some weight back. Trying to eat as much as I can too as well.”

The time off would be enough to knock someone off their game, but Frazier — who posted career lows with a .225 batting average and .302 on-base percentage last season — was still looking to heat up after struggling to produce through the season’s first few weeks. In his first 10 games, the veteran third baseman slashed just .091/.189/.212 with just three hits and one RBI.

So Frazier has been studying up. The entire White Sox lineup has feasted in the first two games of the current series against the Royals, combining for 22 runs on 29 hits. But Frazier credited his personal success to some of the work he’s been doing.

“Just doing my homework,” he said Wednesday. “I’m just trying to go back and understand what I did in the other years  that made me hit the ball better. Talk to the coaches. At the end of the day, it’s mental, that’s all it is. You’ve been hitting for all these years now, just got to understand to focus.

“We see these pitchers a lot. People always told me, ‘You’ve got the upper hand, you see these guys all the time.’ So let’s start figuring out what they’re throwing.”

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Tuesday night, Frazier served as the White Sox designated hitter, the second time he’s been in the lineup but not in the field this season, matching the number of times he played DH in 2016, his first year with an American League team.

While it presented a change of pace, Frazier had a positive review of something he hasn’t done very often.

“I liked it. Every once and a while I think you need a day like that,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can do it. It was good to get Matt (Davidson) in there at third base, get his body going a little bit out in the field a little bit more. It’s like, ‘You got a day off, you’re DH’ing.’ Not really. You’ve got to keep the body moving, keep staying loose. It worked out well for everybody.

“I did a little heavy lifting in the legs the day before, and Rick (Renteria) didn’t even know about that. I was a little sore, and I was like, ‘Good, I got a little DH spot today,’ which was great for me, and now I can focus on defense, as well.”

In baseball, fortunes can change on a daily basis, so who knows if this will be the start of a surge for Frazier or just a brief spike in a long season. But if the White Sox can get Frazier and the rest of the lineup to keep hitting like they have the past few games, it could mean big things.

“Everybody focused and prepared,” Frazier explained when asked about the big run totals in the last few games. “I think the little things, guys getting here earlier, guys wanting to get out there and take extra work, and the focus and determination that we’ve got going right now is pretty nice. Nobody’s trying to do too much.

“You see our plate approach, you see guys hustling out balls. You watch guys like Avi Garcia, he’s got two big infield singles for him. At the end of the year, you look back at some things like that, a guy hits a one-hopper to second base and beats out a ball. That takes your average from .250 to .260 if you get three or four of those. Examples: Leury Garcia beating out a ground ball, getting a play overturned because of hustle. We don’t lack that this year, and I think that’s something big that we’re working on.

“Win, lose or draw, we’re going to give 100 percent. We know we’ve got Rick Renteria coming in here telling us ‘Nobody’s feeling sorry for you. So pick yourself up. We’re professionals. We’re White Sox.’ I think that’s what we’re going by right now.”