Chicago Cubs

Thibodeau sees growth in Robinson

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Thibodeau sees growth in Robinson

CLEVELANDFrom their shared tenure in Boston together, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau knew what he was getting when Nate Robinson signed up to play in Chicago this season. At his best, the diminutive bundle of energy is an instant-offense scorer, capable of making game-changing plays, setting up his teammates, creating off the dribble and pushing the tempo.

Bulls fans have already seen that side of Robinson, as hes already had several stellar stretches this season. But when Robinson is off or pushes his luck when hes got it going, thats when the turnovers, questionable shot selection and other lapses come out, showing why, despite his talent, hes bounced around the league so much.

For example, in Tuesday nights home loss to the rival Pacers, Robinson was the one player who could truly make things happen and was a big reason the Bulls seized control of the game in the fourth quarter. However, when bad judgment reared its ugly head, he also made some crucial errors that played a part in the eventual defeat.

I dont think its ever on one particular player. We win together, we lose together. We were capable of finishing that game a lot better than we did. In every game, theres going to be good situations and bad, and I think the important thing for us to become a good team, we have to eliminate all the ways in which we beat ourselves first and thats getting our turnovers down. That wasnt any one particular guy19 turnovers, theres a lot of people involved in thatand I think we have to understand, in the fourth quarter, its different, Thibodeau explained, a day after having time to reflect on the game, as well as watch the film. We have some guys who are playing in the fourth quarter who havent played in the fourth quarter, so I think its important to understand that everyone has to do their job. The intensitys different. You have to be able to sustain your spacing through a second and third option. You have to be fundamental with the ball. You have to pivot well, make the appropriate pass at the appropriate time. Youve got to pass with two hands, youve got to catch with two hands, youve got to rebound with two hands. I thought those were the things that got us.

Compared to when he played for the Celtics, Robinson is different. Hes got more experience now and he wasnt playing this type of role in Boston, so this is a different role. I think hes still growing, the coach continued. Hes had some really good games for us, some games that are sort of in the middle. But I want him to be consistent and I want him to try to concentrate on his improvement, and run our team well.

When asked about his play, Robinson was honest. The point guard understands what kind of player he is and is continuously working to improve his deficiencies, but also knows that his unique abilityotherworldly athleticism, unbelievable heart and innate scoring abilityis a dimension that few players bring to the table.

I play hard, but sometimes it just doesnt happen. Things dont go in your favor and Ive got to take care of the ball. Thats something Ive got to do better from here on out, Robinson said. I dont think I went for the home-run play. A couple plays, the ball just got out of my hands. Just try to make the right play, honestly. Sometimes youve got to take the good with the bad. That just builds character for me. Ive got to criticize myself before you guys can do it. That makes my job easier.

I think I get better and better every year. Myself, Im definitely happy with the positions Ive been in, different teams, different situations. I love the game for what it is. I just go hard. Thats the only way I know how to play and over the years, Im getting better and better, so Im happy with it, he added. His game is a work in progress. Thats good because to me, theres room for improvement. I love a challenge and Coach tells me every night to go out and put guys in positions where they can be successful and help the team, and I took the challenge in doing that.

Continue playing. Just have fun, man. Just go out there and play basketball. Thats what weve been doing all our lives. Thats what we know how to do. Just keep that, have fun, man. Everything else will take care of itself.

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

Carl Edwards Jr. unleashed a big curveball that froze Cincinnati Reds leadoff guy Billy Hamilton with a check swing and forced Cubs catcher Victor Caratini to make a hockey goalie-style block in the dirt with two runners on. They all looked at third base umpire Ron Kulpa, who signaled strike three as the crowd of 36,698 roared on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.   

The Cubs hope that seventh-inning scene is more of a big-picture look at the rest of their season than the final score in a 2-1 loss. The Cubs believe Edwards can be an Andrew Miller-type presence during the playoffs, maybe their future closer. By striking out all three batters he faced, Edwards kept it a scoreless game and bailed out Kyle Hendricks, who looked more like last year’s major-league ERA leader.   

Edwards screamed and pumped his fist as he walked back to the dugout, an emotional release from the slump that had manager Joe Maddon getting what-do-you-do-with-C.J.? questions.

“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “I know this game is very humbling. I can look good for 30 straight appearances. And then all of a sudden – four/five big games – I can be hurt again. I just look at it as going out there and having fun.

“I knew in the back of my mind that I would get over it because I’m a strong-minded guy. It wasn’t (anything) physical. I don’t know how I lost confidence, but I lost it. Right now, I'm just slowly getting it back. And I’m feeling more and more comfortable going out there every day.”

After watching Edwards blow the save and give up a grand slam to Matt Wieters during a potential playoff preview against the Washington Nationals in early August, Maddon compared the situation to a great shooter in basketball: “You just keep throwing it back out there.”

“I don’t want to run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s really good. He had a bad couple days. Hitters go through slumps. Pitchers go through slumps. Managers go through slumps. Writers go through slumps. We all go through slumps.

“I love the guy. I absolutely love him. I love the teammate that he is. He had a couple tough days. Everybody does.”

Edwards actually had a 1.07 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP through his first 27 appearances this season – and then put up a 6.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP across his next 25 games. Still, there is so much to work with here, from the swing-and-miss stuff (70 strikeouts in 48.1 innings) to his natural feel for pitching to the internal drive that allowed him to blossom as a former 48th-round draft pick.         

“A big thing has been my dad sending me messages,” Edwards said, “every day telling me to pray and meditate. He knows me like a book. It’s just getting those words from him and seeing those messages before I go out to the game. And taking that message with me: No matter what happens, I’m here for a reason.”

Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Be yourself.

“He’s always done that,” Edwards said. “(When) I was struggling real bad, he told me: ‘Every day, just go back to backyard baseball. Say a prayer. Miss you. Meditate and just know, son, you’re there for a reason. And no matter what the outcome is, I’m going to still love you regardless.’ Just my dad being my dad. He basically taught me pitching growing up, so he’s the one that knows me best.”

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

[MORE: Cubs don’t see finish line for Addison Russell yet: ‘I don’t think that there’s any rush’  ]

“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.