Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

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Vitters forcing his way into Cubs plans

SAN DIEGO Josh Vitters hadnt watched the play that put him on SportsCenter.

Vitters dove to his right and fully extended his body, sliding over the third-base line. He hopped up and fired to first to beat Cameron Maybin, who was fast enough to steal 40 bases last season for the San Diego Padres.

That was only the first groundball Vitters had ever seen in the big leagues, and that reaction in the sixth inning on Monday night loosened him up a little bit. It seemed like an answer to all the questions the Cubs have about his defense.

That made the highlight reel, but the more revealing moment probably came hours earlier, when he approached third-base coach Pat Listach and asked to take extra groundballs before batting practice.

Vitters didnt realize that you had to clear it first with stadium officials to reserve the field in advance. But there he was on Tuesday at Petco Park, taking groundballs hit by Listach, and thats essentially where hell be some five hours before every game the rest of this season.

I know that my hittings going to be there regardless, Vitters said. My defense is whats going to take me to the next level.

Theyve told me what I need to do. So Im going to do everything and more and see what happens. (Lets) see where my abilities and the skills that I can learn up here take me.

Thats the entire point of the final eight weeks of the season, whether or not Vitters finds himself in the lineup that night. He came off the bench on Tuesday and collected his first big-league hit, a two-run double in a 7-4 loss to the Padres.

Baseball America ranked Vitters as the best pure hitter among high school players in the 2007 draft, and it has been a slow, steady climb for the No. 3 overall pick since then.

Vitters will turn 23 later this month, and though he didnt look at this as a make-or-break year, he did wonder what the regime change at Clark and Addison could mean for him, where he fit into Theo Epsteins rebuilding plan.

I thought about it a little bit Im not their guy, Vitters said. They didnt pick me or maybe dont even like me. But that was before I even met the people. It was a great experience getting to meet them at the Cubs Convention and speaking (directly) to them. They made me feel really comfortable and really didnt put any pressure on me. I think thats what allowed me to excel and play up to this level.

Vitters went out and developed into a Pacific Coast League All-Star in his first season on the Triple-A level, hitting .304 with 17 homers, 68 RBI and an .869 OPS at Iowa.

By Sunday, Vitters was running on no sleep and flying with Brett Jackson from Des Moines to Dallas to Los Angeles we were kind of like zombies on the plane and making their big-league debut at Dodger Stadium.

That was pretty neat, Jackson said. Weve come up through the minors together and I like to say Ive taken him under my wing as my little brother. But I had some stuff to learn from him hitting this year. Man, that guy can hit.

Vitters was only 17 years old when the Cubs drafted him out of Cypress High School in Orange County, Calif. The Cubs felt like he would benefit from his friendship with the self-assured Jackson, who is almost a year older and went to Cal-Berkeley.

Vitters is also tight with Anthony Rizzo. As teenagers, they played together on an elite travel team in national tournaments. Back then, Vitters was a bigger name than Rizzo, who fell to the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round.

Vitters understands the changing nature of expectations, how you should never believe the hype, whether youre a stud or a bust. Cubs fans keep gazing into the future and breathlessly awaited the arrivals of Rizzo and Jackson. The future is now, so its time to go to work in an empty stadium.

It sounds like its just going to be like that until we have a contending team, Vitters said. Theyre always going to want the next best hot thing thats coming up until we can put together a team thats going to be winning lots of ballgames.

Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire

Tough tests in next two months should show a lot about Fire

Things are looking as good as they have in many years for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire have won three games in a row, something the club has done just one other time dating back to 2014. The team’s 6-3-3 record has it sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference after missing the playoffs each of the last four years and six of the last seven.

A deeper look shows the team’s schedule so far has paved the way for this positive start and current hot stretch. The Fire’s 12 games have featured just four games against teams currently in playoffs spots, which 12 of the league’s 22 teams qualify for.

The Fire are 5-1-2 against the teams currently in the bottom 10 of the league and 1-2-1 in those four games against playoff teams. The win and the draw against teams in playoff spots both came against Columbus.

Half of the Fire’s six wins, including each of the last two, so far have come against teams in the bottom four of the league standings (Real Salt Lake, Colorado, D.C.). Of the seven teams with 14 points of fewer currently, the Fire have played six of those teams (throw in a win against Seattle, a draw against Montreal and a draw at LA onto the three aforementioned teams).

So what does this mean?

It doesn’t necessarily mean the Fire are going to come crashing down to earth, but it does mean that the Fire have consistently beaten bad teams like a good team is supposed to do. Last year (or probably even the past few years) that wasn’t the case so in that way it’s marked improvement.

It also means that tougher tests are ahead. The first one is Thursday against FC Dallas, which won last year’s U.S. Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield and was the last undefeated team in MLS before losing to San Jose on Saturday.

Including the Dallas game, seven of the Fire’s next nine are against teams in playoff spots. Five of those games are against teams among the top seven records in MLS (Dallas, Orlando twice, Kansas City, New York City FC).

May 25 vs. Dallas (5-1-4, 19 points)

June 4 at Orlando (6-4-2, 20 points)

June 10 vs. Atlanta (4-4-3, 15 points)

June 17 vs. New England (4-4-4, 16 points)

June 24 vs. Orlando (6-4-2, 20 points)

July 1 vs. Vancouver (5-5-1, 16 points)

July 5 at Portland (5-4-3, 18 points)

July 22 at New York City FC (6-4-2, 20 points)

July 29 at Kansas City (6-3-4, 22 points)

The Fire have proven to be a much improved team this year and one that figures to be in contention for a playoff spot all year. The next two months should go a long way towards showing just how improved the Fire are.

Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell compete for Cubs defensive highlight of the year on back-to-back plays

Albert Almora Jr. and Addison Russell compete for Cubs defensive highlight of the year on back-to-back plays

Joe Maddon declared Monday as "Albert's game" a couple hours before first pitch.

He didn't even know how right he was at the time.

"Albert" is Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs' rookie centerfielder who hasn't gotten to play as much lately with Ian Happ's emergence over the last week.

But with a left-handed pitcher on the mound for the San Francisco Giants Monday night, Maddon wanted to get the right-handed hitting Almora in the lineup. There was also the added benefit of Almora providing the best defense in center with John Lackey — a flyball pitcher — on the mound for the Cubs.

It took only three batters for Almora's impact to be felt:

He was off on a dead sprint from the very second that ball was hit. Almora covered 89 feet in an amazing five seconds:

What makes the play even more amazing is two pitches prior, Addison Russell had the crowd buzzing with his own highlight-reel play:

If it weren't for Almora's play, Russell's effort might go down as the Cubs' defensive highlight of the season to date.

Of course, this isn't the only time we've seen Almora turn in a highlight-reel catch: