Chicago Cubs

Wildcats roll Illini in regular season finale

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Wildcats roll Illini in regular season finale

EVANSTON, Ill. Never mind the rivalry game for a minute. The Northwestern Wildcats wanted to make another statement. By reaching their ninth victory of the season, the Wildcats could lock up a berth in a New Years Day bowl game.

And Northwestern responded to the challenge with a rout of its in-state rival.

Eight different players scored for the Wildcats, who reached nine victories for the first time since 2008. The next test for the Wildcats is to snap their nine-game losing
streak in bowl games.

Nine wins is a great year. Ten is special, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. To be a bowl champion could be a great exclamation point.

The Outback, Capital One and Gator bowl games have been mentioned as possibilities for the Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten).

Were going to play on the road. Were going to play in Florida somewhere. Were going to play an SEC team in their backyard and were going to be the underdog by 75 points, Fitzgerald said, drawing laughter.

We play the best of the best. We have in the past and weve gone toe to toe with them. Its going to take our best preparation for whoever we get the privilege to play. I promise that our guys will be fired up and excited for it.

After routing Illinois (2-10, 0-8) on Saturday, the Wildcats were excited about reclaiming the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Quarterback Kain Colter said lifting the heavy, hat-shaped trophy was a workout.

Its a rivalry game, so you definitely want bragging rights, said Colter, who completed 9 of 11 passes for 102 yards and a career-high three touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown. I havent beaten them since Ive been here, he said. We really wanted to get this one and get back on track and finish this season up right, and especially do it for our seniors.

Northwestern claimed the rivalry victory after a slow start. Illinois scored on the game-opening drive, marching 78 yards on 11 plays. The Illini later cut the lead to 24-14 on backup quarterback Reilly OTooles 12-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter.

You look at the way we tackled early, it was pathetic and gave them some opportunities to make some plays, Fitzgerald said. But Nathan is an outstanding quarterback. They have weapons across the board and made some plays early. We felt like that was the worst half of football we played in a month, and the only way its going to get fixed is if we do something about it. Our team went out there in the second half and dominated the way we should have dominated from the start.

Northwestern was especially efficient running the ball, finishing with 338 yards on the ground. Venric Mark ran for a game-high 127 yards and a touchdown. Six players scored touchdowns on offense for the Wildcats. Jeff Budzien kicked 44- and 36-yard field goals. Hes 17 of 18 on field goals this season.

We have a motto. Its: Everybody eats, Colter said. Everybody wants a taste of the end zone. Thats one thats kind of developed since I got here. Everybodys competing. Everybody wants to get on the field.

As for defense, Northwestern forced four turnovers, including three interceptions.

After the Wildcats stressed better play in the second half, they scored early in the third quarter on Colter's 15-yard touchdown pass to Tyris Jones. Northwestern turned the game into a rout on Colters 24-yard touchdown pass to the wide-open Paul Jorgensen from Colter for a 41-14 lead.

He was lined up at left tackle and he ends up running down the field wide open, Colter said. Its a good feeling to get an offensive lineman six points. We were pretty excited about that. Its something weve repped in practice.

After another Illinois interception, Mike Trumpy scored on a 3-yard run for a 48-14 lead. Northwestern recorded a safety with 3 minutes left.

Now the Wildcats are focused on a bowl victory.

We havent gotten the job done yet, defensive end Quentin Williams said. Its hard to diagnose a problem when it goes on for that long, but I dont think we have that problem this year. I think we can finally set that legacy and do what we do out there.

Cubs can live with Javy Baez being out of control

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AP

Cubs can live with Javy Baez being out of control

Even after a five-strikeout game, the Cubs have no intentions of toning down the Javy Baez roller coaster.

It's just the latest chapter in the Javy being Javy story.

On Tuesday, Baez became the first Cubs player to whiff five times in a game since Ted Lilly in 2008 and first position player to do so since Geovany Soto (also in '08):

After the game, Joe Maddon just laughed, compared Baez to golfer John Daly again and said, "Javy must've tied some sort of record today."

The Cubs know this is part of the package with Baez.

Even with that albatross of a game, Baez's strikeout percentage of 27.8 is still slightly below his career average (29.3 percent). That number is bloated a bit since Baez struck out 41.5 percent of the time during his rookie season in 2014.

Baez is striking out more in 2017 than he did last year (24 percent), but is also walking more (5 percent compared to 3.3 percent in 2016).

When Maddon was filling out Wednesday's lineup before Tuesday's game, he had already penciled in a day off for Baez, even before the five-strikeout game made it apparent a day of mental and physical rest was needed for the 24-year-old.

"He was just swinging a bit too hard," Maddon said. "...Most of the time, for me, when a guy comes out of his zone a lot, it's because he's a little bit mentally fatigued. So let's get him off his feet."

Maddon said before the game he wouldn't shy away from using Baez in Wednesday's contest if the need arose. The Cubs manager also was not worried about the five-strikeout game getting the enigmatic young infielder down.

"He's fine," Maddon said. "He's done that a lot in his career. So he knows how to bounce back. It's not gonna impact him. I watch him run out to defense after the strikeouts, and he's running out there. I love that about him. He's ready to play.

"A lot of guys have that moment, historically, but the difference with Javy — two things — he'll play his defense and he'll bounce back.

"He's his own toughest critic, also. I have a lot of faith in him, I have a lot of faith in hitting coaches. He'll be fine. I really am not concerned. ... He's young, he's done it before, he'll do it again. I promise you — that's gonna happen again. In the mean time, just continue to support him."

Including Tuesday and Baez's recent 1-for-11 stretch, he's still hitting .321 with an .863 OPS in July and is on pace for 20 homers, 28 doubles and 64 RBI in addition to his usual highlight reel of defensive plays.

Baez will always come with ups and downs and the Cubs know that. They aren't trying to coach that out of him.

They'll take the five strikeout games along with the hot stretch, like when he hit .415 with seven extra-base hits in a 13-game stretch from July 2-21.

After all, this is the guy who was named co-NLCS MVP last fall.

"Javy continues to show a lot of improvement," Maddon said. "In spite of the John Daly hack on occasion, you look at his two-strike numbers, they're outstanding. [Baez is hitting .215 with a .568 OPS with two strikes, but does have five homers and 22 RBI.]

"So it's like, you gotta be careful what you wish for. I've already talked to [Cubs hitting coach] Johnny Mallee about this. You wanna tone somebody down, but then if you do, does this good thing go away? You wanna morph into it more slowly here as he gradually understands and creates a different method as he gts into the latter part of counts, runner on third base, just try to score one, not two or three."

In 15 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs, Baez has 11 RBI, but he's also struck out six times.

Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are working on a lot of the same things with both Baez and 23-year-old shortstop Addison Russell, who has also had an up-and-down offensive season.

"That takes time," Maddon said. "I know that sounds crazy, but it does. And so, be careful what you wish for, be careful how you approach a young player. 'Cause you could absolutely — I've talked about not coaching instinctiveness out of a player.

"Javy's got his own way. I think you're eventually going to see him settle into it, but yes, they're being developed. They both have to adjust to game situations.

"Next year, you're gonna see an improvement. Two years from now, you're gonna see a pretty nice finished product."

Why the Bears are feeling optimistic about their 2017 defense

Why the Bears are feeling optimistic about their 2017 defense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The general vibe given off by defensive end Akiem Hicks and linebacker Jerrell Freeman -- the two Bears defenders made available to the media on Wednesday -- was of low-key optimism. 

A Bears defense beset by injuries last year ranked 24th in points allowed and only managed 11 turnovers in 2016. But Hicks and Freeman both see bigger things for this defense after general manager Ryan Pace retooled it with a number of veteran free agent signings. 

Specifically, Hicks believes the Bears' defense has enough been-there, done-that players to be the catalyst for victories. 

“Sometimes, it’s like a second nature, something that you have inside you,” Hicks said. “You just want to be in that situation. But it’s also something you can develop through a lot of reps. You know what I mean? A guy who comes in and has 5,000 reps over his career, he’s going to be able to get in that situation and play it with just a little bit more confidence than a guy in his first, second or even third year. 

“Because once you’ve gotten to a point where you’ve gotten enough snaps, you’ve seen everything. You felt disappointment, you’ve felt that feeling of victory at the end of the game when you’re walking off. I think that’s what bringing veteran guys to a team does. They’ve seen it all already.”

The Bears added four possible-to-likely starters to their defense in free agency: defensive end Jaye Howard, safety Quintin Demps and cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper. Those four players have a combined 24 years of NFL experience, and the Bears only have one rookie (safety Eddie Jackson) competing for a starting role. 

Couple the expected Year 1 to Year 2 growth of Leonard Floyd and the potential for a healthy Eddie Goldman with those veterans, and the Bears see enough players with the right mindset to build a sturdy defense. 

“I hope everyone on my defense wants to be the best player at their position,” Freeman said. “That’s the mentality I would want, and that’s the mentality I would want the rest of my defense to have. Getting better, lead a defense to one of the top defenses, just help my team in any kind of way to get some wins.”