Bears-Vikings preview: Bears ball

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Bears-Vikings preview: Bears ball

With or without Cutler, Bears O facing myriad problems
The Chicago offense was wobbling with Jay Cutler at quarterback. Without him it crashed under backup Jason Campbell, and Cutlers status for Sunday, because of the concussion suffered in the Houston game, remains a question.
Meanwhile, the problems with the Bears offense extend far beyond the offensive line and its shuffling in the wake of six 49ers sacks. So how bad has it all gotten?
The offense has even reached opposing red zones just twice in the past two games and put points on the board on only three of its past 25 possessions.
The Bears offense has scored just one touchdown in the past eight quarters, that a meaningless score at San Francisco when the Bears trailed 27-0. One of the two field goals managed against the Houston Texans came after a takeaway and scoring drive of five yards for a 51-yard Robbie Gould field goal.
The Bears have not scored on an opening drive of either the first or second half in four straight games. And they still rank 32nd on first-down plays at 4.09 yards per.
If there is a positive here it is that the Minnesota Vikings are sixth-worst, giving up 5.01 yards per first-down plays, which are the ones that start possessions off well or not so well, and which have repeatedly had the Bears starting drives with play-calling options limited from the first snap.
The concerns offensively -- the lack of rhythm, the lack of the fast starts, the lack of success on first down -- are still haunting us, said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. We felt like we had a decent plan going in for San Francisco, playing some smash-mouth, getting into that third-and-medium, giving us a chance to convert to stay out of those long situations and giving those nickel pass rushers a chance to tee off. That didnt happen in that football game.
Will it happen vs. Vikings?
The Minnesota Vikings are not the San Francisco 49ers defensively, even though the Vikings did hold the 49ers to 13 points in a Week 3 win. But they do rank eighth in yards allowed per play and yards per rushing attempt and ninth in yards per pass play.
In short, the 49ers are a top-five defense; the Vikings are top-10 in three very key areas against a Chicago offense that is struggling in just about every area.
The Vikings have forced just 12 turnovers (five interceptions, seven fumbles) and allow 22.1 points per game. In the Bears favor: Minnesota has given up 24 or more points in four of the last five games, 30 or more in three of those.
QB questions
The Bears best hope clearly lies with Jay Cutler being past any concussion symptoms. Cutler has played the Vikings six times and has a combined 100.8 passer rating, with 15 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Since a 38-10 loss in late November 2009, the Bears have scored 36, 27, 40 and 39 points against the Vikings, with only two of the TDs coming on returns, both by Devin Hester.
Maybe its a touch of familiarity, based on what Cutler sees all during the offseason and training camp.
Minnesotas defense is very similar to the defense we have here: Cover-2, Tampa-2, Tony Dungy kind of coaching tree, similar stuff to what we see here, Cutler said. Jared Allen is a problem for us; weve got to account for him. Good linebacking crew, rest of the D-line is good, and the corners and safeties play disciplined football.
Much of the same that we see out of the Chicago Bears and were just going to have to execute, run the ball well and complete passes when we get opportunities.
Matchup concerns
The last time left tackle JMarcus Webb saw Allen the Minnesota defensive end was flying past him on the way to one of three sacks of quarterback Josh McCown in the Bears 17-13 victory to finish last season 8-8.
Webb has allowed seven sacks, three quarterback hits and 22 hurries so far this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com studies. That is an improvement from last years 14 sacks allowed but not enough for the Bears to leave him alone all evening with Allen, who has seven sacks this season in addition to 24 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss.
Definitely we will have chip help, Tice said. He knows that. Were going to have to make sure that we account for him every play, every time we drop back to throw the ball, that hes walled up. We have to make sure we know where he is and find him and make sure we have an answer for that. Thats without a doubt.
But the Bears have other concerns of their own, whether Chris Spencer is a sufficient upgrade over Chilo Rachal at left guard, or if Jonathan Scott replacing Gabe Carimi can stop the hemorrhaging of pass rushers past right tackle.
Brian Robision at left end has 5.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Six-time Pro Bowl tackle Kevin Williams has 14 hits to go with his two sacks.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was watching last Monday but you dont want to take what happened on Monday night and say OK, thats the blueprint for success, because not all teams have some of the players that San Francisco has, he said.
The problem for the Bears? The Vikings do have some of the players the 49ers have.

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."

Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

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Why Dusty Baker believes these Cubs are better positioned than his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior teams

The Washington Nationals PR guy made sure a red backdrop spelling out the team’s website and Twitter handle framed Dusty Baker’s pregame media session for the TV cameras. But you could still see an even bigger blue screen covered with Cubs logos and Wintrust advertising inside this corporate conference center.  

There are so many layers to Baker, so much history with a guy who’s spent almost 50 years in professional baseball, building a resume that’s probably one bullet point away from the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t be defined by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.   

“Boy, this is different than the old interview room,” Baker said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “Look at this place. Before, I was in kind of like the dungeon over there around the corner. And then I walked in here and I saw the lights and stuff and I was ready to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’”

Inside their state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs now have a Celebration Room, which they got to use after a 5-2 victory over the Nationals that pushed their best-in-baseball record to 21-6 with an absurd plus-96 run differential.  

Back managing a star-studded first-place team after two seasons away from the game, Baker knows all about huge expectations after guiding the 2003 Cubs to five outs away from the World Series, and then missing the playoffs with a 2004 team that won 89 games and might have been even better on paper.

So far, the 2016 Cubs are even better than the hype, and Baker believes they will be better positioned to withstand the attrition that wrecked what once looked like a great foundation.   

“I know they have more depth than we had,” Baker said. “They have a better bullpen than we had then, which is no consolation, but that’s why I had to stretch out my starters longer than I even wanted to, because we didn’t have the bullpen. Not to say we didn’t have a good bullpen, but at that time we had to make a big trade in order to make that push.”

A media/fan-driven narrative unfairly labeled Baker as a bad caretaker for young pitchers, and the way it ended with a last-place finish in 2006 probably helps explain the occasional shouting from the stands on Thursday night: “Dusty sucks!”  

“What kind of upset me a little bit is how much money they spent as soon as I left,” Baker said. “But I had to also realize that the Cubs weren’t spending money then because we were in the middle of the transition for the Tribune Company to be sold. 

“When you look back on things, ‘How come you didn’t do this?’ Or, ‘How come we didn’t do that?’ And then again, baseball takes a backseat to baseball business.”        

Baker is a three-time Manager of the Year who has won 1,690 games and already guided three different franchises to the playoffs. Cubs-Nationals would be a fascinating matchup in October.   

“Sometimes people appreciate you more when you’re gone than when you’re there,” Baker said. “On the other hand, I think many times about how I wanted to be the guy that won it in Chicago. We were close. 

“Now I’m in a similar situation in D.C. (The Nationals) haven’t been in existence that long. But baseball’s been in D.C. for a long period of time. This is the third try at baseball in D.C. since I’ve been alive. So now I got a new goal – to be the first guy to manage a team, take it to the World Series and win in D.C.”

Erik Johnson struggles in rotation audition as White Sox fall to Red Sox

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Erik Johnson struggles in rotation audition as White Sox fall to Red Sox

The situation regarding the fifth spot in the White Sox rotation is still fluid after Erik Johnson made his first start on Thursday night.

When he announced Tuesday that John Danks would be designated for assignment, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said little is certain about the final spot in the rotation after the club parted with its struggling veteran pitcher.

The team’s next move is to be determined as the White Sox optioned Johnson back to Triple-A Charlotte after a 7-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox in front of 20, 126 at U.S. Cellular Field. Johnson retired seven of his last eight he faced, but not before he allowed four earned runs with eight hits and three walks in five innings.

“I felt like I found my rhythm there,” Johnson said. “I definitely -- I know I have more to offer for this team and I know I expect more out of myself.”

Not much looked easy for Johnson, who officially was promoted from Triple-A Charlotte earlier in the day.

After he struck out leadoff man Mookie Betts in the first, Dustin Pedroia homered on the first pitch he saw from Johnson. It would be a sign of things to come for Johnson, the 2015 International League pitcher of the year.

Johnson put two more men on in the first, including a walk to Hanley Ramirez, one of 16 combined free passes by the clubs. He put at least one runner on in four of the five innings worked and stranded six men in his first three frames alone as Boston built an early 4-1 lead.

The Red Sox forced Johnson to throw 81 pitches through three innings.

He pitched well in the fourth and fifth innings, which allowed the White Sox to rally. But the 108 pitches needed to complete those innings knocked him out early.

“It was a tough one to navigate through,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “Erik finally got his footing and got through it. But you’re looking at a high pitch count, he’s up over 100. It can be better.”

Hahn and the White Sox quickly moved on from Danks because they don’t want to see their chances of contending this season done in by a weak link in the rotation. Hahn said Tuesday he has several other options at Triple-A if Johnson’s first audition lasted one start.

The White Sox could again turn to Miguel Gonzalez, whom they signed early last month and has already made one start. He allowed five runs in Toronto on April 25 in a contest the White Sox eventually rallied to win.

The right-hander, who won 30 games for the Baltimore Orioles from 2012-14, last pitched on Wednesday night for Charlotte. He allowed two runs and eight hits in 5 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts and has a 2.65 ERA in 17 innings for the Knights. Gonzalez has 18 strikeouts and only four walks.

The club could also call upon Jacob Turner, who has a 3.04 ERA in five starts at Charlotte. But Turner has struggled in his past two outings, allowing seven earned runs and 12 hits in 9 2/3 innings.

If the White Sox -- whose fifth starters are 0-5 with a 7.44 ERA in 32 2/3 innings -- aren’t satisfied with their internal options, Hahn said they’d consider external ones, too.

The White Sox offense had plenty of chances against Henry Owens and an entourage of Boston relievers to earn the win.

But the big hit avoided them every time.

Jose Abreu grounded into a double play in the first with runners on the corners and no outs, a play which tied the game as Adam Eaton scored from third. Abreu also struck out with two on in the third and and Melky Cabrera and Brett Lawrie couldn’t come through later in the inning with the bases loaded.

Avisail Garcia’s solo shot in the fourth got the White Sox within 4-2. But Abreu flew out to left with the bases loaded to end the threat.

Hector Sanchez drew a bases-loaded walk in the fifth to make it a one-run game. But Lawrie was thrown out at home on Austin Jackson’s one-out fly to shallow right -- a call Robin Ventura contested because he believed Ryan Hanigan improperly blocked home plate. Replay officials disagreed with Ventura and the White Sox trailed by a run.

Red Sox relievers retired 12 of the last 14 men they faced and Boston scored three times off the White Sox bullpen to pull away.

“Obviously, I beat the throw,” Lawrie said. “Yeah, he blocked me.

“I thought I was in there because I got through him. Yep, just one of those things again.

“(They made) pitches when they needed to. But that’s how baseball goes sometimes. So gotta suck it up and move on to tomorrow.”