MLB pitcher nearly throws 2nd career no-hitter

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MLB pitcher nearly throws 2nd career no-hitter

From Comcast SportsNet
CHICAGO (AP) -- One thought kept crossing A.J. Burnett's mind as he made his dramatic push for a no-hitter. He wanted it -- badly. Instead, he will have to settle for a close call and maybe the best performance of his career. Burnett pitched a one-hitter, Neil Walker drove in five runs and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat Chicago 5-0 on Tuesday night, hours after the Cubs traded ace Ryan Dempster. Burnett started thinking about a no-hitter in the third or fourth inning. "I'm not going to lie," he said. "So, it's one of those things that you want to do, you want to take pride in, but at the same time a lot of luck's got to go into it. I had a lot of great plays behind me. ... Bottom line is it's a W' for us." Burnett just about stole the spotlight after the Cubs traded their best pitcher to Texas just before the non-waiver deadline. His bid for a second career no-hitter and the sixth in the majors this season ended with two outs in the eighth. He had already hit Darwin Barney in the helmet with one out before striking out Luis Valbuena, but his no-hit bid ended at the hands of a rookie when pinch-hitter Adrian Cardenas lined a 3-2 pitch to right for a single after two close pitches were called balls. Burnett said he was angry about a 2-2 curve that just missed outside, and he appeared to be yelling at the umpire after the hit. But he struck out David DeJesus with runners on first and third to end the inning. That's probably not much consolation for the veteran, who pitched a wild no-hitter for the Marlins against San Diego on May 12, 2001. He walked nine in that game, two in this one while striking out eight. "I always think about it," he said. "I want to clean that one up. That was a wild one." That a Miami-area native, who was 13-years-old back then, broke it up was a bit of an ironic twist. Not since Sandy Koufax did it to them in September 1965 have the Cubs been no-hit, and the last no-hitter at Wrigley Field came when Milt Pappas pitched one for Chicago against San Diego in September 1972. Burnett sure made it interesting, though. His curve was as sharp as it's ever been, and he just missed the eighth no-hitter in franchise history. "I thought he had a shot," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He was just so efficient, pinpoint command. He pitched the left-handers so extremely well tonight. Fastball gloveside, his curveball was sharp for strikes, for chase. Great tempo -- 25 out of 31 first-pitch strikes. The pitch count was in a great place. That's one of the best games I've seen pitched ever." Cubs manager Dale Sveum was impressed, too. "He probably threw 60, 65 curveballs," he said. "Even his fastball, he kept it out of the middle of the plate. We hit a few balls hard. A couple balls without the wind might have been home runs, but he pitched a heck of a game." He retired the first 11 batters before walking Anthony Rizzo, and as the game wore on, the sense that something special was happening filled the old ballpark. There was a loud gasp when Alfonso Soriano sent a drive to deep left-center in the seventh that Andrew McCutchen caught, and first baseman Garrett Jones then made a sliding stop on Bryan LaHair's grounder to end the inning. The Cubs got some relief when Cardenas finally broke through, but even that was tempered by the reality that they got shut down. Cardenas faced Burnett in late May and didn't do so well, going 0-for-3 with two errors in a 1-0 loss. "I remember him and seeing how he was working throughout that game," he said. "When I was able to get that hit, it was great but it was very short-lived because we lost 5-0. ... It's definitely sweet to break up the no-hitter here at our place. That's something you don't want to be a part of." While Burnett cruised along, Casey Coleman had a rough night after being recalled from the minors. Pitching in Dempster's place, he lasted just 4 2-3 innings, allowing four runs and seven hits. Walker quickly put the Cubs ahead in the first when he drove a 2-1 pitch to right for a grand slam -- the second of his career and second at Wrigley Field. He also had a sacrifice fly in the seventh. Burnett's performance overshadowed the big news before the game, with Dempster going to the Rangers for two prospects. The Pirates were a busy bunch, too. They acquired former All-Star first baseman Gaby Sanchez from Florida and sent third baseman Casey McGehee to the Yankees for reliever Chad Qualls. Notes: Along with Coleman, the Cubs also recalled Cardenas and C Welington Castillo from Triple-A Iowa before the game. ... GM Jed Hoyer said it might not be long before Josh Vitters is called up from Triple-A. He was batting .298 with 15 homers. ... In the Sanchez deal, Pittsburgh also got minor league pitcher Kyle Kaminska for minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and the extra draft pick for 2013 that the Pirates won in the competitive balance lottery for financially weaker teams. ... The Pirates recalled RHP Daniel McCutchen from Triple-A Indianapolis to take Brad Lincoln's spot in the bullpen. Lincoln was dealt to Toronto for Travis Snider on Monday.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

From top to bottom, Cubs have all the pieces in place, including new deals for Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod

CINCINNATI – From top to bottom, the Cubs now have all the pieces in place to make October baseball at Wrigley Field a reality, year after year, with family ownership, rock-star executives and blue-chip players.

“It’s nice to keep the band together,” manager Joe Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s announcement that general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod had finalized contract extensions, matching up their timelines with team president Theo Epstein’s new monster deal through the 2021 season.

Those architects constructed what’s already a 102-win team, a division champion and the National League’s No. 1 seed, making the Cubs right now the biggest story in baseball, if not professional sports.

The lineup for a 7-3 win over the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds featured two MVP candidates (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo), a 22-year-old All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and marquee free agents (Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler). The last two games of the regular season at Great American Ball Park will feature Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks making their final cases for the Cy Young Award. 

“It always starts with ownership and then it goes into the front office and eventually gets to us when you have that kind of stability,” said Maddon, who led a stunning turnaround with the Tampa Bay Rays despite all the uncertainty that came with small-market payrolls, a charmless domed stadium (Tropicana Field) and speculation about relocation and contraction.

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“We have a great product on the field,” Maddon said. “We have the best ballpark in the world. Our fans are spectacular. The city itself – there’s no more interesting place to live than Chicago. All those factors play into the success.

“I know in the past the Cubs haven’t been as successful as they wanted to be. But I don’t know that all the different ingredients have been put into place this well.

“So looking ahead, you just want to build off what you’ve done. Last year was a good building block coming into this year. And we want to keep moving forward. Of course, our goal is to play the final game of the year and win it. Under these circumstances, I think it becomes more believable on an annual basis.”

Since Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod reunited in the fall of 2011 – updating their World Series blueprints with the Boston Red Sox – the Cubs are just the third team in major-league history to win at least 100 games within four years of a 100-loss season. The Cubs have now qualified for postseason play in consecutive seasons for only the third time in franchise history.

“We had some good pieces,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “But the organization itself was not in a position where you could believe that there was sustainability and consistency and success on the field. Obviously, Theo and the guys that he brought with him five years ago kind of took the organization down to the studs and started rebuilding.

“The time and energy to do it the right way has paid off with a team that should be successful for years to come.”