Cubs expecting Castro and Jackson to snap out of it

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Cubs expecting Castro and Jackson to snap out of it

SAN DIEGO Theo Epstein says the Cubs dont want cookie-cutter hitters. But Starlin Castro and Brett Jackson will be hearing voices as they try to get to the next level. If they dont, then this rebuild could take even longer than expected.

Those Boston Red Sox teams were known for grinding out at-bats and playing games that could easily last four hours on national television. Dale Sveum has very specific ideas about hitting and coached up Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun with the Milwaukee Brewers.

This isnt completely rewiring Castro, who at the age of 21 played in the All-Star Game and led the National League in hits with 207 last season. And its still way too early to rush to judgment on Jackson, who has eight strikeouts in his first 11 at-bats in the big leagues.

But how they finish this season will have to color how the Cubs think about 2013.

As much as Castro smiles in the clubhouse and shrugs off bad games, it definitely bothered him between the lines. Hes been known to throw bats and slam helmets in frustration. He finally snapped an 0-for-21 streak with a single in Wednesdays 2-0 loss to the San Diego Padres.

But the Cubs manager wont be surprised by these droughts until adjustments are made. That could be a project for this winter.

Its just making him understand he doesnt need all this extra movement, Sveum said. (Its taking) all the guesswork out of the timing involved with the leg lift and about three different hand movements he does by the time the guys getting ready to let go of the ball. (Otherwise) the timing factors just not going to be right on a consistent basis.

Castros average has dipped to .273, after never falling below .299 last season. He turned it on as a rookie in 2010 to finish right at .300. Sveum is looking for more.

Even though he was hitting .300 at the beginning of the year, it was a lot of off-the-end-of-the-bat, seeing-eye base hits, Sveum said. What Im talking about is a guy thats so gifted he should be able to hit the ball harder on a consistent basis. Were all trying to get (to) the higher level. (Its) not to be always satisfied with chasing hits.

The Cubs fired hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo in June and promoted James Rowson, a minor-league coordinator they felt would be a fresh voice to deliver their message.

This kind of thing never happened for me, and I dont feel too good about that, Castro said. Im working with (Rowson) every day, doing my routine every day. Its nothing different. Ive seen the video last year and this year its nothing different. It just happens in the game.

Part of the logic in promoting Jackson last weekend was that he would be able to work directly with Sveum and Rowson after striking out 158 times in 407 at-bats at Triple-A Iowa.

Jackson sat on Wednesday against Padres lefty Clayton Richard, but is in line to face four right-handers in the upcoming four-game series against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. The night before, Sveum saw Jackson go through four different hand positions and three different setups and finish 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a walk.

This was part of the reason why we called him up, to see firsthand and get a good grip on whats going on, Sveum said. Its not like hes swinging through anything (when) the balls in the strike zone. Right now, hes just swinging out of the strike zone.

The Cubs arent worried about Jacksons state of mind or how he will handle failure in the spotlight.

Hes a confident kid that knows theres just something a little wrong (and it) needs to change to move forward, Sveum said. This is big-league pitching. Theyre not going to give in. (But hes) willing to make adjustments to succeed here.

This is what Jackson wanted from the moment he signed out of Cal-Berkeley as a first-round pick in 2009. Hes prepared to ride out all the ups and downs.

Thats how well you can adapt, how professional you can be, Jackson said. Thats something Im going to put together.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”