Cubs

Alviti looks ahead to 2012 season

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Alviti looks ahead to 2012 season

Maine South quarterback Matt Alviti still remembers every play of last year's heartbreaking 24-22 loss to Stevenson in the second round of the Class 8A playoff as if it happened yesterday.

"I threw one interception and fumbled once. I wasn't able to win the game. In the past, somebody always came up with a big play when we needed it, but not this time," Alviti recalled.

"We were behind 17-7 at halftime and 24-7 in the third quarter. We had a great third quarter and cut their lead to 24-15, then 24-22 and had the ball on our 20 with five minutes to play. But on third-and-five, we couldn't convert. We never got the ball back after that."

Alviti, who quarterbacked Maine South to the state championship as a sophomore in 2010, couldn't produce any magic against Stevenson. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 203 yards and one touchdown. But Stevenson quarterback Matt Micucci was 20-of-32 for 247 yards and two touchdowns and also kicked a 28-yard field goal that proved to be the difference.

It spoiled Maine South's bid for an unprecedented fourth state championship in a row and snapped the Hawks' 16-game postseason winning streak. The senior class bowed out with a four-year record of 50-3.

"It was so disappointing," Alviti said. "You don't realize you season is over and you're going home and the seniors go out like that. I don't want to experience that again. The seniors couldn't handle it. Not being able to win the state title with good friends I had played with since I was little...well, I really felt for them. I felt like I let them down."

Ironically, Alviti and Micucci will be teammates at Northwestern. Alviti recently committed to coach Pat Fitzgerald, choosing Northwestern over Michigan State. And Micucci will join the Wildcat program as a preferred walk-on, probably as a kicker and punter.

"Northwestern is a great fit for me," Alviti said. "Recruiting is all about finding the right fit for you, where you can do your best, where you can succeed and play your best. They were there before anyone else, the first school to recruit me when I was a sophomore. They made the first offer, the day after we won state as a sophomore.

"It's a dream come true for me, to play college football at a high level, to play for coach Fitzgerald, to work with offensive coordinator Mick McCall, to play close to home, to play in that offense. They run a spread that is similar to what we run at Maine South. In fact, we run some of the same variations of the same plays, all the same concepts. It will be a comfortable transition for me."

Will Alviti be another Dan Persa or Zac Kustok, surpassing the feats of two previous Northwestern quarterbacks? He is more of a thrower than a runner and doesn't like to compare himself to other quarterbacks, but he admits his favorite is Drew Brees.

"I like to watch him. His height is similar to mine," said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Alviti. "He has great leadership qualities. He's a great passer. He understands the game so well. He's a great general on the field. He delivers day after day. He gets all his receivers involved. He is very impressive to watch and learn from what he does."

Alviti has been working hard to improve his skills for the 2012 season--and to make everybody forget about last year's loss in the state playoff. He is running track for the first time this spring, keeping in shape and building leg strength and endurance by competing in the 100, 200 and 400 and 800 relays.

"I want to get my 40-yard dash time down to 4.5 (from 4.6). I want to be stronger and more explosive than ever," he said.

In addition, he is lifting weights once every day and working out twice a week with his receiving corps--tight end John Solari and wide receivers Chris Buschemi, Clay Burdelik, George Sajenko, Anthony Mitchell, Zac Hinkamp and Frankie Perrone.

"I'm very confident with these guys," Alviti said. "We're getting our timing down and watching film. But we have a lot of preparation to do and a long way to go before the season begins."

Nobody knows it more than offensive coordinator Charlie Bliss, who rates Alviti as the best thrower and passer he has produced at the Park Ridge school, dating back to John Schacke, who led Maine South to its first state championship in 1995. Since then, Bliss also has developed such standouts as Shawn Kain, Sean Price, Tyler Knight, Charlie Goro and Tyler Benz.

"He is in better condition than ever," Bliss said of Alviti. "There isn't a throw he can't make. He is showing people that he is a better leader. If he is on, he will make the people around him better. He lacked it last year. We didn't have the great receivers of the past. Matt didn't make them better. He won't let it happen this year. We have better receivers this year."

Bliss and head coach David Inserra are pleased that Alviti opted to make his college decision earlier than later. There were a lot of distractions last year. For example, he played on a Friday night, then attended a WisconsinNebraska game the following day. The longer he waited, the more colleges figured to jump onto the recruiting merry-go-round.

"Now he can concentrate on his senior year," Bliss said. "He hasn't peaked yet. His game will get better and better. He can make every single throw. Sometimes he tries to be too perfect. But he makes plays. And he is fearless and never gets intimidated."

In the last two years, Alviti has passed for 5,048 yards, rushed for 1,115 and accounted for 76 touchdowns. But he is motivated by more than just winning a fourth state title in the last five years and removing the sting from last year's playoff loss to Stevenson.

He attended the recent Elite 11 regional competition in Columbus, Ohio. The event was host to some of the leading quarterbacks in the nation with the top performers earning a spot in the national finals in California in July. Michigan-bound Shane Morris of Warren, Michigan, was the MVP.

Alviti wasn't rated among the top six finalists in a field that also included Notre Dame-bound Malik Zaire, Stanford-bound Ryan Burns, Purdue-bound Danny Etling and Kansas-bound Montell Cozart.

"It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun. I met some good guys and I learned I can throw with the best of them," Alviti said. "I also learned some things to improve on. I learned how to throw better in awkward positions, like when I'm flushed out of the pocket.

"I thought I progressed as Friday went along. I would have liked to have thrown better. I went there to improve on my skill set and I think I did that. I also picked up some drills to work on. Morris was the MVP. He has a strong arm and throws a deep ball very well. But I think I'm a good quarterback as well. I don't think I have to take a backseat to anybody."

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”