White Sox

Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

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Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

It figures that Juozas Balciunas, who has led Lemont's basketball team to its best start in more than 35 years, didn't speak English until seven years ago, after his family immigrated from Lithuania.

Until Balciunas arrived, basketball was virtually a foreign language in Lemont.

Lemont is a football school. In the last four years, coach Eric Michaelsen's Indians have won 45 of 52 games and finished second in the state playoff on two occasions.

Meanwhile, the basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001 and hasn't won a regional since 1991. How many people remember when coach John Jones' 1975 team was 26-4 and advanced to the supersectional? The Indians were 2-24 the year before coach Rick Runaas was hired. His first two teams were 8-17.

So folks in the southwest suburban community must have thought Runaas, only his third season, was balmy when he said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 2011-12 squad. He isn't surprised that the Indians are 14-2 going into Tuesday's game at Joliet Catholic.

"I knew the new point guard (Balciunas) was going to be good," Runaas said. "Our lower levels had experienced some success. I knew we would have more depth than in the past. We had success in the summer and fall. We went to Peoria for a weekend and played Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and realized what level they were at and where we want to be."

Peoria Manual and Peoria Central are elite programs in Illinois. Runaas, who rebuilt Thornton Fractional North's program and guided the Meteors to a regional championship in 2002, their first since 1946, believed he could do the same reconstruction job at Lemont.

Runaas had been out of coaching for seven years and was serving as athletic director at Thornton Fractional South when he learned that Lemont was looking for a basketball coach in the fall of 2009.

"I had an itch to get back into coaching," he said. "I didn't know much about Lemont. I knew it was a great community and growing and had great facilities. I knew they were a great football school, producing great athletes. I hoped they were also producing good basketball players."

How good is this team? Good enough to be competitive in the Class 3A playoff, Runaas predicts. He learned something about his players in a four-point loss to highly regarded Crane that he believes will be beneficial as the Indians negotiate the remainder of their season.

"Our strength is chemistry," he said. "Everyone has accepted their roles and realize what their weaknesses are. They play to their strengths. It is a match of 10 kids who complement each other and offset each other. It's just a bunch of good high school players. I don't know if we have any Division I players on the roster, no 7-footer, no (Crane star) Willie Conner. We're just playing well together.

"We have to remain true to who we are. We have to get used to being successful. Just because we are 14-2, we have to earn our wins. We are a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys who like each other. We can't lose sight of that. If we really want to make a run (in the Class 3A playoff) we have to shoot the ball well and get more production inside."

Lemont is 14-2 because of the stellar play of Balciunas, a 6-foot junior point guard who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He is averaging 17 points and six assists per game. He is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.

"He seems to play better when the game is more competitive," Runaas said. "He handles traps and pressure. He is a lefty, like (former NBA star) Tiny Archibald. People (college coaches) are starting to figure out who he is."

Balciunas is surrounded by 6-foot-3 senior Matt Lipowski (6 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-foot-10 senior guard Joe O'Brien (6 ppg), 6-foot-1 senior Paulius Otruskevicius (12 ppg) and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jake Terrazas (5 ppg, 7 rpg).

The bench is headed by two underclassmen who project to be future stars--6-foot junior Joe Hehir (10 ppg) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Mike Wisz (5 ppg), the team's best three-point shooter.

Last week, Lemont beat Stagg 56-46 as Balciunas had 17 points and eight assists and Lipowski grabbed 10 rebounds and Argo 62-28 as Balciunas accounted for 12 points.

Balciunas admits learning to play basketball at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont was easier than perfecting English and adapting to his new country.

"It was very difficult to learn English. It took a year to learn the language. And it was difficult to get used to a new country and new people.
Everything was so much bigger. But school was the most difficult thing. I had no friends. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

He started to play basketball for the first time when he moved from Franklin Park to Lemont five years ago. "I played soccer for fun. But basketball was more fun to me. It was in me. I wanted to play basketball and that was it. There was nothing more important," he said.

He enrolled at St. Joseph in Westchester "because it had a big basketball reputation." He spent two years in coach Gene Pingatore's program and is grateful for the experience. "I learned new things," he said.

After his sophomore year, however, he opted to transfer to Lemont. "A lot of my friends were at Lemont. I heard I could help Lemont to get better in basketball. Sure, I knew football was the main sport in Lemont. But times change. Maybe this could be year that basketball changes Lemont. It also could be a basketball town," he said.

From the first day that Balciunas began working out with his teammates, he felt they could be successful.

"I have great teammates, not just basketball players," he said. "We all get along. The strength of this team is we all play hard and all want to win. We're friends on and off the court, like brothers."

While Balciunas is a late bloomer and is only beginning to stir interest among college recruiters, Runaas believes he has what it takes to play at the next level. How high? He has the rest of this season, next summer and fall and all of the 2012-13 season to make an impression.

"Some people are starting to know who I am," Balciunas said. "I want to play college basketball. Ever since I started to play basketball, my father said I have to work harder than other guys. My job is to be the best point guard I can be, to lead team team by example on and off the court. I'm not surprised by what I am doing."

White Sox prospect Micker Adolfo sidelined with elbow injuries

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USA TODAY

White Sox prospect Micker Adolfo sidelined with elbow injuries

PHOENIX, Ariz. — One of the White Sox prized prospects will be on the shelf for a little while.

Outfielder Micker Adolfo has a sprained UCL in his right elbow and a strained flexor tendon that could require surgery. He could avoid surgery, though he could be sidelined for at least six weeks.

Though he hasn’t received the same high rankings and media attention as fellow outfield prospects Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, Adolfo is considered a part of the White Sox promising future. He’s said to have the best outfield arm in the White Sox system.

Adolfo had a breakout season in 2017, slashing .264/.331/.453 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs in 112 games with Class A Kannapolis.

Adolfo, along with Jimenez and Robert, has been generating buzz at White Sox camp in Glendale, with a crowd forming whenever the trio takes batting practice. Earlier this week, the three described their conversation dreaming about playing together in the same outfield for a contending White Sox team in the future.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

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Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”