Preps Talk

Closer roulette: Cubs will see if Russell is ready for prime time

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Closer roulette: Cubs will see if Russell is ready for prime time

PITTSBURGH James Russell was born with the DNA to close, and he already has the look down, with long hair flowing out of his hat and a dark beard covering his face.

The Cubs are running out of options for the ninth inning. Dale Sveum sort of chuckled on Sunday when he wondered what those might be. By process of elimination, the manager is down to Russell and Shawn Camp.

The night before, Rafael Dolis had walked two Pittsburgh Pirates and hit another, forcing in the game-winning run. So the 24-year-old rookie is out as closer, though its not like the Cubs are generating many save opportunities these days.

Its a confidence-booster, for sure, Russell said. Those are the big spots. You have a lot of accountability there. Im dont mind being that guy. Im happy to be that guy.

Carlos Marmol, whos recovering from a hamstring strain, was scheduled to pitch at Triple-A Iowa on Sunday and could be activated from the disabled list by Monday or Tuesday.

Sveum has said that the ex-closer with the 20 million contract and a 6.35 ERA will have to show that he can throw strikes and wont be handed the job back automatically.

Dolis who had pitched in one game above the Double-A level until this season picked up four saves but woke up Sunday having given up six runs in his last four appearances. Sveum admitted that Dolis was being put in a situation he probably shouldnt have been in.

Russell (1-0, 1.74 ERA) may not be the ideal answer. Sveum still thinks of him more as a matchups guy, though one who can still get right-handers out.

The 26-year-old left-hander has the bloodlines. His father Jeff saved 186 games in a 14-year big-league career. They talk after almost every outing.

I havent really asked him about just straight-up closing before, said Russell, who made 40 starts in the minors. Ive never really thought about myself being put in the position of closer.

Its kind of funny that now Im being thrown around in there, because thats always been the last thing on my mind as a baseball player. But its kind of cool. I have to get some pointers from him.

As Sveum said: Those genes usually work out.

But at this point, the manager will just settle for someone who can throw strikes. On some nights, it could be Camp (2-2, 2.84), who spent years battling those brutal lineups in the American League East.

The two guys who have constantly done it are Camp and Russell, Sveum said. If something happens, its going to be because (the other team) hit the ball. Were imploding by walking guys and hitting guys.

That might not be the strongest vote of confidence, but it will be interesting to see what Russell does with this opportunity, in a year the Cubs are trying to identify core players for the future.

Im ready for a phone call no matter what, Russell said. You got to look at it as three outs, whether its in the first inning or the ninth inning. Its three outs and you got to go out there and make your pitches.

A 14th-round pick in the 2007 draft, Russell broke into the big leagues in 2010 pitching for Lou Piniella, a manager not known for his patience with relievers.

Russell has been the same easy-going guy ever since, and would like to be a major part of Theo Epsteins rebuilding project.

You cant worry about the stuff you cant control, Russell said, whether its offensive woes or manager changes, front office changes. Its just something so far out of my control. You just dont even really worry about it. You just kind of go about your business and make sure youre ready every day.

Russell, who attended the University of Texas, is a bit of a free spirit, regularly wearing the Ditka and Dont Toews Me, Bro T-shirts you can buy on Clark Street.

Russell was asked if hes crazy enough to handle the ninth inning.

Yeah, absolutely, he said, crazy, stupid, whatever.

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show Roundup

CLASS 1A

Revealing the Class 1A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 1A Bracket

CLASS 2A

Revealing the Class 2A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 2A Bracket

CLASS 3A

Revealing the Class 3A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 3A Bracket

CLASS 4A

Revealing the Class 4A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 4A Bracket

Predicting Class 1A-4A

CLASS 5A

Revealing the Class 5A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 5A Bracket

CLASS 6A

Revealing the Class 6A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 6A Bracket

CLASS 7A

Revealing the Class 7A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 7A Bracket

CLASS 8A

Revealing the Class 8A Bracket

Analyzing the Class 8A Bracket

Class 7A and Class 8A Predictions

 

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”