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Cubs will find out if Dolis has what it takes

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Cubs will find out if Dolis has what it takes

ST. LOUIS One day late in spring training, Carlos Marmol agreed to translate for Rafael Dolis. Marmol has earned a reputation as someone whos always at his locker, win or lose, ready to take the heat.

As the media moved in for a nice and easy notebook item, one reporter asked Marmol to ask Dolis if he would like to close one day.

Close what? Marmol said and everyone laughed. What are you talking about?

Even if it didnt come out quite right, it was still a very good question. No one thought the answer would come about a month into the season.

Dolis had his baptism by fire into the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry on Tuesday in St. Louis, in front of another sellout crowd at Busch Stadium. They celebrated a 7-6 walk-off win as Yadier Molina hit a two-out RBI single past diving second baseman Darwin Barney.

Dolis looked like he wanted to throw his glove to the ground. A Cubs team thats playing the percentages with spray charts and defensive positioning got burned on that one.

Its one quarter of a step from maybe saving a run, Barney said. Thats kind of how we play Yadi. Hes such a talented hitter. He can hit the ball to all fields. He tends to hit the ball up the middle or to the pull side early in the count.

If there was two strikes right there, I probably would have shifted over a little bit. Were committed to playing the middle. I wasnt shifted all the way over, but just enough for him to get it through there.

But it didnt have to come down to that in the ninth inning.

In the eighth, Matt Carpenter launched James Russells first-pitch fastball 422 feet into the seats in right-center field. The inning before, Kerry Wood walked two batters and allowed the game-tying run.

The Cubs wasted Alfonso Sorianos first home run this season, a game-tying shot in the ninth in his 120th at-bat. Those are the margins for a 15-21 team and an organization thats willing to go through the growing pains.

Manager Dale Sveum officially told Marmol he lost the job on May 4, the morning after another meltdown in Cincinnati. One week later, Marmol strained his right hamstring and went on the disabled list.

Dolis a 24-year-old rookie who had pitched in one game above the Double-A level until this season has emerged as a potential long-term solution for the ninth inning.

You never know the makeup of people, how they handle the last three outs, Sveum said before the game. Its not made for everybody. So hes obviously proven so far that the makeup is there for it. For a young guy that hasnt pitched a lot in the big leagues, I think thats the biggest thing.

There will be some trial-and-error stuff and understanding what goes into that.

Cubs people felt the same way about Marmol when they announced his three-year, 20 million contract on Valentines Day 2011. He was coming off a season in which he notched 38 saves in 43 chances.

Marmol has had issues with his mechanics, the feel for his slider and trusting his fastball. Hes back in Chicago receiving treatment for an injury thats considered relatively minor. Hell likely pitch one or two innings at Triple-A Iowa before being activated.

Who knows? Maybe the time away will help someone who has a 6.35 ERA, two blown saves and 16 walks in 11.1 innings.

But Sveum has said that he wont make changes just for the sake of making changes. This is a huge opportunity for Dolis, whos 2-3 with four saves, a 3.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP.

He got the groundball (Molina) just happened to hit it in a place he doesnt hit it very often, Sveum said before looking more broadly at his closer.

(Dolis) is not a big strikeout guy, so hes got to learn to throw his slider more. You cant keep throwing fastball after fastball. Hes got a good slider and hes got to use it. Hes learning that he needs to use that pitch more.

The overall bullpen issues compelled the Cubs to sign veteran reliever Mike MacDougal to a minor-league deal that will put him in Iowa. (They also acquired Hunter Cervenka, a Class-A left-hander in the Boston Red Sox system, to complete the Marlon Byrd-Michael Bowden trade.)

The Cardinals (21-15) arent exactly running away with the division. The Cubs now have 11 losses after leading, and have lost six games in the final at-bat.

Were playing good baseball, and were doing a lot of the little things right, Barney said, but in the end you got to start stacking up the wins.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.