Cubs

For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"

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For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"

The Fire had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons at this time a year ago. But with a team featuring plenty of new faces and an early-season coaching change, the Men in Red missed the playoffs for the second straight year, falling just short of the postseason despite a torrid finish.

No player or coach would've used that lack of familiarity as an excuse for falling short of their goals. But it does serve as a fair explanation, especially in light of their 7-2-1 record over the final 10 games of the season. Under Frank Klopas, the team came together but ultimately was done in by the poor start that saw the team notch just two victories through mid-August.

If that momentum from last year's playoff push carries over, though, that playoff drought will be history.

"It's a lot more comfortable for the guys as opposed to last year," winger Patrick Nyarko said. "It helped because we didn't have to start from scratch, so it made it a lot easier."

Defender Cory Gibbs took it a step further.

"This is the year for no excuses," he said. "This is what we've asked for, the cohesiveness. We've kept everybody with the addition of two or three solid players. If we don't get it done this year, there's no reason for it, no excuses.

"We have all the elements in place, we just have to put it together."

Good vibrations are running rampant around Fire training heading into the club's home opener against Philadelphia on Saturday, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. Chicago came away from a rabid environment in Montreal last weekend with a point, drawing the Impact in the franchise's first-ever home match.

The Fire earned a draw thanks to an equalizing goal by Dominic Oduro, which was brilliantly set up by midfielder Sebastian Grazzini. The score was indicative of how far the Fire have come in the last year -- Oduro was acquired from Houston in an early-season trade last year while Grazzini joined the club in July. Months later, the pair's rapport paid off in the form of a key goal.

"That's a typical example of what happens when you play over time," said Gibbs. "That probably wouldn't have happened with them being together for just this season."

Of course, whatever success may be ahead for the Fire won't come just because the roster is more familiar with each other. Klopas would bristle at that suggestion.

"Everyone's gotta pay the price, the price has to be paid every frickin' day we come here to training," Klopas said emphatically. "If not, then we're not going to get better."

It's early in the season, so no matter where you go, there's going to be positivity. There's going to be high expectations. There's going to be an emphasis on hard work. But Klopas sees an emphasis on all that as his team working on something they can control.

"The ball hits the post, goes in, goes out, I mean, the theme can be no excuses but also for us, it can be to control the controllables," explained Klopas. "That's what we put into work every day, our attitude, our focus, our discipline. Those are the things that really matter, sticking together as a team. Because those we can control. All the other things, you know, it's a game."

This all may seem very rah-rah, but again, it's early. And there's a genuine belief among the Fire they can carry the momentum of 2011 into 2012 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

"With the team we've built and knowing how it felt to win at the end of the year, we know what it takes," Nyarko said. "Guys are confident and absolutely positive we'll make the playoffs."

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.