Cubs

Fleming sets pace for Stevenson

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Fleming sets pace for Stevenson

When Mike Fleming was in seventh grade, Stevenson's basketball team was 27-7 and finished fourth in the Class AA tournament. He attended a lot of games, including the Elite Eight finals in Peoria.

It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. He enjoyed watching Stevenson's Jong Lee, Kevin Stineman and Dylan Richter and even got an up-close-and-personal view of a young Simeon star named Derrick Rose.

"It never crossed my mind that Stevenson basketball wasn't as big as football or baseball," Fleming said. "As I got into the program, playing as a freshman and sophomore, I could see it wasn't that big. Not a lot of people showed up unless it was Warren or Libertyville or a playoff game."

Times have changed. Stevenson is 8-1 after overwhelming Streamwood 60-36 on Tuesday in the opening round of the Wheeling Holiday Tournament.

The Patriots have defeated highly rated Warren and previously unbeaten Libertyville and lost only to newly crowned Elgin Holiday Tournament champion Elgin in overtime.

Against Streamwood, Fleming converted four three-point shots and
finished with 19 points and five assists. Colby Cashew added 13 points.

"We have potential to be better than the 27-7 team," coach Pat Ambrose said. "We have a young team. We have a freshman starter and a freshman coming off the bench. And we have a sophomore who plays starter minutes. We are a work in progress. But the talent is there. We can be as good as the 2007 team if we keep on moving forward and improving."

Fleming agrees. The 6-foot senior guard is the team leader and its leading scorer (18 ppg). He also is the smartest guy in the locker room with a 29 ACT and a 4.1 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in advanced placement courses. He wants to major in economics and play basketball in college, maybe at Colgate or Bucknell or Princeton or Cornell.

"This year is so much different than last year," Fleming said. "Last year, we were 15-13. Some guys were figuring out what their roles were and wanted to have a different role instead of doing what they had to do for the team to be successful.

"But everybody is buying into it this year. Everybody has the same mindset. Everybody wants to play basketball. In the past, the mindset was mixed. This year, everybody is close on and off the floor. Everybody enjoys playing with each other. And everybody knows their role."

Fleming is joined in the starting lineup by 6-6 senior Colby Cashaw (8 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-foot freshman guard Jalen Brunson (7 ppg, 6 assists), 6-3 junior Andy Stemple (4 ppg) and 6-6 senior Chandler Simon or 6-1 sophomore Matt Morrissey. Another valuable contributor is 6-2 freshman Connor Cashaw, Colby's brother.

Brunson, son of Chicago Bulls assistant coach and former Temple and 10-year NBA player Rick Brunson, is a prototypical point guard. He scored 22 points against Libertyville. Morrissey, son of former Chicago Bears star Jim Morrissey, is a late addition from the football team.

"Brunson has great potential," Ambrose said. "He is a piece to our puzzle right now. He isn't a star player but he gets oohs and aahs from the crowd because of the moves he makes. But he fits into our team concept."

Ambrose, 43, is in his 14th year as head coach at the Lincolnshire high school. A 1987 graduate of Naperville North, he was mentored by several outstanding high school coaches--Naperville North's Dick Whitaker, Proviso West's Mark Schneider and Hoffman Estates' Bill Wandro. When he applied at Stevenson, Warren's Chuck Ramsey put in a good word for him.

"I didn't know much about Stevenson," Ambrose said. "I knew it had untapped potential in basketball. I knew it was more known for football and baseball because of past success. But I didn't think we couldn't win there. We had to get everybody on the same page, get the kids working in the same direction, straighten out the feeder program, get more kids interested in basketball, let them see Stevenson basketball in a better light."

To relate to the kids, he put together a crack staff. Assistant Brent Mork has been with him for the last four years. Paul Swan has been coaching basketball at Stevenson for 43 years. A member of the Lake County Hall of Fame, Swan has been a volunteer varsity assistant for the last six years.

Ambrose was disappointed with last year's 15-13 team, which lost to Mundelein in the regional semifinal for the third time. "We should have been better. We had more talent than we showed, eight seniors who didn't put it all together. We didn't do a good job from A to Z, offense or defense," he said.

But this year's team could be better. "I keep telling the kids: 'The future is in front of you. The past is history. The future is a mystery.' I keep asking them what we can do today to make ourselves better," the coach said.

"Coach Ambrose is known for his sayings and quotes. He has so many of them. All of them relate to the team," Fleming said. "He says this a lot and puts in on the board: 'Play hard, play smart, play together.' That's his No. 1 saying."

Fleming has been in the program for four years and he has heard all of Ambrose's sayings. And he sees changes that he likes, things he never saw before, like a student cheering section. "It won't be long before somebody comes up with a name for them," he said.

But the most fun is on the floor. Fleming scored 27 points against Elgin and Zion-Benton and 16 in Stevenson's victory over Warren. The fever is catching on among the students and the community.

"This year, we have had success and we have talent. The gym has been packed for every game," Fleming said. "It is cool to have some big games. It is awesome to do it in front of family and friends.

"It excites me. It is rare to see two freshmen (Dunson and Connor Cashaw) with such raw talent. It is awesome to play with young guys who can come in and play in varsity games and have an impact. I didn't expected them to be as good as they are. It helps our team that much more.

"We will surprise a lot of people. I think a lot people, even after our Warren win, still doubted us. They thought it was lucky or a fluke. But I hope, after our Libertyville win, that people will realize we are a very talented team, that we are definitely for real. People should recognize that and not take us lightly. It would be a dream to play Simeon in the Class 4A final."

Has the coach got a saying for that?

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.”

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Winter is coming for Cubs team that looks checked out of 2017

Kyle Schwarber took a Babe Ruth swing on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, posed for a moment and dropped the bat out of his follow through, watching that Yu Darvish pitch soar 408 feet out toward the left-center field bleachers.

Those carefree Cubs relievers shown on the video board – wait, was that John Lackey bouncing around? – danced in the bullpen in the first inning. This is exactly what the Cubs wanted: Grab an early lead? Check. Get one of their big boys going? Check. Energize the crowd of 41,871? Check.

That sense of momentum lasted less than the time it takes to buy a beer or go to the bathroom at Wrigley Field, because the Los Angeles Dodgers look like the unstoppable force this October.

Now Wade Davis may never pitch in this National League Championship Series and Wednesday night could be Jake Arrieta’s final start in a Cubs uniform. Winter is coming after a 6-1 loss left the defending World Series champs looking mentally checked out of 2017.

The Cubs played AC/DC and Motley Crue in their underground clubhouse and answered questions about why they believe they can match the 2004 Boston Red Sox who took down the New York Yankee Evil Empire, becoming the only team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS expanded to a seven-game format in 1985.

But Kris Bryant’s glassy look and bloodshot eyes told a different story, the reigning NL MVP admitting how “draining” those five games felt against the Washington Nationals in Round 1.

“But you kind of expect that around this time when games mean a lot,” Bryant said. “It takes a lot of energy to get ready for these games, and at the end, you feel wiped out. It’s expected.”

But no one could have predicted this lack of buzz in Wrigleyville, which felt less than a lot of midweek games during the regular season. A silence fell over the old ballpark when Andre Ethier – who has three homers across the last two seasons combined – lined a Kyle Hendricks pitch off the video board in right field to lead off the second inning.

Hendricks – who has made 10 postseason starts across the last three years and kept the Dodgers completely off-balance last October on the night the Cubs clinched their first NL pennant in 71 years – watched in the third inning as Chris Taylor crushed another home-run ball that bounced off the roof of the batter’s eye in center field.

“I wouldn’t say we’re running out of gas,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every time we step on the field, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of winning. We’re going to come into the clubhouse tomorrow positive and just ready to strap it on.”

The Dodgers will be out for beer and champagne on Wednesday night and the chance to kick back and watch the Yankees and Houston Astros expend all their energy in the ALCS.

Dodger manager Dave Roberts – who pushed all the right bullpen buttons in Games 1 and 2 (eight no-hit/scoreless innings combined) – toyed with the Cubs by letting Darvish hit against struggling reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with a two-run lead and two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

Darvish showed bunt on all four pitches – and drew a four-pitch walk and slammed his bat to the ground in celebration. The fans booed after Edwards struck out Taylor on three pitches to end the inning.

“We were there just as much as any other game,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “Mentally, there was no letdown. Physically, there was no letdown. It was just a matter of them capitalizing on some mistakes that we made. That’s part of the game. And they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.

“They played better baseball than us tonight. That’s why they got the W.”

The Cubs committed two errors in Game 3 and then had a National-style meltdown in the eighth inning, from Zobrist misjudging the flyball to right field that dropped in front of him, to Mike Montgomery throwing a wild pitch, to catcher Willson Contreras getting crossed up on a swinging strike three, his glove nowhere near Montgomery’s 92.7-mph fastball, which crashed into his right arm and ricocheted into the visiting dugout.

A three-run game became 6-1 – and head for the exits and then the offseason. There was Albert Almora Jr. in the ninth inning, driving a ball into the ivy in left field and sprinting right into lead runner Alex Avila at third base, bailed out only because Kike Hernandez waved his hand to signal a ground-rule double.

At least that made All-Star closer Kenley Jansen work the last three outs, accumulated stress that might benefit the Yankees or Astros more than the Cubs.

“They are done,” an NL scout wrote in a text message. “You can see it in their faces.”