Cubs

Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

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Illinois ends season on 'all-time low'

By Vinnie Duber
CSNChicago.com

EVANSTON -- A new era beckons, reads the T-shirt advertised on the Fighting Illinis official athletic site. The shirt features a picture of first-year head coach Tim Beckman.

Well, following the final game of the season -- a 50-14 loss to Northwestern on Saturday at Ryan Field -- Beckman is now Illinois second-year coach, and that new era is off to the same start as the previous one: without a single conference victory.

The loss sent the Illini to an 0-8 record in Big Ten play, the first winless conference schedule for Illinois since the first season of the Ron Zook era in 2005. Its the 14th time in school history the Illini have gone winless in conference play and the fourth since 1997.

Youre in this game for the players, Beckman said as he summed up the season. This game is an unbelievable game. You feel close to one another as a family. Kids coming over to your house and eating Thanksgiving dinner. All of those things. But the losing, really, it hurts. You want your kids to experience winning just like you want your sons to experience winning. We didnt experience winning this year. Its one of the hardest years Ive ever gone through.

Illinois loss in the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy was marred by the same kinds of mistakes that sent them to losses in their first seven Big Ten contests. Too many turnovers and too many penalties told the story. A pair of Illini quarterbacks combined for three interceptions, and a fumble on a kickoff return led to Northwesterns first touchdown of the day.

The Illini racked up eight penalties in the first half, totaling 88 yards in damage. Among the infractions was a pair of sideline interference penalties on Beckman and something called illegal numbering.

We had too many penalties again, certain things that you cant do, and we ended up doing those things, Beckman said. Turnovers, penalties, not tackling as well as were capable of tackling. All together, it wasnt one of our better games again. When youre playing a team that has won football games and is considered one of the Top 25 or 30 teams in the country, then youre going to have to play a lot better than we did.

Its those types of mistakes that have the Illini sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten. They have turned the ball over 19 times, a conference high, and they rank last in turnover margin, at -11.

Illinois allowed 50 points for the third time this season, and Northwesterns 338 rushing yards were the second most an opponent posted all season. How bad was it for the Illini? The Wildcats fifth touchdown of the day was a pass to Paul Jorgensen, a sophomore offensive lineman. And he was wide open, too.

According to freshman running back Josh Ferguson, the Illinois locker room was at an all-time low. Junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called the last four months the hardest of his life.

Weve been disappointed and frustrated for a while just because we havent been producing the way we wanted to, Scheelhaase said. Obviously you want to finish on a good note, but it didnt happen today. Its something youve got to deal with, something youve got to eat. You have to take that mindset into the offseason. Thats the only thing you can do.

Talking after the game, Scheelhaase and the Illini were obviously looking ahead, and the quarterback must have said the word learning about a dozen times. The Illini see this disappointing season as a learning experience.

You learn not only what it feels like to lose, but you learn how small a margin of error there is with winning and losing, Scheelhaase said. Whether its a mistake here or a mistake there, or them not making a mistake or you not capitalizing on a mistake that they make, you learn how fine of a difference there is or how much momentum can change the way a game goes, the way a season goes.

As the Beckman era heads into its first offseason, much talked about will be the coachs job security. But after the game, players and coaches alike spoke highly of him.

I think we definitely believe in the coaches, Scheelhaase said. I have no reason not to believe in these coaches to a man. Im sure as coaches theres a bunch of things they want to do different, and trust me, as a player theres a lot of things that we could have capitalized on, not just this game but this whole season.

No one likes to lose, said defensive coordinator Tim Banks. No one wants to put so much work in and not come home successful. One thing I know about him: Hes no quitter. Hes going to continue to work, continue to fight, and hes going to continue to demand we put guys in positions to be successful. I think thats what a great leader does. Hell be fine.

Its important to note that Zook remained on the job for six more campaigns following his winless debut effort in the Big Ten.

Beckman pointed out that it takes time to turn things around, and he noted Northwestern as an example. He mentioned that Pat Fitzgerald has spent seven years bringing the Wildcats to the point theyre at now: en route to their fifth consecutive bowl game.

Were going to go back and do our plan. The plan, it does work. It has worked. Didnt work this year, but there are reasons that it has worked and theres belief behind it, Beckman said. And you believe in the things you believe in and go with it and you make sure that you recruit players that believe in the same thing.

We have to move forward. Theres only one way you can go, is forward. So my coaching staff will be out on the road tomorrow, and were going to get it together and see what weve got to do to get players in here to the University of Illinois -- this great place, great institution, great football tradition -- and do what weve got to do to get this program back on top.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

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.”