Cubs

Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

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Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

Marlon Johnson was cut from his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. As a freshman at Joliet West, he played on the B team. As a sophomore, he spent most of his time on the bench.

Now the 6-foot-9 senior is being described as "the next Anthony Davis," comparing him to the former Chicago Perspectives star who now is freshman sensation at Kentucky.

Obviously, like Davis, Johnson has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In a year-and-a-half prior to his senior year, he grew from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-9. After observing him in AAU competition, college coaches began to call. Illinois State offered a scholarship.

"He has a long way to go but he has great potential," Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich said. "He will have to attend a junior college next year to get his academics in order. But in two years, with more experience and 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he will be a major Division I recruit."

Johnson is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds for a Joliet West team that is 17-9, has won two games in a row and will play at Thornton on Friday night for the Class 4A regional championship.

"He was coming together as a junior but he didn't have drive or a work ethic. No kid was coached harder or yelled at more," Yaklich said. "But something finally clicked within him. He got motivated during his junior year. He didn't play much early and it bothered him. He made a lot of changes in the second half of the season.

"He is a unique kid. He loves the game. He kept showing up for workouts in the summer. put in a lot of hard work over the summer and in AAU and he kept getting better. He added skills. We got a lot of calls from college coaches about him during the AAU season. Some people said they saw the next Anthony Davis. We told him he would be a beast as a senior."

Well, the beast is loose. A five-game winning streak in January set the tone for the second half of the season. With Johnson, 6-foot-3 junior Morris Dunnigan (13 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Edwards (11 ppg, 5 rpg), 5-foot-11 junior point guard Carl Terrell (8 ppg, 3 assists) and hot-shooting 5-foot-10 junior Ryan Modiest (6 ppg) coming off the bench, Yaklich believes his team can contend with top-seeded Bloom in the sectional at Lockport.

Joliet West has been there before. Last year, the Tigers were 9-16 and lost to Marian Catholic in the regional. But they were 24-8 two years ago and eliminated Bloom and Homewood-Flossmoor before losing to O'Fallon in the supersectional.

"We're focused now. A lot of pieces are fitting together," said Yaklich, who coached at Sterling and La Salle-Peru before landing at Joliet West five years ago.

Dunnigan, who started as a freshman on the supersectional team, is back after missing his sophomore year with an ACL injury. Without him, last year's team had no identity on offense. "He has expereience as a scorer in big games. He likes the ball in his hands," Yaklich said.

In Tuesday's 64-61 victory over Plainfield South, Dunnigan was limited to nine points but made a basket and free throw with eight seconds to play to spell the difference.

Edwards, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds against Plainfield South, is committed to St. Francis University. Last year, he was the team's seventh or eighth man but has developed into a valuable contributor this season.

Terrell is the floor leader...emotional, vocal, full of energy. And Modiest is the team's best shooter, a scoring threat off the bench.

"In the summer, we talked about Friday night's game, the regional championship, that we had what it takes to win it," Yaklich said. "We knew this team had good potential and good athletes."

He was disappointed that his team finished 9-5 in the Southwest Suburban Conference and third behind Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook.

"We felt we could be better than 9-5 in the league," the coach said. "But we're playing as well as we have all year right now. We really hope we are capable of carrying it over through the regional."

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu has already begun mentoring Luis Robert

As the White Sox have added young Cuban stars in the making in Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Jose Abreu's long-term role on the team has shifted.

The 31-year-old first baseman has been looked at as something of a mentor for the two young Cubans. He seems to be delivering on that so far.

Abreu picked up Moncada from the airport when he first was called up to the White Sox last July. Now he's helping Robert in the batting cage.

The Cuban trio is expected to play a big part of the White Sox future in the coming years. 

Robert has already stated his goal of making it to the majors this year to join Abreu and Moncada, but that may be an overly ambitious goal. Either way, plenty of eyes will be on him throughout 2018 as he marches towards the White Sox roster and his Cuban teammates.