Just like that, Cubs cant close it out for Dempster


Just like that, Cubs cant close it out for Dempster

Ryan Dempster walked off the mound to a standing ovation, and really the Cubs couldnt have scripted this any better. Their Opening Day starter had outpitched Stephen Strasburg, and soon the fans would be chanting Kerry! Kerry!

For all the optimism and good headlines the Cubs generated over the winter, it was pretty quiet by the end on Thursday, when you heard fans muttering to themselves as they walked down the ramps toward the exits after a 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals.

Kerry Wood stood in front of his locker afterward and cut off a reporter who said you lose a game like this, and people are going to say these are the Cubs.

People or you? Wood said. We got a bunch of new faces in here, a new attitude and 161 left.

Theo Epstein has promised that his front office will be walled off from all the outside noise. But that doesnt mean Opening Day in Chicago wont be covered like its an NFL game.

These are the margins the Cubs will be working with, because of how their roster is constructed, and the way the winds blow into Wrigley Field the first few weeks of the season. They had borrowed against their bullpen last winter, but it still lined up for Wood and Carlos Marmol to get the final four outs.

Dempster was brilliant, taking a one-hitter into the eighth inning before leaving with a runner on and two outs. Manager Dale Sveum didnt get an argument: He actually said something comical: Yeah, thats not a bad move. I think if it was a calm day, (Ryan) Zimmerman would have had 900 feet of home runs.

Wood walked three consecutive batters, each on a 3-2 count, and allowed the game-tying run. He shook his head no when someone asked about his lighter workload in spring training, the idea being the bullets would be saved for the regular season.

Absolutely no excuses. I just didnt get it done, Wood said. Its just frustrating. Im frustrated for him, frustrated for the guys that worked hard today to give us a chance to win.

It had to be frustrating for the 41,176 fans who sat through the cold (41 degrees at first pitch). Marmol got two quick outs in the ninth before ex-Cub Chad Tracy lifted a ball to right field.

David DeJesus the first player Epstein signed last offseason got turned around, starting over his right shoulder before turning left and looking up into the sun. The ball bounced off the wall for a double.

A plus defender, DeJesus wrote it off as a good lesson on how to deal with Wrigley Field. By the time Ian Desmond lined Marmols slider into right, driving in the go-ahead run, Dempsters line (7.2 innings, one run on two hits, 10 strikeouts) was for nothing.

Im always comfortable handing the ball over to Woody, Dempster said. We want to win every game were out there, but especially Opening Day, when youre at home in front of all these great fans. Thats what hurts. When youre playing close games like that, when its 1-0, you realize how fast things can change.

I feel for Woody in that situation, I feel for Carlos, because Ive in both those seats before. Its not a fun feeling and I know theyre probably chomping at the bit to just get this day over with and get the ball back.

Just like that, the narrative shifted from the first victory of a new era, to a reporter asking Marmol about the feeling of dj vu.

You see a lot of new faces in here? Marmol said. Last year is over.

Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?


Do you realize just how many things have to break right for a Bears 2018 rebound?

Not all that long ago, back in the seemingly promising Dave Wannstedt days, something of an annual narrative began around the Bears. All too frequently since then it has been the refrain of more offseasons than not, including last year’s. And if there is a cause for very, very sobering realism in the wake of the heady wave of free-agency signings in the first days of the new league year, it lies in what has so often transpired to put the lie to that optimism.

The mantra then, and now, has been various iterations of, “If these three (or four, or six, or 12) things work out, the Bears are gonna be good this year.” Because the reality is that all those what-ifs seldom, if ever, all come to pass, whether because of injury, mis-evaluated abilities or whatever.

Look no further than this time last offseason, just considering the offense:

If Kevin White can come back from (another) injury, if Markus Wheaton flashes his Pittsburgh speed, if Dion Sims takes that next step from a promising Miami stint, if Kyle Long is back from his lower-body issues, if Cameron Meredith comes close to those 66 catches again, if Mike Glennon has the upside that led the GM to guarantee him $18.5 million, and hey, Victor Cruz, too, if… and so on.

And exactly zero of those “if’s” came to pass, with the result that John Fox and Dowell Loggains became idiots.

The point is not to a picker of nit or sayer of nay. But the fact is that a lot of the offseason moves and player development ALL need to come down in the plus-column for the Bears to be even as good as they were back in, say, 2015, when the offense had Martellus Bennett at tight end, Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver, Eddie Royal coming in at slot receiver (with 37 catches in an injury-shortened season), Kyle Long at his Pro-Bowl best, and Jay Cutler about to have the best full season of his career. And a new (proven) head coach and defensive coordinator, and an offensive coordinator with head-coaching talent.

All those things “worked” for a team that would wobble to a 6-10 year.

Now consider 2018:

The current top two wide receivers are both – both – coming off season-ending ACL injuries;

The incoming slot receiver has never had a season as reception-productive as the one (Kendall Wright) he is replacing (59) or as many as Royal had in just nine 2015 games (37);

The new tight end has never been a starter and has fewer career catches (63) than Bennett averaged (69) in three supremely disappointing Bears seasons;

The best offensive lineman (Long) is coming off missing essentially half of each of the past two seasons with injuries, and the co-best (Sitton) is gone from an offensive line that was middle of the pack last year and has high hopes for two linemen (Hroniss Grasu, Eric Kush) who’ve been largely backups, and a third (Jordan Morgan) who missed his rookie season with an injury;

And the quarterback (Trubisky) upon whom the franchise rests, who needs to overcome any so-called sophomore jinx and improve from a rookie level (77.8 passer rating) that was barely better than Cutler’s worst NFL season (76.8).

All of which sounds negative, but it really isn’t, just a perspective. Offseasons are about hope, but realism isn’t all bad, either.

The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line


The pros and cons of reuniting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on Blackhawks top line

Jonathan Toews' offense usually comes in spurts. We're seeing it again right now.

But it's no coincidence his numbers have spiked since Patrick Kane joined him on the top line.

After recording another two points in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the Blackhawks captain has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his past eight games; he had 11 points in his previous 23 games total.

Toews also reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight season, joining Kane and Alex Ovechkin as the only three active players to accomplish that feat to open their NHL careers.

Kane has seen his offensive production pick up, too. He has 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after going five straight without one, which was his longest point drought of the season.

When the two of them are on the ice together at even strength, they control 57.9 percent of the shot attempts. It hasn't quite translated on the scoresheet (14 goals for and 17 goals against) maybe the way it should, but they are certainly spending far more time in the offensive zone than the defensive end and are generating a high volume of shots.

So yes, reuniting the dynamic duo has worked stats-wise.

But it comes at a cost:

— Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz haven't scored in six straight contests.

— Alex DeBrincat's season-long goal drought is up to 13 games.

— Artem Anisimov's last even-strength goal came nine games ago.

When you put Kane and Toews together, you risk losing some balance across the lineup and that's why Joel Quenneville has always been reluctant to go to that nuclear option. He prefers when opposing teams are forced to play 'Pick Your Poison.'

Ideally, you'd like to spread out the scoring, but one thing is for certain: The Blackhawks are better when Kane and Toews are each producing offensively, whether they're apart or together. 

When the wins start to dry up though — and they have — that's normally when it's time to try something different.

Perhaps more importantly, the last thing you want are those scoring droughts mentioned above to stretch even further and get inside the younger skaters' heads, then carrying it with them into the offseason.