A day after Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke silencedthe White Sox and continued a mini-slump for the offense, hitters said theyrenot concerned with their current dry spell.The same group that last month scored nine or more runsin four straight games -- a first for the franchise since 1938 -- has beenlimited to 26 runs over their last nine contests. Greinke and closer John Axford combined on Friday for athree-hit shutout of the White Sox, who are fifth in the American League with323 runs scored.The shutout was the seventh of the season and second innine games thrown against the White Sox. The team has scored fewer than threeruns in six of its last nine games (the White Sox have won two) and has a .575OPS during the stretch compared with .727 for the season.But one slump wont change how the White Sox go abouttheir business, first baseman Paul Konerko said.Konerko is 6-for-32 in his last eight games with a homerand four RBIs."When we were scoring a ton of runs, no one sits aroundand says, 'Why us?'" Konerko said. "So when you have a bad spell, you dontwant to say that either. Everybodys doing the same thing and when you facesome good pitching, combined with maybe a time youre not feeling great, thatswhat happens. But everything goes in cycles. Well probably have another(spell) or two."Confidence isnt lacking in the clubhouse. Konerko is a five-time All-Star. Designated hitter AdamDunn leads the American League in home runs. And right fielder Alex Rios andcatcher A.J. Pierzynski are both already close to matching last seasons outputbefore the All-Star break.So nine days down isnt going to cause a panic."We have proven we can hit and put up a bunch of runs,"said second baseman Gordon Beckham, who is hitting .298 with 17 RBIs and has an.800 OPS in his last 23 games. "Nine days of just not doing everything we cando to win, like scoring a bunch of runs, isnt not going to really deter usfrom having confidence that we are that type of offense. Offense is going to goin streaks."
Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.
1. Trade chips.
The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.
The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.
The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.
2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.
Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.
It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.
3. Win the special teams battle.
In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.
The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?
Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?
The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.
In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.
But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.
“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.
“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”
While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.
“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”
Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.