Fire

Marmol meltdown has Cubs thinking about changing closers

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Marmol meltdown has Cubs thinking about changing closers

CINCINNATI This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get Carlos Marmol a low-stress, confidence-boosting save. But nothing is easy with the Cubs closer right now.

Some 18 hours earlier at Great American Ball Park, Marmol had worked a one-two-three ninth inning and finished off the Cincinnati Reds.

You can look for positive signs, but its hard to draw any meaningful conclusions. At the moment, the Cubs have no idea whats going to happen when their closer walks through the gate.

Thats why manager Dale Sveum had to consider a change after Thursdays 4-3 loss to the Reds in 10 innings.

Theres definitely thought of it now, Sveum said. I cant lie to you.

Sveum mentioned James Russell and Rafael Dolis as options, excluding 3 million setup man Kerry Wood, who just came off the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue.

Thats about it, really, Sveum said, if we do elect to go with a change and just use matchups (with) whatever happens in that ninth inning.

After Ryan Dempster threw eight scoreless innings, Marmol couldnt protect a three-run lead. The enigmatic closer walked Willie Harris who was hitting .097 entering the game and Joey Votto on nine pitches combined.

Marmol induced a groundball from Brandon Phillips, which third baseman Ian Stewart charged aggressively. The topspin made it take a funny hop, and it skipped past Stewart for an error.

I just missed it, Stewart said. Plain and simple.

Marmol gave up a sharp single to Jay Bruce and walked Ryan Ludwick to put another run on the board. It was all unraveling.

Heres the situation Marmol left for Dolis, a 24-year-old rookie: Bases loaded, no outs, one-run lead. Dolis was able to force a double-play ball while the tying run scored, and then struck out Wilson Valdez to end the ninth, before losing it in the 10th.

Hes the manager. He can do whatever he wants to do, Marmol said. Ill take the ball whenever he asks me to.

Marmols unpredictable slider made him one of the best relievers in the game, and got him a big contract, but the Cubs have been trying to get him to evolve beyond that one pitch for awhile now.

Inside the clubhouse, that was one takeaway from Carlos Zambranos We stinks! rant after Marmol blew a save last year in St. Louis.

Its been a point of emphasis for a new coaching staff since the start of spring training: Trust your fastball.

Sveum called it the same story again. Why hasnt the message sunk in yet?

To tell you the truth, I dont know. Its a confidence factor or something, Sveum said. Weve talked about it, and when he gets out on the mound, things change.

We cant ever forget that a couple years ago he was pretty dominant throwing (that slider for a strike) whenever he wanted. So there is a fallback there. At one time, he was having tremendous success being able to throw that thing at any time.

That seems like a distant memory for a guy with a 6.23 ERA whos owed 16.8 million this season and next. All the momentum from a 3-3 road trip through Philadelphia and Cincinnati seemed to evaporate.

We had another opportunity to win a game and we didnt get it done, Stewart said. Its not just on (Marmol). As a team, we had opportunities to put more runs on the board. Thats why baseball is tough. Its a team game, but guys get singled out like that at the end.

In the past, Marmol had thrived on those high-pressure situations. Surrounded by reporters at his locker, he didnt want to talk about his confidence level.

Im embarrassed right now, he said.

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

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USA TODAY

Joao Meira spills the first news of the Fire's offseason

The wait to find out which players have their options picked up or declined by the Fire might still be a couple weeks, but the first news of a player move in the Fire's offseason came via Twitter.

Defender Joao Meira announced he won't be returning to the club in 2018.

Meira signed with the Fire just before the start of the 2016 preseason after being out of contract in Europe. The Portuguese center back signed a one-year deal with a club option for the second year.

After he played 28 matches with 26 starts in 2016, the Fire picked up his option. He became even more of a fixture at center back in 2017, beating out Jonathan Campbell for the other starting spot alongside Johan Kappelhof. Meira played in 30 regular season matches and made 27 starts, finishing fourth on the team in minutes played (2,412).

That Meira won't be back isn't a major surprise for a few reasons. First, he was out of contract. He was one of two players, along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, on the Fire's roster that the team had no control over for 2018. On top of that, the 30-year-old had made it clear that he wanted to be closer to his home and family in Portugal.

Meira's departure leaves a gap at the center back position for the Fire. Kappelhof, who enters the third year of a three-year guaranteed deal in 2018, and Campbell, who will likely have his club option picked up, enter as the only healthy center backs in 2018. Christian Dean was added in August via trade, but is coming off a broken foot, an injury that has plagued him before. His status for the start of the 2018 season is unclear.

Grant Lillard, a potential homegrown signing and a senior at Indiana, could compete for time at center back next season. He is one of the top rated players in the country for the Hoosiers, which are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Lillard could step in from a numbers perspective and would add size to the Fire's back line (Lillard is 6-foot-4), he wouldn't be able to replace Meira's ability on the ball. Meira wasn't as effective of a defender as Kappelhof, but was arguably the best passer among the Fire's center backs and helped alleviate pressure at times.

This also opens up an international spot on the Fire's roster. The Fire went over the alloted total last season, but were able to put John Goossens and Jorge Bava on the disabled list to clear room. Meira's exit gives a bit more flexibility in that department.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16