Blackhawks

The method to Matt Garzas madness

725860.png

The method to Matt Garzas madness

The silence bothered Matt Garza as he looked out across the Cubs clubhouse. It was mostly empty, except for the reporters three or four deep waiting by Kerry Woods locker.

(Bleep) guys, its Game 1, Garza said, raising his voice. Its like a (bleeping) morgue."

So Garza climbed onto a chair late Thursday afternoon and turned on the stereo. Music is only supposed to be played after wins, but Bob Marleys voice filled the room. This drew smirks from at least two teammates.

It was a bizarre scene after an Opening Day loss to the Washington Nationals, with Carlos Marmol firing the seasons first Next question. But Garza loves the noise and enjoys being the center of attention. Ever notice whos up there standing on the top step of the dugout?

After another winter in which his name was all over the trade rumors, Garza will get the ball on Saturday at Wrigley Field. Near the end of spring training, he was asked if these past few months have changed what the Cubs think of him long-term, or if he had a sense of what the front office is thinking.

Ive never worried about that, Garza said. Im comfortable in my skin. Im going to adapt to what I have to (in order) to be successful and thats just who I am. Im not going to go out there and go out of my way. Its not an insult or anything. Its just that I pride myself on what I do.

This is who I am. This is what youre going to get, every day, day in and day out.

More than once in Arizona, general manager Jed Hoyer said that the Cubs planned to discuss a contract extension with Garzas agent, though its unclear how those talks progressed.

One data point figured to be the five-year, 65 million extension the White Sox gave left-hander John Danks last December. Then this week Matt Cain and the San Francisco Giants agreed to a five-year extension worth a reported 112.5 million.

This is not an exact comparison. Cain is 27 and could have become a free agent after this season. Garza is 28 and remains under club control through 2013. And these statistics can be misleading. But check out the career numbers: 69-73, 3.35 ERA (Cain); and 52-54, 3.83 ERA (Garza).

Thats great for him, Garza said. He deserves it, every penny. Hes been one hell of a pitcher for the last five, six seasons. Thats awesome for young guys like myself. That means a lot, but different people sign for different things.

I dont see myself worrying about that. My job is to get ready for Saturday, and I love my job.

Clubhouse chemistry is an inexact science. Theo Epstein watched Garza eliminate the Boston Red Sox and win the 2008 ALCS MVP award with the Tampa Bay Rays. The new Cubs president sort of laughed when he described the view up close.

Hes a smarter guy than youd think from across the field and I dont mean that the wrong way, Epstein said. You watch him and how energetic and extroverted and fidgety he can be looking at him from across the field. You get a certain impression about him that maybe hes not sort of always thinking things through. But the reality is hes actually got a method to his madness.

He knows himself really well. He understands the game really well. He knows how to prepare and I think theres a lot more going on upstairs than people give him credit for.

Hes a really good teammate and a really loyal member of the organization, someone who respects the game and people in the game. He cares a lot about winning.

Garza corrected a reporter who figured the pitcher wouldnt care what his agent does the next several months (meaning he wouldnt impose a deadline or let negotiations the Cubs havent acknowledged any talks become a distraction).

I care what he does, Garza said. Dont mistake me, but its more my focus isnt on that. Its on helping this team be successful. (So thats) focusing on what I need to focus on, putting my priorities on family, my job and then the rest of my (extended) family and then business. Thats the last (one). Thats the least of my worries. If I do my job, everything will take care of itself.

So Garza will put on his game face. He likes to pull a hooded sweatshirt over his head and block everything out with headphones. His body language screams: Stay away.

Thats part of the equation, Epstein said. He embraces the competitive aspects of the game and he doesnt try to pretend its just another day. He needs his music and his time to himself. He brings a lot to the table. He walks sort of a fine line. It can be in control and out of control, but that really works for him emotionally.

Garza says hes been like this since Little League, bouncing from baseball to football to soccer to basketball: There were no stops. It was always competing, competing, competing.

If the Cubs are going to contend, theyll need Garza to take another leap forward, but manager Dale Sveum is just focusing on the fundamentals.

Garza would launch rockets on routine throws to first base, finishing last season with seven errors or one more than the rest of his big-league career combined. And his attitude toward hitting in his first season in the National League was pretty much: I get paid to get outs.

Hes taken some big steps the guys pitched in the World Series, Sveum said. His numbers last year were pretty good on a not-so-good team (10-10, 3.32 ERA). We gauge a lot on wins and losses. Well, a lot of times thats the team youre on. Unfortunately, last year the defense wasnt good. (His) own defense wasnt very good (it) maybe cost him two to four wins.

These are things that got to improve. (Just) being able to bunt might keep him in the game to get him one more or two more wins, too. So its important for him to completely get his whole game together, and he knows that. Hes worked his butt off to try and be better in everything.

Garza certainly hasnt lost his edge, but he appears to be more relaxed in his second season on the North Side. He considers himself more of a lead-by-example type, not the guy who will tell teammates what to do. Hes integrated with the clubhouse, and not just because he brings in Popeyes fried chicken.

If there are any misperceptions out there, well, Garzas going to let his pitching do the talking.

Thats fine with me, Garza said. Shoot, whatever works for people to cope with how I am. It doesnt bother me. Im fine with how I am and the way I see myself. Thats the only thing I can deal with and actually worry about. Saturdays my day, and I cant wait to get there.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

2-24_blue-jackets_matchup_nhl_chi_blank.jpg
NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

2-23_berube_schmaltz_usat.jpg
USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."