Cubs

Money continues to fuel latest round of conference realignment

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Money continues to fuel latest round of conference realignment

So much for that peace and quiet.

When Notre Dame became the 14 12th member of the ACC in September, plenty figured the latest conference expansion and realignment cycle had finally reached an endgame. The dust had settled, with Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia, TCU and Notre Dame (in a limited fashion) joining up with new or different power conferences that didn't always fit geographically.

The Big 10 had 12 teams and the Big 12 had 10. The Pac 10 changed its name to the Pac 12. The ACC and SEC grew to 14 full members.

Make no mistake, money is driving these moves. That's easy to confuse with greed, but with TV contracts skyrocketing in payouts, schools began to look toward financial security instead of traditional rivalries and associations. That's why Texas won't play Texas A&M, Mizzou and Kansas are done and the same goes for Notre Dame and Michigan after 2014.

So when rumors began flying about the Big 10 adding Maryland and Rutgers on Saturday, one observer of -- and participant in -- realignment wasn't exactly taken aback.

"I guess we've all learned never to predict that," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said Saturday of stability in conference movement. "If this occurs, the timing is a surprise to me, sort of this happening when, not the fact of it but the timing of it is a little of a surprise."

For Maryland, the move was almost entirely financial -- that was overarching theme of Dr. Wallace Loh's press conference from College Park Monday. The cash-strapped athletic department in College Park needed a lifeline, with the Big Ten and its lucrative network providing just that (Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel reported Maryland projects it'll earn 100 million more in the Big 10 though 2020). For the Big Ten, Maryland delivers the mid-Atlantic market for the Big Ten Network.

The same goes for Rutgers, which will be announced as the 14th member of the Big Ten Tuesday afternoon. The Piscataway, N.J.-based school is the closest FBS program to New York City, meaning the Big Ten Network will have serious pull on the nation's largest city.

"In this case, we were there at 12 quite happy, but change kept happening," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Monday. "Conferences were outside their region over and over and over again. We thought given what had happen around the country, this was a natural response, and if they were interested in us, we were certainly interested in them."

It's about the money, too, for Rutgers -- most reports have the Big Ten's payout to its members at 24 million annually -- but it's also about keeping a program in a dying conference relevant. The Big East will be lumped with the Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA in having one bid to one of college football's access bowls that'll be set up with the playoff format in 2014. The Big Ten provides far more stability for Rutgers than the Big East, which may wind up losing Boise State and San Diego State, too, according to a few reports Monday.

For the ACC, they'll need to add another member to avoid having the headache of an odd number of teams. Most likely, John Swofford & Co. will pick at the Big East carcass, with UConn and Louisville potentially being attractive options. The conference would love to get Notre Dame in as a full member, but given the school's deal with the Orange Bowl and NBC, that's unlikely.

And on the flip side, Notre Dame isn't regretting its decision to join the ACC, even if the conference is in flux for the immediate future.

"It doesn't have any impact," Swarbrick said of Maryland's then-rumored move. "It has absolutely zero impact, and it wouldn't change anything about our decision-making process. If we were going to engage in it today, it wouldn't change at all."

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”