Cubs

Plenty has changed since Hawks hit rock-bottom in Nashville

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Plenty has changed since Hawks hit rock-bottom in Nashville

The Blackhawks probably want to forget about the last time they played the Nashville Predators.

It wasnt their worst loss, score-wise, as they dropped a 3-2 decision in Nashville on Feb. 14. But it was how they lost that hurt the most: giving up a late goal in a game they had played pretty well, running their winless streak to nine. The Blackhawks locker room was so stunned, so quiet that night, you couldve heard a pin think about dropping.

It was a brutal loss, said coach Joel Quenneville. It was excruciating. It was one of those losses where you sit there and think, OK, hopefully this is the end of it. Eventually things had to change. And they did.

Yes, things definitely have changed for both teams. The Predators made several moves at the trade deadline. While the Blackhawks made a move themselves acquiring defenseman Johnny Oduya their biggest change came in how they played.

The Blackhawks had their rock-bottom moment that night in Nashville. And whether it was learning from that night or just waking up out of their winless-streak doldrums, the Blackhawks have been a much better team since.

That whole time we were trying to hammer home how we had to play on both sides of the puck, take a checking mentality, Quenneville said. The byproduct was what happened the next two games (against New York and Columbus).

And its gone beyond those next two games. The Blackhawks are 13-4-1 since that game, and after trailing the Predators plenty in the Western Conference theyre now right on their tails -- just two points back after Nashville's 3-1 victory over Winnipeg Saturday night.

Its a rivalry thats come into play the last couple of years, Patrick Kane said. You look at the standings; if we can take some points from them and put points on the board for ourselves, its huge.

The Predators, meanwhile, have had more mixed results. Theyre 10-6-2 since that Feb. 14 game, including 6-5-1 since the day after the trade deadline.

As for the Blackhawks, theyve kept up that style of play through health and injury. Theyve grown plenty in their time without Jonathan Toews and have found success in his absence. And they know theyll need to play their current brand of hockey to have any success against the Predators on Sunday.

Theyre structured, they dont take too many chances and they play a good team game, Viktor Stalberg said. The way we used to play earlier in the year frustrated us a bit. But the way weve played lately, were finding ways to win those tight games. Thats going to fit us better playing them.

The Blackhawks have changed since that Feb. 14 game in Nashville. They ended their brutal losing streak two days later and quelled the foolish coach-and-several-players-must-go talk. Theyve learned from that brutal loss, and theyve got the Predators in their sights again.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.