Bears

Red Sox running out of answers

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Red Sox running out of answers

There was a familiar scene inside the locker room at Wrigley Field Friday. Frustration oozed from both manager and players as a lack of offense led to yet another rough loss.

Only this wasn't the Cubs locker room. The Red Sox were left reeling following a 3-0 loss to the Cubs in the historic series opener and their frustration showed inside the visiting clubhouse after the game.

"We hit some balls good, man," Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "We just hit it right to 'em. It's frustrating. We're not trying to be bleep.

"Everybody's trying, man. We're just not playing good. Today, we didn't play good. We scored no runs. You can't win a game if you score zero runs."

Pedroia, who was Jason McLeod's first draft pick in Boston, came up with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, but grounded out sharply to third to end the game.

He didn't have any answers after his 0-for-4 showing at the plate.

"I feel great," Pedroia said. "I'm hitting the ball good, just no hits."

Bobby Valentine was working as an ESPN analyst last season and created a stir when he berated Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro for a lack of focus on a Sunday Night Baseball game. Valentine is now in his first year as the Red Sox manager and had his hands on his head in his office after the game, trying to find some way to come up with answers for reporters' questions after Ryan Dempster and two relievers held the Red Sox to just five hits.

"Dempster was pretty tough," Valentine said. "Guys weren't picking up his ball very well. When we hit the ball, it seemed to be right at one of their outfielders. Those balls have to drop a couple times a game in order to put some runs on the board.

"Of course you get frustrated when you get good at-bats and have nothing to show for them."

Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who twice hit hard line drives right at Cubs outfielders, just simply said "next question" when asked how frustrated he was.

There's an old saying in baseball that throughout the course of a long season, everything will even out for a hitter. If a player keeps hitting the ball hard but right at guys, he may get a few bloop base hits or seeing-eye singles to help bring the average back up to where it should be.

"If things even out, I'm gonna be in good shape," Youkilis said. "It's just frustrating. I felt like I had good at-bats and didn't have anything to show for it. It's discouraging."

The Cubs know that pain. They're toward the bottom of the league in runs, hits, on-base percentage and extra-base hits.

But the difference is the Cubs are mired in a 22-42 season with low expectations from the fanbase and media. Theo Epstein and his staff have been clear they are building toward the future.

The Red Sox, however, are expected to make the playoffs, especially after an epic collapse last year handed the Tampa Bay Rays the American League Wild Card on the last day of the season.

The margin of error is so small for the Red Sox that one play could have made a big difference in the game.

Dempster came up in the second inning and sent a looping line drive out toward the foul line in right field. Adrian Gonzalez, a natural first baseman playing out of position, dove for the ball, but it skidded by him. Gonzalez hustled it down, but then airmailed the cutoff man, Pedroia, and Dempster jogged safely into third with a stand-up triple. He later came around to score on a David DeJesus single for the third and final run of the game.

Valentine admitted he felt the Red Sox had a play at third if Gonzalez had only hit his cutoff man.

"He knows what he's doing out there," Valentine said. "He thought he was able to smother that ball and it just kinda kicked away from him."

Gonzalez was only playing right field to allow the Red Sox an opportunity to get David Ortiz's bat into the lineup with the loss of the designated hitter.

Epstein and Jed Hoyer orchestrated the deal last season that brought Gonzalez to Boston, with Anthony Rizzo heading back to San Diego as part of the compensation.

A year later, Epstein and Hoyer are fielding questions weekly about when Rizzo will make his debut in Chicago while Gonzalez is mired in a 3-for-22 slump with the Red Sox, who have dropped eight of 11 and have scored more than four runs just three times in that stretch.

The players in the visiting locker room had hoped Friday would be different.

"It didn't show up on the board with runs today," Youkilis said. "We swung the bats pretty good. It's just...man, we couldn't get anything to fall."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”