Blackhawks

What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?

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What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?

ATLANTA This is what Theo Epstein would categorize as external noise, the stuff the Cubs front office has vowed to ignore.

The newspapers, cyberspace and talk radio have been trying to measure the Anthony Rizzo Effect since the organizations top prospect was promoted from Triple-A Iowa last week.

But on this level, even manager Dale Sveum can identify with anyone on the message boards, or any other first-time caller, long-time listener.

Have you thought about what this team would look like if Rizzo had been here the entire season?

Well, Id be lying if I said I didnt, Sveum said with a laugh before Thursdays 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves left the Cubs at 31-51. Its obviously a more dynamic offensive team.

Were getting to that plateau a little more of scoring four or more runs. (That) gives you a heck of a lot better chance, especially (since) when we score four or more we our records pretty good (23-15).

Sure, you think about it. You think about if (Luis) Valbuena was here all year, (how hes) produced and played the defense he has. But thats not how baseball usually works.

Actually, the Cubs have hit that mark in only four of the nine games since Rizzos arrival. And even Sveum will tell you that everything revolves around starting pitching, and any bounce (six wins in nine games) has as much to do with standout performances by Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija.

But its hard to ignore the numbers Rizzo has put up: .314 average, three homers and six RBIs. He became the Cub to ever have three game-winning RBI in his first five games with the team.

Factor in the plus defense that had the staff thinking Rizzo would have made that play in the beginning of April, and you begin to understand why people are getting carried away.

It definitely hasnt hurt, Samardzija said. Rizzos presence in our lineup is big. Any time you add a big lefty bat to your lineup, it strengthens it big-time. He plays great defense at first, (so) hes definitely been a big part of it, no doubt.

We expect big things out of him every day. And I think the best thing about him is he expects that out of himself.

There is something to be said for an infusion of youth and energy into the clubhouse, which cant be quantified. Even Bryan LaHair who had to move to the outfield but might wind up starting at first base for the National League All-Star team said of Rizzo: Im going to push him, and hes going to push me.

To be clear, even Rizzo, 22, has said that he benefited from the extra time at Iowa. The Cubs have insisted that player development drove the decision. Between this season and last, he played 163 games at the Triple-A level, essentially a full season to make sure he never goes back there.

General manager Jed Hoyer has repeatedly said that he made a mistake while running the San Diego Padres, rushing Rizzo to the big leagues last summer and watching the kid hit .141 with one homer and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats.

Of course, there were financial incentives to preserve an extra year of club control and make sure Rizzo doesnt become a free agent until after the 2018 season. It didnt stop the Cubs from positioning him to be a Super Two player eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season.

Obviously, he was hyped and hes living up to it, Maholm said. But I think the thing that impresses you most is he comes in every day (and) he works hard. (Hes) prepared for the games.

A lot of young guys that come up, you can see them up there just hacking at the first pitch and not wanting to get into deep counts and strike out.

Whenever they groove him one first pitch, hes ready for it, but hes willing to grind it out. Hes willing to take a walk. Hes willing to get the guy over.

Hes obviously matured as a hitter since his struggles last year in San Diego. Hopefully, you continue to see him do that and relax and just let the talent work and not think that he has to put us on his back.

Rizzo had a reputation for tinkering, but the Cubs feel like he solidified his mechanics at Triple-A. You certainly notice the difference in those split-screen shots between San Diego and Iowa. The hands are lower, and the swing is more compact.

The new swing he has is going to play at this level, Sveum said. Everything is just playing way more into the ability to hit a major-league fastball.

Would Rizzo have been a game-changer the first two-plus months of the season? Maybe it could have made things interesting, or he could have fallen into the same bad habits. Well never know the answer, but no one should pretend this team was one piece away.

For all the cameras and microphones that have surrounded Rizzo, and the buzz he generated on Twitter, he comes across as low-key and even-keeled. He certainly isnt asking for the attention.

Reading everything will just make your head go crazy, Rizzo said. (With) all the clamor about a month ago, I was still getting away with things at the Triple-A level that you cant get away with here. I think staying down for an extra couple weeks really helped me out.

Thats a good, politically correct answer. For Epstein and his crew, it was never about this year or next year. Its supposed to be playing baseball in October year after year after year, with Rizzo the calm at the center of the storm.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”