Cubs

Will Jahlil Okafor be a pied piper?

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Will Jahlil Okafor be a pied piper?

Elite basketball players like to play with elite basketball players.
They choose to play together on AAU teams in the summer. They transfer from one high school to another to be teammates. And, in some cases, they agree to go to the same college.
Call them pied pipers.
They are recruiting magnets, the kind of skilled or charismatic players who attract other blue chip players. The Wonder Five did it at Kentucky, Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton at UCLA, Cazzie Russell at Michigan and Quinn Buckner at Indiana.
Jahlil Okafor could be another. Whitney Young's 6-foot-11 junior is rated as the No. 1 player in the class of 2014 nationally by Rivals.com, a drop step ahead of 6-foot-4 guard Emmanuel Mudlay of Dallas, Texas, guard Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, Minnesota, and his close friend, 6-foot-9 Cliff Alexander of Curie.
Okafor has talked to Jones and Alexander about going to college together. They are being recruited by many of the same schools, including Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina and Ohio State.
"We talk about how much fun it would be and how great it would be to go to school together. We're like brothers. We're in the same national spotlight. We go to some of the same camps and that brings us closer together," Okafor said.
"But I'm not worried about making a commitment now. All of us are focusing on this season. For me, it's all about this season. My goal is to try to help my team win the state championship. I'm very hungry for it, eager to achieve it. Then everything will fall into place for me."
How good is Okafor?
"Okafor needs to be an even greater defensive presence if Whitney Young is to win a state title," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "We think that he will be and that he is more than up to the task.
"At the same time, Okafor still needs to receive even more touches offensively. In the past, there have been too many instances in which Whitney Young has run its offense away from him. We don't see that happening this season."
The Schmidt brothers claim Okafor is more polished than former Mr. Basketball stars Rashard Griffith of King and Eddy Curry of Thornwood at the same stage of their careers. However, as of now, they agree that he isn't a better defender than Prospectives' Anthony Davis, who led Kentucky to the NCAA championship as a freshman and was the NBA's first draft choice last season.
"Davis is the most skilled big man that we have seen come out of Chicago in recent memory, maybe ever," Roy Schmidt said. "That is in no way a knock on Okafor. It is simply something additional for him to strive for."
Okafor was disappointed with last season's 17-10 finish. Anything less than a state title was a disappointment. But he thinks it will be motivation for this year's team, which returns three starters and two promising transfers who figure to make an immediate impact.
"Youth affected us last year. We started three sophomores. Lack of experience was a factor," Okafor said. "Being there once and knowing what it takes to get to the state title game will help us to win this year. Following the coach, trusting the direction he leads us and staying together as a team will give us an edge."
Okafor, a distant cousin of NBA star Emeka Okafor of the Washington Wizards, has been in the spotlight since seventh grade when he was recruited and offered by DePaul in violation of NCAA rules. Last summer, he was tournament MVP for the gold-medal winning USA team in the FIBA Under-17 World Championship.
But can he generate a team chemistry with White, Peak, Reynolds, Madison and Toye in Whitney Young's bid to spoil Simeon's bid for a fourth Class 4A championship in a row?
"We have a lot of great players," Okafor said. "I look forward to playing with Peak and Madison. I am expecting a breakout season from White. And I am expecting a breakout season from Reynolds, too, because he has more experience."
Okafor embraces the new roles that Slaughter has outlined for him--dominant defensive player and team leader.
"With this team, my points won't go up. That's OK as long as we're winning," he said. "I want to increase my rebounds to 15 or more per game and be more of a defensive presence under the boards. I want to be able to defend and help my teammates out by being more vocal and more of a shot-blocker.
"It's a new role for me, being the team leader. It won't be hard to adjust to being more vocal. It's easy to lead when everybody trusts each other. My approach? You have to be different to each player. Depending on the situation, sometimes you have to yell or pull them aside. The role is new for me but I'm learning as I go. I usually lead by example."
And nobody does it better.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

Jake Arrieta stars at Wrigley Field and doesn’t believe this is The End for Cubs: ‘Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye’

It’s not Jake Arrieta getting greedy and the Cubs being cheap when he holds up another jersey in a different city this winter, smiling for the cameras while super-agent Scott Boras watches the press conference unfold, marketing an ace to a new audience.

Even Arrieta admits that if he had Theo Epstein’s job, he would do the exact same thing, letting it play out until a 30-something pitcher hits the free-agent market. And Epstein wouldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox and taken over baseball operations at Clark and Addison if he didn’t believe in the need for change, to get outside the comfort zone and test yourself.

It’s just business, but this still felt very personal on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Arrieta probably making his last start in a Cubs uniform while the defending World Series champs survived an elimination game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Three straight trips to the National League Championship Series might have spoiled Cubs fans to the point where standing-room-only Game 4 tickets were selling for $60 on StubHub less than an hour before the 8:01 p.m. first pitch.

By 10:13 p.m., the crowd of 42,195 started booing when manager Joe Maddon popped out of the dugout in the seventh inning to take the ball from Arrieta after 111 pitches. It turned into a standing ovation as Arrieta walked off the mound and tipped his cap, his shaved head set against a mountain-man beard.

“Hopefully, it’s not a goodbye,” Arrieta said after a dramatic 3-2 win, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “It’s a thank you, obviously. I still intend to have another start in this ballpark.

“If that’s where it ends, I did my best and I left it all out there. But we’ve won four in a row plenty of times this year. And there’s no reason we can’t do it again.”

So many times, Arrieta has been worth the price of admission, must-see TV through two no-hitters and those two World Series games he won on the road last year against the Cleveland Indians. None of this would have been possible without the Cubs finding a winning lottery ticket in that Scott Feldman flip deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 2, 2013.

“I took a little bit of extra time in between pitches,” Arrieta said, “just to look around, foul pole to foul pole, behind home plate, just to relish it and take it in. You got the fans on their feet, pulling on the same side of the rope. It breeds some added energy.

“I had that mindset of I’m going to do everything in my power to get it to tomorrow.”

Arrieta’s pitches dart and dive in directions that even he can’t always control, but he has guts, swing-and-miss stuff (nine strikeouts) and the ability to work through traffic. He gave up five walks, hit Chase Utley with a pitch and watched as Cody Bellinger hammered a ball off the video-board ribbon in right field for a third-inning homer.

But lefty reliever Brian Duensing backed Arrieta up with two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning, forcing Bellinger to lift a flyball into shallow left field, keeping it a 3-1 game and setting the stage for a two-inning Wade Davis save.

“Jake was amazing,” Davis said. “He was throwing Wiffle balls, it looked like. Guys were just swinging at balls that started in on the zone and finished a foot off the plate. He’s just got some amazing stuff.”

For perspective on how far this franchise has come, just look at the lineup from Arrieta’s first spot start as a Cub, the second game of a July 30, 2013 doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field:

David DeJesus, CF
Junior Lake, LF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Dioner Navarro, C
Luis Valbuena, 2B
Starlin Castro, SS
Cody Ransom, 3B
Cole Gillespie, RF

The Cubs actually sent Arrieta back to Triple-A Iowa for two more starts that summer, part of a mental/mechanical reset and the service-time calculus that would delay his free-agency clock by a year.

By 2015, Arrieta’s raw talent and natural confidence converged with a young, inexperienced team that caught fire in the second half, his Cy Young Award campaign fueling 97 wins and the momentum for chairman Tom Ricketts to authorize a spending spree on free agents that almost totaled $290 million.

"That was pretty special,” Maddon said. “I've never witnessed on the field that kind of consistent performance from a pitcher. It was other-worldly, right down to the wild-card game.

“My God, you pretty much knew if you scored one or two runs, you're going to win that night somehow. I don't know how this is going to look moving forward. But I know one thing, man, that one year of watching him play was different. It was a throwback to the ‘60s kind of pitching (I watched) as a kid.

“He's special – his work ethic and who he is and how he goes about his business. He's a very special young man.”

But Arrieta really isn’t in the mood to wonder if this is the end scene to this chapter of his life.

“There’s a little thought of that, yeah, because you never know,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, now that the game’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind. The thought process for me now is to be ready if I’m needed.”