Cubs

Auburn seeks second trip to state finals

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Auburn seeks second trip to state finals

It took more than a year for high school basketball fans and the media to finally figure out how to spell Fred Van Vleet's last name. Van Vleet, not Van Fleet. In fact, some people still get it wrong. It must be a typo, right? It can't be Van Vleet. It must be Van Fleet, right?

Maybe if Rockford Auburn advances to the finals of the Class 4A tournament in Peoria -- for the second time in school history--everybody will get it right. Once and for all. Fred Van Vleet.

The 6-foot point guard, who is committed to Wichita State, scored 26 points to lead Rockford Auburn to a 66-46 rout of Machesney Park Harlem on Tuesday night in the regional semifinal.

To win the Dundee-Crown sectional and advance to the supersectional at DeKalb, coach Bryan Ott's team likely will have to eliminate Huntley and Elgin, then could face highly rated Warren to earn a spot in the Elite Eight, a daunting task indeed.

It hasn't been easy for Rockford Auburn to get out of its own regional in the past. Legendary coach Dolph Stanley produced the only state qualifier in 1963. His 28-3 team, which was ranked No. 2 in the state, lost in the state quarterfinals. And the school always had to contend with West Rockford and East Rockford and Rockford Boylan and Rockton Hononegah.

In his 13th year at Auburn, Ott has been building for this moment. Last year, his 26-5 team lost to Glenbard East in the supersectional. Three years ago, his 21-5 squad lost to St. Charles North in the sectional semifinal.

This year's team is 27-2 and has won 18 in a row. Its only losses were to Rockton Hononegah by three points in December and to unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East 75-56 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"We're better than last year," Ott said. "We have one more year of experience with Van Vleet, who is a great player. We start five seniors, three of whom started last year. We pressure full-court and we get out I transition and finish."

Van Vleet is averaging 21 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game. He is one of the most underrated players in the state and the undisputed leader of a team that most observers overlook in the rush to heap praise on Class 4A powers Simeon and Proviso East.

"He is a coach on the floor, a dynamic ball-handler," Ott said. "His floor vision is second to none. He is a great passer and he does a great job of quarterbacking our man-to-man full-court and half-court defense, which requires a lot of talk."

Van Vleet is backed up by 6-foot senior LaMark Foote (14 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Jaylin Marshall (10 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot-10 senior Elijah Smith (12 ppg).

Smith, who didn't play much as a junior, has come on strong to become another offensive threat in Auburn's four-guard offense. Marshall is the team's tallest starter and very athletic.

"Lack of size hasn't been a problem for us," Ott said. "We haven't faced any opponents with great size, teams with players who are 6-foot-6 or taller. If we face Warren (in the supersectional), they would be the tallest team we've faced."

Auburn averages 75 points per game but Ott is more concerned with his team's consistency on defense. "For us, we need to be consistent on defense. There are times when we are a shutdown team, then disappear for a quarter and give up silly shots. We aren't as consistent on defense as we were last year," the coach said.

As Auburn attempts to go deeper into the tournament, Ott also is calling upon Marshall and Smith to take more pressure off Van Vleet on offense.

"Marshall has to produce inside. He has to be a threat inside no matter who we are facing," Ott said. "And Smith has to average in double figures so opponents can't double up on Van Vleet and not respect anyone else."

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow and the state of the Cubs bullpen ahead of the trade deadline

Brandon Morrow is getting an extended All-Star Break.

For the second time in the last month, the Cubs closer is heading to the disabled list to get another break, this time with inflammation in his right biceps.

That leaves the Cubs without their best relief pitcher — a guy with a 1.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 22 saves in 24 chances — for the next week as the team hits the ground running in the second half with 12 games in 11 days against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks.

"It's been bothering him a bit, but we thought it was manageable," Joe Maddon said before the Cubs kicked off play Thursday evening. "But now it's not [manageable], so just have to take a little bit of a break. 

"We don't anticipate him being gone for a long time, but it seems to be prudent to go this course right now."

Maddon pointed to a bit lower velocity Morrow had in San Diego Sunday and believes now is "the right time to back off for the latter part of the season."

The Cubs do have Carl Edwards Jr. back from the paternity list and the 26-year-old flamethrower already got a "break" of his own earlier this season when he missed about 5 weeks with a shoulder issue.

The word "break" is key here because that's how Maddon and the Cubs characterize these little stints on the disabled list.

After all, they are "breaks," even if they're not built into a season like the All-Star Break.

The Cubs want both Morrow and Edwards to be healthy and dynamic in late September and throughout the postseason in October. They've been uber-cautious about the two pitchers throughout their respective Cubs careers and a stint on the disabled list serves to save bullets and wear and tear on their right arms in the dog days of the season.

After all, Morrow has already appeared in 35 games this season, which he's only done once since 2008 — last year, when he pitched in 45 games. Morrow has a long history of arm issues, so the Cubs have given him plenty of slack as they try to keep him healthy for the most important stretch of the season.

But that's also why the Cubs are looking to add some reinforcements to the bullpen before the trade deadline. They were linked to Brad Hand before the lefty was traded to the Cleveland Indians Thursday and they've also been linked to Orioles closer Zach Britton.

If Britton's healthy, he could serve as a perfect fit for the Cubs as a rental with closing experience and a guy from the left side to help fill both needs in the Chicago bullpen.

The Cubs currently have Justin Wilson, Randy Rosario and Brian Duensing as left-handed options in the bullpen, but all are at varying levels of confidence at the moment.

Wilson still has some issues with control, but otherwise has been very good of late. Rosario is a rookie and his outlying numbers indicate his 1.95 ERA is a bit of a mirage. Duensing just recently returned from the DL himself and currently boasts a 6.59 ERA and 1.83 WHIP on the season.

Then there's Mike Montgomery, who right now has a stranglehold on a spot in the Cubs rotation while Yu Darvish gets healthy. There is currently no update on Darvish, which means Montgomery won't be moving back to the bullpen anytime soon.

With less than 2 weeks left until the trade deadline, Maddon would be all for adding another arm or two to his pitching staff.

"Sure. All of the pitching, they're definitely going to want to look at it," Maddon said. "Our numbers are among the best in the NL both overall and as a bullpen and then even into the starters.

"But you're always looking to make it better. That's what GMs do. We'll see how it all plays out. We're hoping the [Morrow] thing is a shorter situation, which we believe it will be."

Cubs reportedly a 'main player' in trade talks for Orioles' Zach Britton

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USA TODAY

Cubs reportedly a 'main player' in trade talks for Orioles' Zach Britton

According to Bruce Levine of 670 The Score, the Cubs are a “main player” in a possible trade for Orioles closer Zach Britton before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

The Cubs will face competition from some familiar names as far as a bidding war for Britton goes. 

After sending Cubs closer Brandon Morrow back to the 10-day disabled list with right biceps inflammation on Thursday, the team could be searching for another reliever.

The 30-year-old is a ninth-inning veteran who tallied a career-high 47 saves with a 0.54 ERA in 2016, the year he finished fourth in American League Cy Young Award voting. He’s also been selected to two All-Star Games in his eight-year career.

But the closer’s 2018 season has had its ups and downs. He’s spent time getting reacquainted to pitching after having surgery for a ruptured right Achilles tendon that kept Britton out until June. He’s only pitched in 15 games while posting a 3.68 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. Britton hasn’t allowed a run in his last seven appearances.

Should the Cubs actually be concerned with his recent health issues?  According to MLB.com, the Orioles reliever has “been showing a dramatic increase in velocity.” It seems it took him some time to get back to his previous form.

If he can even be close to the same player he was two years ago, Britton would be more than useful to the Cubs bullpen.