Cubs

Bears working out the kinks as camp opens

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Bears working out the kinks as camp opens

Overall, the Bears first training camp practice was a typical first day: sloppy! Its unacceptable for coaches and players, and frustrating for fans, but its to be expected. The players havent practiced together for over six weeks. Give it a few days and some initial sloppy play will start to clean up.

Simple things like quarterback-center exchange, offsides and dropped passes were the culprit Thursday. These letdowns typically result from players who are more focused on beating their assigned defender rather than accomplishing the totality of their assignment.

For example, yesterday there were three or four fumbled snaps. The center had a reach block, where he had to snap the ball and then wall off the defensive tackle who already out leveraged the center by defensive alignment in the A-gap (gap between center and guard). It is a very difficult block where most right-handed snappers tend to leave the snap short because they have to snap the ball then bust tail to get hand position with their right hand to the outside armpit of the defensive tackle. It is even harder if the defense tackle is slanting away at the snap of the ball.

Dropped passes normally are a lack of concentration, but yesterday you could physically see the receivers focusing on their route stems to set up the cornerbacks and safeties. Precision route-running is fundamental technique, but they have to finish their assignment by catching the ball coming out of their breaks. When the stem isnt correct, it throws off the timing of the route when the receiver expects the ball. Both Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell were communicating constantly with the wide receivers after every play in one-on-ones versus defensive backs and also during team period. It wasnt entirely the fault of the receivers; the quarterbacks were to blame also. Timing routes will take time to perfect.

Everyone knows the left tackle position is going to be a battle. JMarcus Webb quickly found that out when he jumped offside during practice that Chris Williams will be coming in the very next play. A little pressure never hurt anyone. If Webb cant handle competing for the job with no pads, then how is he going to handle the pressure of a meaningful game when its all on the line for the Bears? Every training camp snap matters for each of these two players and why the smallest mistake will get you replaced the very next play. The Bears coaches want perfection. Whichever player grades out higher will be the starting left tackle out of camp. In Webbs defense, he was flying off the ball to kick out block Julius Peppers, who had better position than Webb on the play called. Webbs eagerness is commended, but the penalty is not. The coaches will ride both Webb and Williams to get it right.

Saturdays practice will be the first practice in pads. Fans will enjoy the hitting, but the sloppiness will continue as the players adjust and settle back into what will be their normal working environment. The Bears must clean up this routine if they have hopes of playing in February.

Perfecting the imperfect season: Why the Cubs are the team to beat

Perfecting the imperfect season: Why the Cubs are the team to beat

Tuesday night as the Cubs trounced the Arizona Diamondbacks, there was a collective sigh of relief amongst the fan faithful. It is easy to see a turnaround or say that the offense finally did what they were supposed to do. Beat a team without the stress of a close game, instead of clawing for two or three runs and hang everything on the bullpen.

But scoring at will is a luxury.

For most of my Philadelphia Phillies career, I was on a team that unsuccessfully chased the Atlanta Braves year in and year out. For a staggering 11 consecutive seasons (1995-2005) the Braves won the National League East (They also won three out of the previous four before 1995). Although they only were able to bring home one World Series championship during that stretch, they were a nightmare to play against. Time has made that statement less anecdotal as they had THREE Hall of Fame pitchers in their starting rotation. Digest that for a minute.

Now some of their teams ran away with the division, some won the title through end of season heroics, but there was no formula for why they were successful from year to year. They had years where different aspects of their game were better than other years. They won 90 games in 1995 and won the World Series. They won 100-plus games in five of those seasons and only went to the World Series once (lost to the Yankees that season.)

Nothing brings this home more than the 2002 and 2003 Braves. In 2002, they scored 4.4 runs per game, hit 164 home runs, hit .260 as a team. In 2003, they scored 5.6 runs per game, hit a monster 235 home runs, and hit .284 as a team. Guess what? They both won 101 games. In ’02 the team ERA was 3.13, in ’03 it was 4.10. Neither team won the World Series. 

The Cubs in 2018 have battled the ups and down of their offense and like with most teams, navigated injuries that undercut their best roster. These days, what stings the most is the loss of closer Brandon Morrow for this season, after losing Pedro Strop to an injury caused from running the bases. All of a sudden, the absence of anchors at the back end of their bullpen may sink the ship, or at least ground it. But no matter what we can conclude about the impact of this reality they face, they still have to play baseball for us to find out. 

The stress of not having a team that can bulldoze a team every night is a modern byproduct of high expectation. A time when the numbers are deep enough to show us the vulnerabilities. The fact that the Cubs have the best record in the NL with notable weaknesses is seen as an indicator of their frailty instead of their resilience. It is what can go wrong, instead of what can go right. But as I learned from trying to beat those Braves team, they were simply a great team, even when they weren’t pitching or hitting at their best. Great teams, find a way to win anyway. Maybe we should ask the Brewers, Cardinals, or Marlins what they think of playing the Cubs. Guaranteed that they know they have to bring their A+ game. 

The Cubs have won all season long with that up and down offense AND with an up and down starting rotation. That is hard to do, but to the Cubs credit, they have understood from the first game of the season that all they must do is outscore their opponent. It turns out, winning 2-1 counts as much as winning 11-3. They manage that stress because they still are in the sunlight of being World Champions... and they are a good ball club that expects to win.

We must keep in mind that at this level, teams are closely matched. Even when I played against some of those dominant teams from my era, they didn’t destroy us night in and night out, but they found opportunity and kicked the door down. Give them an extra out or an second life, and they buried you with it. They seized moments. This is how the Royals, the Cubs, the Astros were able to break dry spells. The years of the Yankee-like dynasties are over. Paying to win is not what it used to be, you must develop, you must find the slightest of advantages. 

And part of development is taking lumps, being imperfect, not closing every hole, but learning how to work with and around a hole. You learn to celebrate your strengths, and most importantly, learn how to find ways to win when it counts. 

The NLCS and the World Series are best of seven series. There is no rule saying that to be a real champion, you must obliterate your opponent every night and win the series four games to zero. Just like there is no rule saying that you need consistent offense that puts up seven runs a night to be a champion. (See World champion Giants of 2012 who only hit 103 home runs or the 2010 Giants who hit .257 as a team or .255 in 2014.)

Winning the series four games to three, therefore having a 4-3 record (winning percentage of .571) is a lower winning percentage than that Cubs have this season — .587. And that .571 earns you the crown. They could get no-hit for three games and win the other four games 3-2 and walk away with the trophy. Sure, it will not unfold exactly that way, but winning teams often make that math work for them.

As for the American League, yes, they have some forceful teams. The Astros, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Indians. Wow. But you only have to beat one of them. In the American League, they will spend early October, beating each other up and leave one standing, battered and bruised. Then in the World Series, the first team to four games, wins. No one in the National League has to beat all four of those teams. No one has to even beat two of those teams. Just one.

Then it comes down to one series and anything is possible then.

It has been a long season for the Cubs. Lots of injuries, lots of surprises. But covering this team for 150-plus games, I cannot say I have seen any team they played against that is just simply and clearly better than the Cubs. Certainly not to the point that this opponent cannot be beaten…at all.  

Perfection and domination are overrated. Be an imperfect champion, then all of us, with all of our imperfections, can feel like champions too.

Player Preview: Kris Dunn's growth critical for his, Bulls' future

Player Preview: Kris Dunn's growth critical for his, Bulls' future

Player: Kris Dunn
Position: Point guard
Year: 3rd
17-18 stats: 13.4 points, 6.0 assists, 2.0 steals

Outlook: Kris Dunn’s unexpected leap turned out to be one of the most delightful surprises of the 2017-18 season for the Bulls. As part of the Jimmy Butler draft night trade, many wondered if he was more an object of the front office’s affection than a future centerpiece at the game’s deepest position.

What he showed was a competitiveness and growing confidence that was stifled in his rookie season under the harsh hand of Tom Thibodeau. Once he took command as a starter over Jerian Grant, he never looked back and many can attribute the Bulls’ best stretch of the season to Dunn’s energy.

Now, entering his third year he’s firmly in the “good but not great” category, a no-man’s land spot of sorts for a front office that may have to make a long-term decision on Dunn following the season. The Bulls can lock him up to an extension next summer or allow him to go into restricted free agency following his fourth season.

While that seems to be eons away and Dunn certainly has time to keep moving on the trajectory he started hitting last season, the upcoming year will still be critical as he’ll have the on-floor responsibility of making an awkward but talented group mesh with a full season of Zach LaVine and the addition of Jabari Parker.

Fred Hoiberg has the toughest job of all, but Dunn has to bring whatever gameplan Hoiberg employs to life—and considering the run he was on before his unfortunate fall against the Golden State Warriors that caused him to miss valuable time, he’ll want to reclaim that spot and keep pressing forward.

Defensively, he can be a problem on the ball for opposing point guards and that’s his strongest suit.

Offensively, he may have to spend more time off the ball with LaVine able to create opportunities and Parker having the ability to create his own shot as easy as anyone on the roster. Many times last season he was the lone shot creator on the floor and thus could dictate the offense without having his lack of 3-point shooting be exploited by way of defenses shrinking the floor.

Shooting 29.6 percent from 3 via the catch-and-shoot variety has to improve if this lineup has any chance of working offensively, otherwise teams will sag away from Dunn to help on LaVine, Parker and Lauri Markkanen.

But Dunn has been good on the screen-and-roll, especially with Markkanen and realized very early the key to his own success would be largely tied to getting Markkanen great shots in the flow of the offense.

That responsibility still stands but the focus slightly shifts due to the roster construction and one wonders if the makeup will allow for all its young players to grow at a similar pace without conflict.

Dunn could be the face of the test case.