Cubs

Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

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Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

Brian Bennett doesn't subscribe to Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Slim-Fast. But his diet -- he lost 54 pounds in eight months and improved his 40-yard dash time by nine-tenths of a second and his vertical leap high enough to dunk with two hands -- ought to be endorsed by every calorie-counter who ever was tempted by a pepperoni pizza.

At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Bennett has emerged as a difference-maker in Plainfield East's surprising but impressive run for recognition as one of the leading teams in the Chicago area. The Bengals are 6-0 after Friday's 58-39 victory over Plainfield Central. They will meet Minooka Friday before competing in the Pekin Holiday Tournament.

That's a pretty good start for a three-year-old school with an enrollment of 1,900 students that still is trying to fit the right keys in the right doors. It is the fourth high school in the fast-growing Plainfield school district that once projected five by 2012.

"Knowing how young and inexperienced we were in the last two years, when we were 9-16 and 15-13, we have made a complete 180-degree change," Bennett said. "We have nine guys from last year's team. All of us have matured and gotten serious about what we want to do, how bad we want it, how much we love the game. It's an incredible thing to see."

Bennett is an incredible thing to see. Last year, he couldn't jump over a gum wrapper. He lacked agility. He had no lateral movement. He couldn't run up and down the court for more than three minutes at a time. He was timed with a sun dial, not a stopwatch. He weighed 294 pounds.

After the season, coach Joe Callero of California Polytechnic Institute (Cal-Poly), who was recruiting Bennett, told him: "If you want to be a Division I athlete, you have to do this -- change your diet, change your game, think about your quickness at the next level, think about your mindset and think about how other bodies look at the next level."

Plainfield East coach Branden Adkins and assistant Greg Bayer also chimed in with the same message. Everybody agreed that Bennett had big-time potential -- how many teams have a 6-foot-9 player under the basket? -- but he wasn't going to show it in a 300-pound body.

"I knew I didn't have the year I wanted," Bennett said. "If I wanted it enough, I wasn't a Division I athlete at the weight I was at, maybe Division III. I had to change everything. So two weeks after the season, I put it in gear. If I took everything seriously, if I went from a big kid to a big athletic kid, I would be much better and the team would be much better."

His diet plan called for cutting out all soda pop, pie, chips, extra sweets and snacks and consuming much less ice cream. He concentrates on juice, water, more fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish and celery. He sets one day or meal a week to "cheat" by enjoying pizza. He wasn't big on oranges at one time. Now he endorses them.

Away from the dinner table, Bennett is a workout freak. Last summer, he was in the weight room once a day for three hours. During the school day, he lifts weights two or three times a day. He began running more, sometimes three miles at a time, then working out on a treadmill and exercise bike and engaging in agility exercises.

The result is Bennett can do things he couldn't do before. His old jersey is three sizes too big. For the first time, he can dunk with both hands. He can run up and down the court without getting tired. When he lowered his 40-yard dash time from 5.8 seconds to 4.9, he began to think about being a tight end or offensive lineman on the football team.

Then he came to his senses. "It wasn't for me. Basketball is my love and my calling," he said.

"It's crazy to see how far I have come," he said. "I compare my 40-yard dash times and weight lifting and agility tests from last year. Before, I didn't have leaping ability. The biggest difference from the end of AAU to the beginning of the high school season is I noticed I didn't get tired running up and down the court. My cardio was so much better. I had better endurance. Last year, I would have been gassed."

With a new body and a new commitment and excellent academic credentials (4.75 grade-point average on 5.0 scale, 25 ACT), he accepted a scholarship offer by Cal-Poly. And he is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds for a Plainfield East team that began to turn heads when it won the St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament and beat highly rated Downers Grove South.

"It is a great feeling to know that all my hard work is showing," Bennett said. "It gives me more self-motivation to keep working as hard as I have been working."

Adkins likes what he sees. "He always had size and potential. But he worked hard. You can see his improvement. Now he looks like an athlete. He was slow before. But he committed himself to the weight room and diet. He set a goal to be a Division I athlete and that is what he has become," the coach said.

Adkins, 38, is a Pekin graduate of 1991. He got hooked on high school basketball when his father took him to watch Pekin games when he was seven -years-old. He saw Pekin beat Peoria Manual in four overtimes and couldn't get over how exciting the whole experience was.

"My skills didn't let me be a very good basketball player," he recalled. "I was a cerebral guy. I understood the game. I listened. I led the team in floor burns. But I couldn't shoot or pass or dribble. I was only 5-foot-6. But I wanted to stay in it. So I wanted to get into coaching."

He learned as an assistant to highly respected coach Cal Hubbard at Normal University High, who won 363 games and one state championship in 18 years. He was at Plainfield South from 2002 to 2007, then was athletic director and dean of students at Glenbard North in 2007-08 before launching the boys basketball program at Plainfield East.

"We knew this senior group was deep and special. It has size, good guards, quickness and strength. They jelled well," Adkins said. "They didn't have chemistry last year. But they set goals for themselves. They set aside individual goals for team goals. I knew these kids were different from the second day of practice. I knew they could compete."

Bennett may be the biggest but he isn't the only contributor. Dee Brown (14 points per game), a 6-foot senior guard, was the MVP of the St. Charles East tournament. Other reliable scorers are 6-foot-3 seniors Austin Robinson (13 ppg), Myles Walters (7 ppg) and Desnique Harris (4 ppg), 6-foot senior Mack Brown (8 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior point guard Jawan Straughter.

Against Plainfield Central, Bennett had 18 points and six rebounds while Mack Brown scored 19. Dee Brown's three-point play with 23 seconds left in the third quarter gave the Bengals a 39-33 lead and sparked a 14-0 run that turned the contest into a rout.

"Different kids step up in every game," Adkins said. "Our notoriety is surprising. We like to stay under the radar. We don't talk about ratings now. It is nice because it puts Plainfield East on the map. But the ultimate goal is where we are at the end of the season."

For the time being, Adkins is eager to make his players understand the challenge that is ahead of them and what it means to be the first senior class at a school that is just beginning to make a name for itself.

"We talk about them leaving their stamp as seniors," Adkins said. "There has been a lot of talk about them since they were freshmen. They have a lot of potential. They will set the tradition for Plainfield East. Our motto is: 'Becoming a champion.' There are things you have to have in place to be a champion. Now they are listening."

Adkins cites five characteristics necessary to be a champion -- a positive attitude about anything you are trying to achieve, effort, commitment, discipline and making sacrifices along the way. And athletes must put in a lot of time to master and achieve those characteristics.

He implements his philosophy as Hubbard taught him, by building relationships with his players and knowing how to treat them, individually and as a group.

"You can't treat them all the same. You can't be a dictator," Adkins said. "You must build around the group of kids you have. Sit down and talk to them a lot...about basketball, life, family, their future. You can't coach them the same way."

Bennett and his teammates have bought into it. Although Adkins has preached a team concept, he knows there are higher expectations for him. In the end, if Plainfield East is to advance to Peoria, he knows he will punch the ticket, whether he likes it or not.

"Our first goal is to win conference. Our eyes were on it since day one but we didn't know what it would take. Now we know. And we know how hard we have to work to leave a lasting mark on the conference," he said.

"Knowing I will be the biggest guy on the court in most games means I know I have to be there on offense and defense and on the boards. I am a big part of our team's game. When the expectations I have for myself and the coach has for me are met, our team is flat out good. I can be a difference-maker."

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

After short stint in the majors, White Sox send Zack Collins to Triple-A

After short stint in the majors, White Sox send Zack Collins to Triple-A

When general manager Rick Hahn has talked about bringing up key prospects, he says he wants those players to be able to come up to the majors and stay there. That won't be the case with Zack Collins.

The White Sox sent the catcher down to Triple-A Charlotte following Monday's 5-2 loss to the Royals. No corresponding move will be made until Tuesday, but it is expected Welington Castillo will return from his rehab stint and rejoin the White Sox.

Collins was called up on June 18, but only played in nine games with seven starts in his 28 days on the big league roster. Collins drew a pinch-hit walk in his first plate appearance at the Cubs on June 19. He then homered two days later in his first start in Texas.

After that, Collins struggled. He goes back to Charlotte after hitting .077 (2-for-26) with five walks, the one home run and 14 strikeouts in 31 plate appearances.

It's unclear if Collins had a chance to stick on the roster or if the plan was for him to go back to Triple-A once Castillo was ready to return. Collins certainly didn't do himself any favors at the plate, but he also didn't see regular playing time.

Collins, a first-round pick in 2016, was seen working out at first base in fielding practice before games, but he stuck to catcher and DH. He could have played some first base or DH when Castillo returned. However, the White Sox claimed A.J. Reed off waivers and he debuted after the all-star break. Reed has taken the at-bats at DH, leaving Collins without regular at-bats.

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