White Sox

Bulls' rivals Heat, Pacers at a tipping point?

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Bulls' rivals Heat, Pacers at a tipping point?

INDIANAPOLIS -- Very rarely are NBA head coaches prophetic in their pregame media-availability sessions. Especially in the playoffs. But Thursday, Indiana's Frank Vogel achieved the feat.

"Keep your edge and enhance your edge. Pretty simple. Weve got to understand how they felt after Game 2 is how they felt after Game 1, the league's second-youngest head coach said before the contest. We understand that Game 3 in a seven-game series that a split of one-and-one is pretty typical, so theres great importance to tonights game. Weve got great balance on our team and ball movement is our best friend."

After his Pacers' 94-75 drubbing of the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in which Indiana was the aggressor from start to finish and frustrating a seemingly discombobulated Miami squad, it was clear that Vogel's team followed its coach's instructions to the letter. From All-Star center Roy Hibbert's domination of the interior and swingman Paul George's game-long harassment of Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade and from Danny Granger's refusal to back down from MVP LeBron James to the Pacers' point-guard duo of starter George Hill's outside marksmanship and backup Darren Collison's speed, the balanced Pacers were clicking on all cylinders Thursday, leading to a 2-1 series lead with another home game looming Sunday.

"Im certainly happy with the win, but we have a lot of work to do," Vogel said afterward, in his opening remarks to the assembled media. "Im very proud of our guys for a great effort and we won once again with defense and rebounding. Thats what this teams identity is about, led by Roy Hibbert, who anchored our team -- five blocked shots, 19 points, 18 boards -- one of the best games Ive ever seen him play and just a balanced offensive attack on the offensive end."

"It started from the first day of training camp. This is who weve been all year. Were a balanced team, we have depth on the bench, but our starting five is very balanced. Its not one or two guys; different guys every night, different guys every possession."

Chicago fans already know what the Pacers bring to the table, as they gave the Bulls all they could handle in five playoff games last season. Although that series didn't go to the brink, it was extremely physical and set the tone for this year's hotly contested regular-season battles. It also earmarked Indiana as a future force to be reckoned with, even prior to NBA Executive of the Year Larry Bird acquiring Indianapolis native Hill in an under-the-radar draft-day trade with San Antonio, veteran power forward David West in free agency and proven reserve scorer Leandro Barbosa in a quiet regular-season trade with Toronto.

With the additions of three valuable pieces with playoff experience to anchor a young core of leading scorer Granger, an upper-echelon true center in Hibbert and an emerging young talent and potential defensive stopper in the second-year George, it's no wonder Indiana's locker room was brimming with positivity, echoing the unselfishness of the team on the court after the victory.

"They came into a hostile environment and thats kudos to our fans that were there and made it hard for them to ever be in the game, veteran reserve swingman Dahntay Jones told CSNChicago.com. When you have fans like we have, they do a good job of taking teams out of the game and not giving them the boost they need to go on big runs. Just the high energy and pushing the ball, and bringing sparks off the bench to try to bring a different dynamic to the game, that definitely helps us out."

Added Hibbert: "First and foremost, were very appreciative of the fact that were in this position and we worked hard together, tirelessly, to get to this point right here and to have the fans come out and support us, and to win the way we did and in the fashion that we did, was great for us and Indiana.

"But we have a lot more work to do. Were not too high on this game right here. We know how capable the Miami Heat are. D-Wades not going to have the type of night that he did," continued Hibbert, who was viewed as a project throughout his career, from his gawky prep days at Georgetown Prep where he developed into a Big East-worthy recruit, to his time at Georgetown -- eventually becoming an All-American after seeing scant playing time early in his college career. After falling to No. 17 and the Pacers in the 2008 draft because of upside concerns, hes now in his fourth NBA season. "For us, we go, team, team, team. Thats our mantra, thats our motto and we play for each other, no matter what, and I like to see my teammates score.

Vogel lauded the 7-foot-2 man-in-the-middle's effort thusly: "Strength and mental calm, being poised and having composure, and not wanting things too badly, letting the offense come to him. Its just part of his maturity and carries over to the defensive end, as well."

While Hibbert was the star of the evening, it's clear that this year's version of the Pacers has a different sense of maturity about it and while they didn't lack for toughness last season, it's now more of a focused energy. At lot of that has to do with West, who after spurning offers from established power Boston, brought leadership and playoff experience from his days as an All-Star in New Orleans as well as a low-post option to complement Hibbert and a willingness to take big shots, mix it up inside and be a respected enforcer.

"Obviously this is the most talented group Ive been a part of in terms of one through 12. Weve got guys who can contribute at a high level without playing much, but when their numbers called, they come in and make plays, West told CSNChicago.com. Were just growing, man. I think thats the biggest thing. I just see every game, every time we have a film session, guys just embracing the criticism and going out on the floor, and making the improvement. We dont have a lot of egos in here and thats rare. We dont have guys that come in and say, I wish I had this, and again, I think thats part of what we have, our advantage."

Meanwhile, a much more subdued visiting locker room reflected the current state of the Heat, who are missing All-Star Chris Bosh, but probably wouldn't have won the contest with the versatile power forward. His finesse wouldn't have been an answer for the way the Pacers pounded them inside, though admittedly, Hibbert would have at least had to step outside of his shot-blocking comfort zone to defend his jump-shooting ability. Still, it was more than strategy that befuddled Miami, as Wade's sideline confrontation with head coach Erik Spoelstra and shockingly disengaged, five-point, 2-for-13 shooting performance has gone viral, even if as Spoelstra said afterwards, "those things happen."

"Especially on the road, weve got to stick together and everybodys got to encourage everybody," said Wade's longtime teammate, Udonis Haslem, the only other Heat player who was on Miami's 2006 title squad. "It was nothing. I think we all just want to win. I dont think it was anything personal for anybody. Emotions just get high. Were in the playoffs.

"Hes a little banged up right now, but hell be fine. Its the playoffs. Hes got a couple days to rest his body, recuperate a little bit and I know for a fact what type of player Im going to see Sunday," he continued. "Ive been around him long enough to know that he doesnt play like that often and I dont expect him to play like that again. Its just one game out of 10. You read too much into it. Hell be fine Sunday and hell be himself. Its basketball. Things dont always go your way. Hell be fine Sunday.

If it sounds like Haslem was covering for Wade, what else would you expect? As for Wade himself, he was in firm denial mode afterwards -- offering a frank "no," when asked about his televised blow-up with Spoelstra, then saying, "Uh, I don't even know what you all are talking about," when pressed further -- though he took ownership for his poor play.

"It could be a lot of reasons. Obviously we'll go back to film and look at it. I missed some shots early and I missed some shots later, so I've just got to be a little more aggressive, he told reporters. Give them credit. They did a good job defensively. When I got to the basket, they had the big guy in there. I knew I didn't have it going, so I tried to pass the ball to my teammates more instead of going 3-for-25. I'd rather just give the guys the ball. Mario Chalmers was playing well. LeBron was playing well. Offensively, I didn't have it going. There's no secret about it. I wasn't going to just force a lot of shots up.

Vogel had a slightly different explanation.

"Paul George is one of the top-five most versatile defenders in the NBA and hes doing a great job on Wade, he said. Wade had an off night. When he did get free, he didnt knock down shots. We cant give Paul all the credit. Hes too good of a player to have too many nights like he had tonight, but Paul is just competing, hes growing by the day and were just happy about what his future looks like."

"I wanted to come out and be aggressive on him again, and force him to make jump shots and he wasnt making them tonight," George said. I guess thatll be my plan for the next game."

Either way, the Heat's lackluster effort was disconcerting in numerous ways, beyond Bosh's absence, Wade's uncharacteristically horrendous postseason outing and Indiana's successful strategy -- making Miami's aggressive defense work against them with patient ball movement, stretching the shot clock, strong defensive rebounding and "loading up" defensively to force Wade and James, both top-tier one-on-one players, to face a phalanx of defenders on the same trip or simply have Heat role players have to knock down outside jumpers -- were all enforced Thursday.

Wade's incident with Spoelstra, James walking out of a huddle early and standing by himself near halfcourt during the remainder of the timeout, center Dexter Pittman's disastrously brief stint at the start of the game and Haslem -- a key role player who defines sacrifice after taking less money as a free agent to stay in his native Florida upon the arrival of James and Bosh -- then recently relinquishing his starting spot, playing only a bit role in the series, even with Bosh out, against a physical team that would at least think twice before trying to push him around.

"Im healthy," he told CSNChicago.com "Im just being a good teammate. The way were playing, we want to spread the floor with shooters and obviously I dont step out to the three, so offensively, we spread the floor with four shooters on the floor and we play with one center. So, by me not being a three-point shooter, offensively, Im not kind of fitting into the scheme that we want to run right now so maybe Ill work on my range this summer. Maybe if I shoot threes, Ill be out there."

Explanations about strategy and jokes aside, Miami looked like a bunch of misfits Thursday, with James' solo act only so effective against Indiana's size, Wade out of sorts and the team's role players mostly non-factors. They miss Bosh sorely, as his mid-range game, agility in the post, rebounding ability and overall length would certainly help matters moving forward.

"Chris is a big part of our team, so nobody loses a piece like that and its not missed. Nobody, no team," said Haslem. "Chris is a huge part of our team and we know that. I dont think anybody loses 18 points and it doesnt hurt them a little bit."

Added Chalmers, who scored a playoff career-high 25 and was one of Miami's few bright spots: "We never took Chris for granted. We miss him badly, but theres nothing we can do."

Hibbert offered an opposing view: "I can see it in the eyes of LeBron and D-Wade, that they want to take over. I think theyll figure it out, but until then, well try to take advantage of " he continued, pausing while trying to find the right words. "Their lack of continuity."

For now, however, the Pacers are in the catbird seat and if they can turn a one-game lead into a 3-1 edge Sunday, putting Miami on the brink of elimination, it will signal a shift in the NBA's power rankings, Bosh or no Bosh. Indiana will have to be taken seriously as a contender and the Heat, if they were to fall short of even the conference finals, would have to at least consider retooling in the offseason and breaking up the much-ballyhooed "Big Three." But the Pacers aren't merely satisfied with Thursday's thumping, as they believe they haven't reached their postseason peak and as they've said from before the series began, they think they can not only hang with the Heat, but knock them off -- no matter what some observers have preordained, probably without having watched the regular-season matchups between the two squads.

"We still arent playing great basketball," said West, who astutely observed that the best way to respond to little stuff like James' elbow to Granger, which briefly caused the latter to fly off the handle, is to simply execute in the face of confrontation. "We still have a lot of areas we can improve.

"Were going to worry about this locker room. Were going to worry about the things that we can control and move on from there," continued the veteran, who bristled when a reporter asked if the Pacers were starting to think "maybe" they could beat the Heat.

"Maybe? We werent looking at this thing, where we would come into this thing and put up a good fight and make it look good. Our intent was to come in, compete, play our game and try to win the series. Thats been our mindset from the jump."

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

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USA TODAY

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox best reliever through the first 42 games of this rebuilding season? Undoubtedly, it’s been Jace Fry.

With Rick Renteria’s bullpen hardly the most reliable relief corps the game has ever seen, Fry has been a revelation, starting his 2018 campaign with 7.1 scoreless innings over six appearances.

And now things are getting a bit more dramatic for the 24-year-old lefty, a guy who’s been through a pair of Tommy John surgeries. He pitched some high-leverage ball in Saturday night’s 5-3 win, sitting down all four hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings while protecting a two-run lead.

“I was ready the whole game, just waiting for my name to be called,” Fry said. “But it was awesome getting in there in the eighth inning, even getting the first guy in the ninth inning. After I got him I was kind of hoping he’d let me keep going.”

Renteria uses his bullpen in a non-traditional manner, one that perhaps he thinks is a way of the future or one that’s a result of his lack of dominant options out there. Whichever it is, he doesn’t really have a closer but rather a host of guys he uses in those high-leverage situations, whenever they might come during the late stages of a game. Joakim Soria, Nate Jones and Bruce Rondon have all been used to get big outs late in games, and Rondon threw a scoreless seventh Saturday, with Jones getting the game’s final two outs for the save.

But it could be argued that most difficult outs were recorded by Fry, who put away the visiting Texas Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters before getting the seventh hitter to strike out to start off the ninth.

Renteria steered away from dubbing Fry one of his new high-leverage guys after the game, but why wouldn’t Fry be in that mix? All he’s done since joining the big league squad earlier this month is get outs. He’s got 10 strikeouts, hasn’t allowed a hit and has just two walks as the lone blemishes on an otherwise perfect season line.

“It just happens to be that it was the eighth inning and the ninth that he pitched,” Renteria said. “I think he’s looking very comfortable in those. It happens to be the eighth and ninth we needed him. He’s been very, very effective. He’s been commanding the strike zone very well, confidently approaching his hitters. He’s got pretty good stuff.

“He’s able to command the zone. Along with that nice breaking ball he’s got to lefties and righties, it’s pretty effective. But he’s continuing to show you he’s capable of coming in and getting some pretty good hitters.”

Fry has been a rarity this season in that he’s appeared to be a candidate for a long-term spot in the White Sox bullpen. Jones would perhaps be the only other guy coming close to qualifying for that, mostly because of his team-friendly contract that keeps him under control a few more years, but he’s had some rough moments, even with his ERA dropping to 3.50 on Saturday.

Fry, though, is young and is dealing at the moment. He even got a shoutout as a potential long-term piece from general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week.

“Take Jace Fry, someone we haven’t mentioned when we’ve had this conversation the last couple of weeks,” Hahn said Thursday, discussing the positives he’s seen during this developmental season. “He’s shown up here and shown that he’s made some progress in his last stint in the minors and now, at age 24, seems like he’s ready to take that next step, and pencil his name in as part of what we’re building here going forward.”

There’s a lot of season left, and no one’s expecting Fry to keep batters hitless and opposing teams scoreless from now through the end of September. But this is a nice development for the rebuilding White Sox at the moment, a guy who’s giving them at least one name to put into that bullpen of the future.

How long can he keep this thing going? As long as he keeps getting ahead of hitters.

“Having the success is awesome, but I realize it’s the plan, the plan of attack,” Fry said. “I’m going out and throwing Strike 1 and getting ahead. Actually doing it, seeing it and having the process work definitely creates more confidence. Once you go back to the blueprint of baseball, Strike 1 is everything.”

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer getting sent to Triple-A following Friday’s game might be, to this point, the biggest development this season on the South Side.

Fulmer doesn’t carry the same expectations as higher-rated prospects like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen or Dane Dunning, but this is a top-10 draft pick who the White Sox still believe can play a significant role in their bright future. And he’s struggling. Badly. Once his ERA jumped up past 8.00 thanks to his third straight brief and run-filled outing, the White Sox made the decision to send him to Charlotte.

It leaves the White Sox rotation looking like this: James Shields, a struggling Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Hector Santiago and either Chris Volstad or the recently summoned Dylan Covey.

Four of those guys (Shields, Santiago, Volstad and Covey) don’t figure to play a role in the team’s long-term future, and Giolito is dealing with his own significant struggles, leading the American League in walks heading into his Saturday-night start. Lopez has been the rotation’s bright spot, but even he watched his ERA climb more than a full point after allowing six runs in two innings his last time out.

It’s not a great state for the rotation to be in if you, like the White Sox, have your sights set on the long-term future of this team, though it probably won’t look like that for too much longer. Still, it provides a few valuable reminders about not only this rebuilding effort but rebuilds in general.

This season is about development, and this is what development looks like

For better or worse, this is what development looks like. The White Sox own baseball’s worst record, and general manager Rick Hahn has been among the large number of White Sox fans to voice their disappointment over play that has been sloppy at times.

Fulmer’s struggles fall into the same category and serve as a reminder that growing pains like this are going to happen. We’ve seen it with Fulmer. We’ve seen it with Giolito. We’ve seen it with Lopez. Heck, we’ve seen it with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, too.

But more than wins and losses, this is what this season is about. Hahn calls it “the hardest part of the rebuild” because it features guys getting lit up and games being lost. The hope is that Fulmer can figure things out in the minors and that Giolito won’t require a similar demotion to right his ship. And if everything turns out all right, then this will be an easily forgotten chapter in both of those players’ development.

In the moment, though, it’s another reminder that rebuilds take time and that the waiting game provides minimal fun.

Each player’s development has a different trajectory

Just because Fulmer is getting bumped down to Triple-A doesn’t mean he can’t still turn into a successful major league pitcher. Player development and rebuilds aren’t linear, as rebuilders like to say. And to expect every prospect to travel in a straight line from potential to big league stardom doesn't make much sense.

“We reiterate, ‘It’s not the end of your career,’” Renteria said Saturday. “This is simply a reboot, a reset. Ultimately, I think after the initial shock for any player, they settle down and they understand exactly what’s going on when you look at it logically and look in the mirror. I think it’s easy to logically look at it and say, ‘I need to work on x, y and z.’

“This is a good kid with a really positive attitude and a lot of confidence. I think he’ll look in the mirror and go, ‘You know what, I got things I can work on, I’ll settle in and get over this initial bump and get to work.’ Those are the guys that end up giving themselves a chance to return sooner rather than later and have success.”

Not all prospects pan out

The other side of that coin is the reminder that not every single one of the White Sox wealth of prospects will pan out. Hahn & Co. have prepared for that and built up an incredible amount of prospect depth, but when someone doesn't live up to expectations, it will be painful.

This isn’t to suggest that Fulmer, specifically, won’t pan out, but it’s to point out that not everyone will. That’s a crowded-looking rotation of the future with Kopech, Hansen, Dunning, Fulmer, Giolito, Lopez, Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease all competing for those eventual five spots. Rather than the White Sox having to make tough decisions about who will be left out, certainly a possibility, the developments of those pitchers might make those decisions for them.

Renteria is confident that Fulmer will be back in the big leagues, and there’s little reason to think that this is the end of Fulmer’s opportunity. But not every top-10 pick reaches All-Star status.

The future is on the way

The current starting rotation might have fans asking why the heck it looks like it does. But a month or two from now it will look drastically different.

Rodon makes his first rehab start Saturday at Class A Kannapolis as he battles back from shoulder surgery last fall, and he shouldn’t be too far away from providing a serious jolt to the starting staff. Not to mention, he’s a guy who as good a chance as anyone as grabbing one of those front-end spots, and with him in the rotation, things will look a tad more futuristic.

Same goes for Kopech, whose promotion figures to be coming at some point this summer. Given the hype and the expectations there, his arrival will obviously be a really big deal.

But regardless of the results either Rodon and Kopech put up in their first tastes of major league action in 2018, they’ll make the rotation into something that way more closely resembles the rotation of the future. There’ll be plenty of development left for the Hansens and the Ceases and the Dunnings in the minors. But a rotation featuring Rodon, Kopech, Giolito and Lopez looks a lot different than one featuring Shields, Santiago, Covey and Volstad.

Patience. It’s not much fun. But it’s necessary to build a contender.