Cubs

The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

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The Cubs, Konerko and the game of expectations

MESA, Ariz. Paul Konerko is a cerebral player who speaks in full paragraphs, but one line stood out: This could be a very successful year without making the playoffs.

It doesnt really matter if the White Sox are All In or not, but the captains words went out into the echo chamber. Just like in political primaries, its all about managing expectations.

After a winter spent looking toward the future, the Cubs have changed the narrative in Arizona. New president Theo Epstein, first-year manager Dale Sveum and Pacific Coast League MVP Bryan LaHair have essentially said the same thing: This is a team that can win the World Series.

Perhaps the Cubs could be looked at in a different light with Wednesdays reports that Major League Baseball and the players union are getting close to adding an extra wild card in each league.

But in listening to people around the team the past two weeks, you get the sense that things could immediately get better in 2012, not just in some hazy distant future where theyre selling The Cubs Way books and Theo-logy T-shirts out of the Triangle buildingMcDonalds lot on Clark Street.

Privately, one player admitted that the Cubs are in a great position, simply because they can play loose and surprise everyone. If theyre bad, well, no one expected them to do anything anyway.

Several have said this is a team that will play for each other, that a clubhouse without Carlos Zambrano will be a better place and a distraction-free zone.

They point to how the Tampa Bay Rays have shocked the world. They remind you that no one expected the Cincinnati Reds to win the division in 2010, or the Arizona Diamondbacks to go from worst-to-first last season.

Rebuilding is one of those terms that the media uses, but every year you come to play to win, new outfielder David DeJesus said. Baseballs one of those things that if everyone comes together (and) fights for the same thing, it makes for a fun year. Who knows what can happen out there?

To be clear, Mike Quade promised to drive home fundamentals last year. And Lou Piniella didnt enter the Hall of Fame discussion by stressing sloppy, careless play.

But maybe some of the details stick this time. Between Sveum and his new coaches Jamie Quirk (bench), Chris Bosio (pitching) and Dave McKay (first base) they have 101 combined seasons of experience as a major-league player or coach.

The Cubs also feel like they will have a credible starting pitcher on the mound every night, no matter who grabs the final two spots, and even if injuries hit the rotation again.

Jeff Samardzija who believes he belongs in the rotation understands how the hype can get out of control, as both a Chicago guy and a former Notre Dame football star. Hes probably in the minority, but he actually thought the Epstein coverage wasnt over-the-top.

I feel like everybody had their heads on straight, Samardzija said. We need to understand as Cubs players and Cubs fans (what) we need to set our sights on. Saying that were going to win the World Series thats cool and thats all fun. But we need to look at having a strong start the first month of the season. (We) need to be clean early.

That way the summer rolls around and were in position to be battling to get an opportunity to make the playoffs and go on from there. We (definitely have) the guys (and) the personalities to do it. We just need to take it one step at a time.

You can wonder how some of these sensible, incremental moves would have been received on Chicagos airwaves if Jim Hendry had made them, and just how patient the fans will really be with Epsteins team after a couple of losing streaks.

The track record these guys have is proven, so theyll have some patience if there are some growing pains, utility man Jeff Baker said. (But) I dont think that learning curve or that window of having to be patient is going to be as big as people think. I know a lot of people are writing us off for this year.

I dont want to say not giving us respect, because we have to earn it. But you never know what can happen. I played on some teams in Colorado where we werent expected to do anything but finish dead last. Its amazing what happens when you get 25 guys pulling on the same end of the rope, whether youre the best (or) the worst player on the team.

A lot of things can happen from doing the little things, running the balls out. I know its a clich and everyone says that, but it really can change.

There is a lot of time to kill here, with media personalities taking pictures of other media personalities taking pictures of spring training, and then posting it on Twitter.

Its all just noise now, something to fill the air space until April 5 at Wrigley Field. Its a brutal schedule, 162 games in 182 days, with the blur of constant travel. This game will find you out.

Whats the point of playing if people are just going to decide where you finish? pitcher Ryan Dempster said. We can talk about everything in the world, but at the end of the day we got to do it out on the field.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Cubs truly the best NL team at the All-Star break?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Cubs truly the best NL team at the All-Star break?

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, Hub Arkush, Jordan Bernfield and Fred Mitchell join Luke Stuckmeyer on the panel. 

The Cubs have the best record in the National League at the All-Star Break but it doesn’t feel like it. Can they still win the N.L. pennant? And will the Home Run Derby mess up Kyle Schwarber or Javy Baez’s swings?

Plus, Will Perdue drops by to talk about Jabari Parker’s signing. He also shares his surprising prediction for how the Bulls will do next season.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”