White Sox

Chicago is Danica Patrick's kind of town

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Chicago is Danica Patrick's kind of town

JOLIET Not a whole lot of people know where Roscoe, Ill. is, but it's a pretty safe bet they've heard of arguably its most famous native.
For those of you who may be geographically challenged, Roscoe is a town of just over 10,000 people, sitting just north of Rockford, which is also the hometown of another NASCAR luminary, Chad Knaus, crew chief for five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
But more importantly, it's the hometown although she's long since moved away, now calling suburban Phoenix home of one of NASCAR's most popular and scrutinized drivers: Danica Patrick.
Patrick has returned home to Illinois for this weekend's Nationwide Series (Saturday) and Sprint Cup (Sunday) races at Chicagoland Speedway. And you can best believe she's happy to be back on home ground. In fact, she's already adopted Chicagoland Speedway as her "home" track, even though home is now nearly 2,000 miles to the southwest.
It will be," Patrick said Friday in an interview session with media in town to cover Sunday's Geico 400, the kickoff race to NASCAR's marquee event of the season, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Its good to be close to home," Patrick said. "Theres quite a few people coming out to the track. I have family members coming from Canada. So, theres going to be a few people here. I just love Chicago. I love being in the city. I dont have a lot of happy feelings from last nights football game, but other than that its good to be in Chicago.
Of course, the avid Chicago sports fan is still in denial over Thursday night's Bears loss at Green Bay. In fact, she talked about the game over her team radio while taking practice laps Friday at the 1.5-mile racetrack about 50 miles from downtown Chicago.
Not surprisingly, Patrick also took some good-natured ribbing from fellow driver and diehard Packers fan Matt Kenseth, who was gloating all around the race track Friday after what his favorite team did to the Bears.
Patrick will take part in Saturday's Nationwide Series race she's currently 10th in the standings as well as Sunday's Cup race, one of 10 she has or will compete in this season in preparation to shifting to a full-time season in the Cup series in 2013.
Patrick's hometown of Roscoe is about two hours (120 miles) from Chicagoland Speedway. While there will likely be a number of fans from her old stomping grounds that have bought tickets to see her race. That's on top of the free tickets Patrick will be giving to family and friends.
"For people who come out to the track, you want them to have a good time and, if you don't feel like you can help them have a good time, then there's not much point," she said. "But I think, more than anything, the fact it's the second time (the Chase opener) is at Chicagoland is more why there are people coming."
Although Sunday will mark the first time Patrick has competed in a Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland, this isn't the first time she's raced on the track by a long shot. She's competed three times in the Nationwide Series, finishing 24th in 2010, 10th last year and 14th in the June race there.
And in her prior foray in IndyCar racing, Patrick has made six starts at Chicagoland, with finishes of sixth (she also won the pole) in 2005, 12th in 2006, 11th in 2007, 10th in 2008, 12th in 2009 and 14th in 2010.
That's why Patrick comes into this weekend with significant confidence of having a strong showing in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, and potentially a surprisingly similarly strong outing in Sunday's Cup race. While she's not in the Chase, she certainly can make an impact and it couldn't come at a better place, right?
"It definitely wasnt that long ago as I was flipping through my notebook (from June's Nationwide race," Patrick said. "I feel like this year I had to write down what I felt at each track because they are all so similar, to remember what the feeling was.
"It came back pretty quick. I know its going to be different in the Cup car for sure. Everything is more difficult in the Cup car. I think the weather will help. Six or so weeks ago, whenever we were here, it was very hot. I think the cool weather will hopefully help with the grip and make things a little bit easier, a little less slippery and greasy."
Still, Patrick proved quite capable at handling what Chicagoland Speedway threw at her during both Nationwide and Cup practice Friday.
On the Cup side, she was 18th fastest in the morning practice but trailed off significantly to 44th fastest in the afternoon practice. She and the rest of the Cup drivers will qualify for the race on Saturday morning.
She'll also qualify for Saturday afternoon's Nationwide Series race, her current full-time job, so to speak. In practice Friday for that race, she was 13th in the initial morning session and then improved to seventh fastest in the afternoon session, giving her hope that she may qualify quite strongly for Saturday's Nationwide race.
Obviously, while she'll get a significant share of attention herself, Patrick knows that this weekend is more about the start of the Chase. And she readily admits she's a bit torn on whom to cheer for.
On the one hand, there's Tony Stewart, who co-owns the team she races part-time for in the Cup series and which she'll jump to full-time next season. Stewart won the Chase kickoff race at Chicagoland last season en route to five wins in the 10-race playoffs, culminating by winning the Cup championship by a mere one point over Carl Edwards (who didn't even make the Chase this season).
Then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is co-owner of the Nationwide Series team that Patrick has raced for the last three seasons, including a full-time effort this season.
But when pressed for an answer, Patrick doesn't waffle.
Well, I guess since Ill be driving for Stewart-Haas next year, I guess it would mean I would probably be cheering for Tony a little bit more since that will be my full-time team next year, if I had to pick one," Patrick said.
But, in the typical feisty fashion that has both earned Patrick fans and also criticism over her eight-year pro racing career, she added with a quick quip, "Thats a really unfair question."
Still, Patrick's development as a NASCAR driver particularly in preparation for her full-time effort in the Cup series next season is significantly predicated upon the learning curve she has gone through so far in her part-time schedule. And helping her a great deal is Stewart, for whom she will drive a third car for full-time next season with continued sponsorship support from GoDaddy.com.
Like a sponge, Patrick is soaking up all the information and lessons that Stewart imparts upon her, hoping that someday soon perhaps as early as her first full Cup season next year that she, too, will be a Chase entrant. And what better place to start off the Chase yet again but also actually to be part of the 12-driver field than her home track.
"When the Chase comes around its about momentum and who is coming into it with momentum," Patrick said. "Then again, you look at what Tony (Stewart) did last year and just came in.
"I can remember watching the interviews and the few races leading up to the end of the regular season and into the Chase, and he was getting put on the spot every weekend about making it in. Then he came in and just kicked ass. Thats what can happen, and thats what makes it exciting. Thats what creates good story lines for these last 10 races of the season and obviously the ones before it leading up to it. So, its a good marketing thing and good for PR what NASCAR has created.
"I think its going to be a tough championship. You can never count guys like Tony out for sure. Youve got Jimmie (Johnson) and Denny (points leader Denny Hamlin) has been on a roll, and I think Dale Jr. has got a good shot. Its going to be interesting to watch. Im looking forward to it.
As for her own chances in both races this weekend, Patrick can say the same thing about her hopes and expectations, as well.
"I'm really looking forward to this one," Patrick said. "We're hoping to have some fun."

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."