White Sox

Del Negro beats the odds with Clippers

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Del Negro beats the odds with Clippers

The world works in mysterious ways sometimes. How else to explain former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers moving on to the second round of the playoffs and the Bulls, along with Tom Thibodeau -- the fastest NBA head coach to 100 wins and owner of the league's best record in two consecutive seasons -- already being on vacation?

Circumstances have something to do with it, of course, as Thibodeau's Bulls were snake-bitten by injuries and Del Negro's Clippers feature All-Star Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul, third in the recent league MVP voting, but still, it's ironic that a coach ran out of Chicago and considered to be a lame-duck coach earlier this season, has taken a moribund franchise to the second round of the postseason. It just proves how much things can change in a matter of weeks in the results-oriented NBA, where perception is everything and a Bulls team expected to contend for a title is at home and the Clippers, predicted by most to be bounced out of the opening round, are still competing.

Give Del Negro credit, especially for the way his team won Game 7 on the road, in a hostile environment, against a favored Memphis squad that was supposedly too tough for his "Lob City" crew. Despite his talented co-stars being hobbled by injuries, the Clippers persevered and Del Negro went to the bold move of riding his bench in the second half of a physical, defensive-minded game.

Rather than Paul and Griffin taking over, the likes of veteran blue-collar types Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, midseason acquisition Nick Young, known for gunning when he was with a sad-sack Washington team and fearless second-year guard Eric Bledsoe carried the Clippers down the stretch, beating the Grizzlies at their own game. How the Clippers will fare against the team Del Negro once played for, top-seeded San Antonio, is a different story, but a job that many observers thought would be vacant come the offseason now looks like it will have continuity, as Del Negro will likely have to receive a contract extension for his success.

Meanwhile, Thibodeau faces questions for his game management, including injuries suffered by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah during the Bulls' first-round playoff series defeat to Philadelphia, and is still awaiting the organization picking up his option for the 2012-13 season, a likely occurrence, though a long-term extension might not be quickly forthcoming. That might not be fair, but that's life, especially in the NBA, where fortunes can turn as quickly as a torn ACL, turned ankle and in some cases, a couple of years, a cross-country move, a blockbuster trade for a superstar and one successful playoff series.

White Sox in the thick of it as AL Central race with Indians, Twins heats up

White Sox in the thick of it as AL Central race with Indians, Twins heats up

This AL Central race is going to be fun.

It looked like the Minnesota Twins might have blitzed right past the White Sox in the season’s first weekend, issuing a 14-2 clubbing on their way out of Chicago in the decisive third game of that series. The White Sox went on to Northeast Ohio and dropped the first two of that three-game set against the Cleveland Indians, and a 1-4 start threw some chilly Great Lakes water on the preseason thought of the South Siders running with the class of the division in this season’s 60-game sprint to October.

But the White Sox turned their 1-4 start around with a six-game win streak. And after a 2-0 nail-biter of a win over the Indians on Friday night that reshuffled the standings, the Pale Hose have now won their last five games against division foes, including a pair against these Clevelanders.

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The intensity’s been there all week. After a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the first three of the White Sox four games against the Milwaukee Brewers had a distinct playoff-style feel to them, well pitched, closely decided contests that struck as the most intense games the White Sox have played in years.

Be it the compressed nature of this season’s schedule or the fact that these White Sox are finally equipped to compete for a division title, this is unlike anything that’s graced the South Side in some time.

“We're treating every game like a must-win,” White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease said Friday night. “These games definitely don't have the same feeling as Game 15 of a 162-game season. We're coming to the ballpark to win every day."

When it comes to the Twins, atop the Central standings with 10 wins — one of only two major league squads to hit double digits to this point, even with back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Royals — it seems the White Sox will have to win a few more home run derbies the likes of which we saw in that opening weekend.

But runs have been somewhat scarce for the White Sox after they scored a combined 20 runs and banged out a total of 35 hits in winning the final two games of that series last weekend in Kansas City. They’ve scored just eight times in their last four games combined. There’s more than one way to win a game, of course, and as injuries continue to make the White Sox dugout look like the Tune Squad bench late in that game against the Monstars, the South Siders have figured out a few others besides blowing up the scoreboard.

Friday night’s playoff feel brought the Indians’ sensational pitching staff to Guaranteed Rate Field, and Aaron Civale was just about as good as he was against the White Sox last week in Cleveland. He didn’t pile up the strikeouts this time, but he still pitched seven innings of one-run ball, the lone run he gave up coming home on a first-inning double-play grounder.

Cease, somewhat miraculously, countered with five shutout innings of his own despite putting nearly the entire city of Cleveland on base. He walked five guys, including issuing four leadoff walks, hit another and allowed a couple of hits. Thankfully for Cease and the White Sox, though, he also came up with multiple clutch, inning-ending double-play balls, and the defense was excellent behind him and a trio of relievers, the first two of which had as much trouble keeping the bases clear as Cease did.

You want playoff-style drama? Scatter the bases with potential runs every inning and watch the pitchers dance their way out of one jam after another.

RELATED: White Sox confident Eloy Jiménez will improve defense after outfield miscue

That’s not going to fly on a regular basis, obviously, but it sure made for some heart-pounding baseball, which is — as anyone who was pulling double duty with playoff hockey Friday night knows — fun.

“I can't expect those kinds of results if I'm going to have that many base runners all the time,” Cease said. “Fortunately, we were able to get out of here with a 'W,' but it's not something that's going to be sustainable. So I have to do a better job of getting ahead and not doing that.”

The onslaught of high-caliber Cleveland pitching continues the rest of the weekend, and who knows if the White Sox will be able to solve it as they barely did Friday. Zach Plesac, who stymied the White Sox with 11 strikeouts in eight shutout innings last week, is up Saturday. Then it’s a heck of a pitching matchup Sunday, with Lucas Giolito facing off against current AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber, who’s struck out 35 hitters in his first three starts of the season.

That game ought to be another dandy, and with a frequently showcased rivalry between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals waved off this weekend, the White Sox will step into the nationally televised spotlight Sunday night, the perfect spot for such a pitching matchup and a division race that’s heating up like this one is. The White Sox swapped spots with the Indians on Friday, into second place and two games back of the Twins. The Indians are just two and a half games behind the division leaders.

“Both of those teams are very good clubs,” White Sox outfielder Adam Engel said of the Twins and Indians. “Two totally different makeups, they win games differently. We have a pretty balanced attack ourselves. It’s fun playing good baseball against good teams.

“The Indians, it seems like every time they come to town or we go to Cleveland, we are facing some pretty good arms. Makes it fun. You just have to stay disciplined, stay really focused in your work. It always feels like you’re going to be part of a good baseball game.

“Those are two tough teams, and hopefully we can keep playing them well.”

RELATED: Rick Renteria: Tim Anderson, not Luis Robert, will be White Sox leadoff man

Obviously, everything’s felt different this season. There are no fans in the stands, COVID-19 is constantly threatening the completion of the campaign, and a brief ramp up to Opening Day has made for a high number of injuries across the league.

But there’s a different feeling on the South Side, too, for much more positive reasons. This team has been talking about its high expectations for months, and they’ve got a roster that looks capable of living up to them. While an expanded playoff field gives the White Sox a pretty good chance of reaching the postseason, they’ve still got their eyes on the biggest prizes, and the first one of those is the Central crown.

They’ve played just 14 games. But it sure feels like a pennant race.

“I don’t remember ever really watching scoreboards so closely as a team through the first couple of weeks in the season,” Engel said. “We come in off the field and we want to see what’s going on around the league, or we’re announcing what scores are postgame for different teams. You control what you can control, and you want to win as many games as you can. But we’re all keeping our eyes on the scoreboard, and I’m sure it’s like that league-wide.

“Everybody kind of feels like they’re in it right now, and 60 games, this is going to be a heck of a season. I’m excited that we’re playing good baseball right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”


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Blackhawks' Corey Crawford heating up just in time for Stanley Cup Playoffs

Blackhawks' Corey Crawford heating up just in time for Stanley Cup Playoffs

The biggest storyline of Blackhawks training camp 2.0 was Corey Crawford missing the first 12 days because he had tested positive for COVID-19. He showed up on the final practice day in Chicago, which was exactly one week from the start of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Edmonton Oilers.

The Blackhawks did everything they could to get him ready for Game 1, but you knew it would take him a while to get back into top form. And it has.

In the first three games against the Oilers, Crawford allowed 13 goals on 92 shots for a save percentage of .859 and had a minus-5.68 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick, which ranked dead last among all goaltenders. 

But when the Blackhawks needed him most in Game 4, Crawford delivered. 

The two-time Stanley Cup champion turned aside 41 of 43 shots for a save percentage of .953 in Friday’s 3-2 series-clinching win against the Oilers, including all 18 in the third period, a handful of which came from high-danger areas.

"He's a huge part of our team and he played real well today," Dominik Kubalik said. "I thought he was our best player."

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To take it a step further: Crawford stopped 16 of 18 shots from the slot and had nine saves from the inner slot, which is the third-most in a game by any goaltender this postseason, according to Sportlogiq. The Oilers had an expected goals for rate of 4.33 but scored only twice, which means Crawford saved the Blackhawks 2.33 goals.

It was a vintage performance between the pipes for No. 50.

"Obviously it wasn't the best scenario," Crawford said of having just one week to get ramped up for the qualifying round. "I would have liked to have had a few more weeks of practice and see more pucks coming into the series. But it is what it is. I think I felt way better each game, playing each game and just seeing different scenarios and situations. Once you get more of that, just the better you feel. Tonight was obviously better."

Despite turning in a terrific outing on Friday, Crawford admitted “there’s still some work to do” before he feels like in peak form. But if he gets there in time for the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks could be a dangerous underdog team.

"I was able to kind of hide back there until I started feeling comfortable," Crawford said. "Still don't think I'm at the top of my game, but it was definitely better today."