White Sox

Fire end home schedule Saturday with D.C. United

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Fire end home schedule Saturday with D.C. United

Home field advantage is one thing, and the Fire has enjoyed its best season ever playing at Toyota Park. The Fire is 11-3-2 there going into Saturdays last regular season match against D.C. United.
Like most matches in the last two months, this one is huge for the Fire and the expected return of Pavel Pardo might mean more than the good vibes provided by the clubs impressive record on its home turf.
The Fire hasnt been the same since Pardo injured a hamstring in a 2-1 road win against Toronto FC on Sept. 12. He sat out the next game, a 3-1 home win vs. the Montreal Impact three days later, and then suffered a left calf injury at the Fires next training session. The Fire is a mediocre 3-3-0 in the six games that the 36-year old Mexican midfielder missed.
Daniel Paladini was a decent replacement, especially offensively where he contributed two goals and two assists. Still, the Fire could have used the steadying influence that Pardo brought in the first 27 matches, 26 of which he started.
Pardo played for Mexico in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, appeared in over 300 matches for one of his countrys premier clubs teams Club America, and was on Stuttgarts championship team in the German Bundesliga in 2007. Losing a player with that kind of resume couldnt help but hurt, and the Fire lost road matches to two teams that had long been eliminated from playoff contention the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution while Pardo was sidelined.So, the Fire (17-11-5, 56 points) has lost three of its last four matches and cant afford another letdown against D.C. United (17-10-6, 57 points), though both are already guaranteed spots in Major League Soccers postseason competition.
"Our goal was to be in the playoffs, so now its important where you finish (within the Eastern Conference)," said Fire coach Frank Klopas. "Its very important to have home-field advantage and not to play that extra game...We have to get the three points at home that will put us in second place."
Pardo returned to full training on Tuesday and went through the Wednesday and Thursday sessions with no setbacks. Klopas wont commit to starting him on Saturday but is hopeful Pardo will be available for selection."Its always good to be on the field with the whole team and training at 100 percent," said Pardo after one of this weeks workouts. "Im happy to be coming back, and hopefully I'll be fully ready to play on Saturday."If the Fire does win in Saturdays matinee match it will climb back into the second spot and wont have to play in the one-game knockout match on either Wednesday or Thursday between the teams that finish fourth and fifth in the East. United is second and the Fire third heading into the last weekend of the campaign.The history between these teams is interesting. D.C. United was the premier team when MLS started, winning titles in 1996 and 1997 and going to the MLS Cup final again in the third season of 1998. That coincided with the Fires first season, and the Fire pulled off a monumental upset en route to sweeping the MLS and U.S. Open Cups. The Fire hasnt been that successful since, and D.C. United hasnt aged gracefully either.United is in postseason play for the first time since 2007 and the Fire is there for the first time since 2009. The Fire hasnt defeated D.C. United at Toyota Park since 2006, its first season in Bridgeview. The Fire is winless in their meetings there since then (0-3-3).As was the case with the Fire, just getting back to postseason play was a big deal for United and their road back was an unlikely one. United got red hot after its best player, Dwayne DeRosario, was lost with a knee injury. United is 5-0-1 since the star forward-midfielder went down.D.C. is the only team to score four goals against the Fire this season, doing it in a 4-2 win at RFK Stadium in their only previous meeting on Aug. 22. DeRosario had a goal and an assist in that matchup. Originally thought to be out for the rest of the season, United coach Ben Olsen is holding out hope that DeRosario might be able to play if his club goes deep into the postseason.Regardless of that possibility, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth based on the results of this weekends matches. The New York Red Bulls (15-9-9, 54 points) could move up by beating Philadelphia and the fifth-place Houston Dynamo (14-8-11, 53 points) could wrangle a home game in the knockout match with a road win at Colorado and the right set of outcomes in the other matches.The wild card, knockout match will be played on Wednesday or Thursday. The playoff format switches to two-game home-and-home series for the conference semifinals (No. 3 or 4 and 7 or 8) and the conference finals (Nov. 17 or 18). The MLS Cup final will be played Dec. 1 on the home field of the team with the higher seed.As part of the regular season finale festivities the Fire will have pink touches to their attire in support of breast cancer awareness and will also announce its award-winners. Media members did the voting for Most Valuable Player and Best Defender. My picks were goalkeeper Sean Johnson for MVP and Arne Friedrich for Best Defender.Johnson was a clear-cut winner for MVP in my book, with Patrick Nyarko his closest competition. The choice of Friedrich was more difficult, as Austin Berry deserves a boost for what I consider a Rookie-of-the-Year season. My reasoning was that Friedrichs steadying influence was also a big reason for Berrys solid play.

Talk service time all you want, White Sox have decided Michael Kopech is ready for the big leagues now

Talk service time all you want, White Sox have decided Michael Kopech is ready for the big leagues now

There were plenty of people who thought Michael Kopech was the White Sox best pitcher when the team left Glendale, Arizona, to start the 2018 season.

Whether or not the team shared that opinion, Kopech spent the next four and a half months as a minor leaguer.

The prevailing preseason thought was that it wouldn’t take the flame-throwing Kopech, who struck out 172 minor league hitters in 2017, long to breeze through Triple-A and arrive on the South Side. But it did.

A dominant beginning to the season was followed by a bumpy stretch in which his ERA and walk total consistently grew. But the last seven starts were terrific, and so Kopech’s call to the majors has finally come. He’ll make his big league debut Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins.

It’s news that will please many White Sox fans because it’s something they’ve been waiting all season to see happen. Ever since Sox Fest back in the winter, the No. 1 question has been: When will Kopech and Eloy Jimenez reach the bigs? Jimenez, the team’s top-ranked prospect, is still a minor leaguer for now, but Kopech is about to hit the South Side with a heck of a lot of fanfare. It’s a pretty tangible example of this rebuilding effort moving in the right direction.

The recent conversation among fans and media members, though, has centered around service time and whether the White Sox handling of Kopech and Jimenez would mirror how the Cubs handled Kris Bryant back in 2015, keeping a star prospect from the majors until a couple weeks into the following season to start the clock a year later and essentially add a year of team control to the end of his contract. A lot of Twitter-using White Sox fans have whole-heartedly bought in to such a strategy.

But general manager Rick Hahn has insisted all along that the only determination of when these guys would come up was that they hit all the developmental milestones the team wanted them to hit in the minor leagues. For what it’s worth, Hahn answered a question about service time earlier this summer, saying that it had nothing to do with keeping Kopech at Triple-A. That question was specifically in reference to when Kopech could become arbitration eligible, not a free agent even further down the road. But the response is an interesting one as a similar conversation keeps happening surrounding this team and these specific decisions.

“It was all baseball. It’s never been the arbitration three years from now. It’s been about baseball,” he said back in mid June. “Again, not getting too far down into Michael’s checklist of what we want to see him accomplish, but he hasn’t checked them all off yet. He’s had some real good starts. He’s getting closer, and it’s not going to surprise me seeing him here at some point in the not too distant future, but he’s not there yet.”

Several tremendous outings later, and Kopech is there now. The numbers have been unreal in his last seven starts: a 1.84 ERA, 59 strikeouts and only four walks in 44 innings.

Hahn also talked about how the team’s handling of pitching prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito a season ago could be a kind of template for how it would handle Kopech this season. Both those guys were called up in August, just like Kopech will be in a couple days.

Just like Hahn’s season-long declaration that the fortunes of the major league team and of the players on the major league team had no bearing on when top prospects would be promoted, at the very least in Kopech’s case, the same seems to have been true about the issue of service time. Some might lament the fact that the White Sox didn’t wait on Kopech, and it’s not a point without merit, as a large number of injuries to top prospects this season robbed them of developmental time and perhaps shifted the timeline of the entire rebuild. Maybe. In the event that is a concern shared by the White Sox, the extra year might have made a difference down the road.

But as White Sox fans have seen first hand this season, there is development that needs to happen at the major league level, too. Giolito and Lopez gained valuable experience pitching at the end of last season. Those two, plus Yoan Moncada and other young players, have gone through growing pains throughout this year’s campaign. Kopech will face the challenges of the big leagues, as well, and the sooner he does, the sooner he can learn how to overcome them.

Hahn has said all along that the organization’s focus remains on the long term, and though there might be arguments out there that not waiting could potentially shorten the team’s window of contention many years down the line, Kopech’s promotion does an awful lot to open it in the first place.

With youth, pedigree and good fortune, Bears OL has rare opportunity to reach rare heights

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USA TODAY

With youth, pedigree and good fortune, Bears OL has rare opportunity to reach rare heights

As the Bears leave Denver and prepare for Kansas City, sorting through a couple of conundrums on the interior of their offensive line—James Daniels or Cody Whitehair at center? Best five?—a budding conclusion is this:
 
Mixed preseason numbers notwithstanding, the Bears stand on the brink of a potentially elite offensive line, in the hands of one of the most highly regarded coaches in the game.
 
It has not performed to “elite” yet, although not with traces of upside. A hyper-conservative run game that averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2017, with defenses facing neither a pass offense nor subterfuge, is plodding to 3.8 ypc through three preseason games.
 
Mitch Trubisky was sacked once every 11.6 pass plays as a rookie; this preseason, he and Chase Daniel have fared a bit better, sacked once every 15.8 pass plays (No. 2 Daniel is included because his protection includes offensive linemen factoring into current deliberations). Against the Denver Broncos, albeit without rush leaders Bradley Chubb and Von Miller playing the entire game, Bears quarterbacks were sacked just twice in 44 pass plays, with a total of five hits. 
 
But consider a bigger picture, beyond one game or even one season:
 
Right guard Kyle Long turns 30 in December and the roster has zero offensive linemen currently older than 29 years of age. While the spotlight was on adding weapons around quarterback Mitch Trubisky, GM Ryan Pace was also continuing a methodology that included making sure the ONLY weapons around Trubisky are ones wearing the same uniform.
 
“It’s up to us to find the guys who want to work hard and have the right attitude about getting better,” said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. “If you have that, we’ll overcome things like never being in a [three-point] stance or how to get leverage in the running game. We have guys who are tough enough to do it.”
 
And ones who will be around for awhile.
 
Four of the projected starting five are under some significant degree of contract control: Daniels, Long and left tackle Charles Leno are signed through 2021, Whitehair through 2019. Right tackle Bobby Massie becomes a free agent after this season but Rashaad Coward, a promising prospect at either guard or tackle after converting from defense this spring, does not hit unrestricted free agency until 2021, with the Bears holding future tender-offer options on the 23-year-old former nose tackle.
 
“[Defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio pointed out when I first got here that we’ve got a young guy [Coward] who really has some good traits about him as a football player,” Hiestand said. “He’s tough. He works his tail off. He’s learning on the job really well right now. Very positive growth.”
 
The overall situation is the result of some organizational commitment – if Daniels starts and Whitehair moves to center, the Bears will have a No. 1 (Long) and two No. 2’s as the three individuals closer to the football than anyone not named Trubisky.
 
And the result of luck – Leno was the 246th player taken in the 2014 draft, meaning that GM Phil Emery phoned in picks of Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Ka’Deem Carey and David Fales, plus a punter (Pat O’Donnell) before opting for Leno in the seventh round.
 
Maintaining perspective
 

A titanic offensive line is no solution by itself (besides the obvious fact that things dubbed as “titanic” can, you know, sink).
 
The Dallas Cowboys fielded an offensive line in 2015 that included No. 1’s Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, plus rookie La’El Collins, with a top-10 grade but undrafted over character concerns. That Cowboys team went 4-12.
 
With Frederick, Martin and Smith still in place (Collins was injured), the 2016 Cowboys 180’ed to 13-3 after they got the quarterback (Dak Prescott) and running back (Ezekiel Elliott) things addressed. In 2017, the line even added another No. 1 pick (Jonathan Cooper) but the Cowboys dipped to 9-7 after Elliott was suspended for six games and averaged a full yard per carry less than the year before, and Prescott more than tripled his interceptions (to 13 from 4).
 
Even elite protectors have their limits if the protectees don’t do enough with the protection.
 
Health is a critical, annual issue, but where injuries have thrown several recent offensive lines into chaos. The Bears started four different right guards in 2017; Whitehair started at a different spot each of the final three games.
 
“I think our biggest thing,” said Whitehair, “is playing together under one set of eyes, seeing the field together and playing together.”