White Sox

Fire hit home stretch

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Fire hit home stretch

By JJ Stankevitz
CSNChicago.com

On May 30, the Fire canned coach Carlos de los Cobos after stumbling to a 1-4-6 record through the first three months of the regular season. It was the latest change in a season full of transition for the Men in Red, and it left the squad with an uncertain future.

Four and a half months later, the Fire find themselves in a position at least one player never could've imagined: they're in contention for a playoff berth.

"Honestly, back then, no," said Patrick Nyarko when asked if he could've envisioned the Fire still being alive for the playoffs in October after de los Cobos was fired. "We all didn't know where our future lied. We didn't know what was going to happen next."

What happened next was the Fire promoted technical director Frank Klopas to the position of interim head coach. The move didn't yield immediate dividends on the field, as by August, the Fire were scraping the bottom of the MLS table.

But the attitude of the team was completely different under Klopas. Players began watching video of not only their previous game but also of opponents. Detailed scouting reports were made available, along with projected starting lineups based on more than their opponent's previous game. And, under Klopas, every player felt welcome wearing a Fire jersey.

"He came in with a real positive attitude and he included everyone. That's the difference between him and Carlos," said Nyarko. "He included everyone in game planning and built players' confidence, especially guys that had not played that much."

For all the changes in attitude and for all the improved confidence, though, the Fire still struggled to come away with three points in their matches. Draws plagued the Fire, with their MLS-record 15th coming Aug. 18 to D.C. United at Toyota Park.

"I look back at games and think, 'how did not pull three points off?'" said defender Cory Gibbs. "You look at those 16 ties, and at least more than half of them we could've said that forthose ties could've easily been wins and we could've been in a better position."

Interestingly enough, though, one of those draws may have kick-started the Fire's run from afterthought to contender.

On Aug. 3, the Fire tied Philadelphia 1-1 at Toyota Park. Klopas decided to shuffle his team's formation leading up to the match, with Nyarko moving up front alongside striker Dominic Oduro and the team's midfielders shifting into a diamond formation (one up, one back, two wide).

It wasn't that match that sparked the team, though. Ten days later, the Fire went into New York with a game plan that didn't involve Nyarko and Oduro up front. But a few hours before the match, Klopas and his coaching staff informed the team that Nyarko and Oduro would be up front.

The Fire hadn't practiced in that formation all week.

"It was a little ballsy going against New York on the road," said Nyarko. "It came out of nowhere."

Sixteen minutes into the match, Nyarko found Oduro for an equalizing goal. Midfielder Sebastian Grazzini put the Fire up with a goal in the 24th minute, and while New York ultimately knotted the match at two, the team's attack was sparked.

"Ballsy? No, I call it tactically smart," dryly said Klopas, later adding that he made the move with full confidence his team would respond well to it.

Since the match against New York, the Fire have gone 5-1-1, picking up 16 crucial points. With 37 on the year, the Men in Red still have quite a bit of work to do, but with three games remaining -- all against teams ahead of them in the standings -- a chance certainly exists that the Fire wind up in the postseason.

The list of playoff scenarios is long and complicated, although the only thing that matters to the Fire is that they win out. Nine points means they'll finish the year with 46. It won't guarantee them a playoff spot, but at least they can end the 2011 season knowing they finished strong.

Right?

"Everything doesn't mean anything if we don't make the playoffs," said Gibbs. "Yes, we feel better that we've done better, but it's meaningless if we don't win these games and get into the playoffs."

So much for that. But even if the Fire don't end up in the playoffs, these last three games will have a playoff atmosphere and intensity.

That's probably nothing in which anybody on the Fire will take solace. Missing the playoffs means those early and mid-season draws will burn more. Every shot off the goalpost, every strike that sailed high, every missed pass and defensive assignment will twist the knife a little more.

The best way to put those missed opportunities to bed is to win out.

"It's about now," said Klopas. "We can't look in the past and we can't look at what happened or might happen."

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

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AP

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

It wasn’t long ago that the question was: “Why isn’t Michael Kopech pitching in the major leagues?”

The question is now firmly: “What’s wrong with Michael Kopech?”

The new script is of course a reflection of how quickly opinions change during a baseball season, when “what have you done for me lately?” tends to drive the conversation more than looking at the entire body of work.

But the body of work doesn’t look too awesome for the White Sox top-ranked pitching prospect these days. He carries a 5.08 ERA through 14 starts with Triple-A Charlotte. But it’s the recent struggles that have folks second guessing whether he’s ready for the big leagues.

The month of June hasn’t gone well for Kopech, who has a 9.00 ERA in four starts this month. That features two especially ugly outings, when he allowed seven runs in two innings and five runs in three outings. But for a guy who’s got blow-em-away stuff, it’s the walks that are of the utmost concern to box-score readers: He’s got 21 of them in 16 innings over his last four starts. That’s compared to 20 strikeouts.

More walks than strikeouts is never a good thing, and it’s been a glaring bugaboo for White Sox pitchers at the major league level all season. Kopech wasn’t having that problem when this season started out. He struck out 68 batters and walked only 25 over his first 10 starts. But things have changed.

With director of player development Chris Getz on the horn Thursday to talk about all of the promotions throughout the minor league system, he was asked about Kopech and pointed to Wednesday’s outing, which lasted only five innings and featured four more walks. But Kopech only allowed two earned runs, and Getz called it a good outing.

“Last night I was really happy with what he was able to do, and that’s really in comparison looking at his last probably four outings or so,” Getz said. “He did have a little bit of a hiccup, getting a little erratic. He was getting a little quick in his delivery, his lower half wasn’t picking up with his upper half. The command of his pitches was not there.

“But last night, although the line is not the best line that we’ve seen of Michael this year, it was still a very good outing. He was in the zone, commanding the fastball. His body was under control. He threw some good breaking pitches, a couple of good changeups. He was back to being the competitor we are accustomed to. We are hoping to build off of this outing. I know he’s feeling good about where he’s at from last night and we’ll just kind of go from there.”

It’s important to note, of course, that the White Sox are often looking for things that can’t be read in a box score. So when we see a lot of walks or a lot of hits or a small amount of strikeouts, that doesn’t tell the whole story nor does it count as everything the decision makers in the organization are looking at.

Still, this is development and growth in action — and perhaps a sign that the White Sox have been right in not yet deeming Kopech ready for the majors. Kopech perhaps needs the time at Triple-A to work through these issues rather than be thrown into a big league fire.

As for how these struggles will affect his timeline, that remains to be seen. The White Sox aren’t ruling anything out, not promising that he’ll be on the South Side before the end of this season but certainly not ruling it out either.

“If he builds off of what he did last night, commanding his fastball, his breaking pitches continue to kind of define themselves, I think we’ve got a chance to see him,” Getz said. “He’s going to find his way to the big leagues. He’s going to be an impact frontline type starter. I’m very confident in that.

“Now just like a lot of great players, sometimes it’s a meandering path. And to say that he’s gone off track is not fair because it’s only been a couple of outings. I think he’s in a really good spot. If he builds off of this, I don’t think it’s unfair to think he’ll be up here at some point.”

Blackhawks release 2018-19 schedule

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks release 2018-19 schedule

Uncap those markers and start circling your calendars, Blackhawks fans. The 2018-19 season is officially out.

The Blackhawks will kick off their 91st campaign in franchise history with a road contest against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. The home opener is set for Oct. 7, with an Original Six matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs at 6 p.m.

The Blackhawks have 14 back-to-back games, and the longest road trip of the season is three, which takes place five times over the course of the season; the longest homestand is four games, from Dec. 12-18.

The biggest highlight of the season will be the Original Six Winter Classic Showdown between the Blackhawks and Boston Bruins on Jan. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium. It will be the sixth outdoor appearance for Chicago, and fourth in the Winter Classic.

The Blackhawks will also square off with the defending champion Washington Capitals on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m., and welcome them to Chicago on Jan. 20, set for NBC's Game of the Week at 11:30 a.m.

Here's a look at the full schedule: