Cubs

Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

642350.png

Houston gives Hope plenty of hope

When Illinois-bound point guard Jalen James made the startling decision
to transfer to La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana, for the second
semester, nearly everybody wrote off Chicago's Hope Academy as the favorite
to win the Class 1A championship.

Everybody except coach Mike Edwards and his players. The Eagles are
17-2, including a victory over highly rated Marshall and losses to highly
rated Huntley and St. Ignatius. They defeated Lake Forest Academy 77-71 in
double overtime on Tuesday. They'll play at Ida Crown on Thursday and at St.
Benedict on Friday.

"It was disappointing that James left. In our view, it wasn't in his
best interest. All the tools were here for him to succeed with us. He just
needed to do extra work in class," Edwards said. "How good is he? He
definitely can play point guard in the Big 10.

"But we were deep to start with, nine or 10 deep. Against Class 1A
competition, we still have a big lineup. We still can win the state
championship if our kids do what they are supposed to do. We have an
unselfish, diverse and athletic team. And we play disciplined ball."

With James gone, Edwards predicts that some of his other talented
players will get their props, particularly 6-foot-5 senior Alex Houston, who
scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver shortly
after James left for Indiana.

"He is starting to get college looks," Edwards said. "Most college
coaches came to see Jalen and now Alex is getting looks, mostly from
Division II and III schools. But I think he can play at the Division I
level. He is very athletic and active on the boards. And he is our leading
percentage shooter from three-point range."

But Edwards reminds that Hope Academy isn't a one-trick pony. Houston
averages 12 points per game. Colin Blaydes (10 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5
senior, is a shot blocker and defensive energy. Torrance Johnson, a
6-foot-6, 225-pound senior, averages 14 points and eight rebounds. Tyrone
Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior, and Carson Hughes, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, each
average eight points.

In Tuesday's victory over Lake Forest Academy, Johnson scored 27 points
while Smith had 26.

The chief reserves are 5-foot-7 senior Andre Thomas and 5-foot-8 junior
Armando Sacluti, a pair of reliable defenders.

They remember how close they came a year ago. The Eagles were 20-11 and
lost to Newark in the sectional final. Newark went on to win the Class 1A
title.

"We hoped last year would be our year but we knew Newark was an amazing
team," Edwards said.

But this is this year and there is even more optimism, even without
James. "Everyone felt (the transfer) was coming. I've known him for eight
years. He's still like a brother. It was a decision for him. He did what was
best for him. It cut his ties with us but the show still goes on," Houston
said.

"Regardless of who is there, we have 12 guys who are willing to work
hard. Jalen was our floor leader but the seniors have done a good job of
keeping everything together. Thomas and Smith and Hughes have to take charge
on the floor now and they are doing it very well.

"When James left, our team was doing good. We felt it was time for
everybody to step up. We felt confident. We still feel we can win the Class
1A title. Our confidence never went away. Our senior leadership and our
senior guards have stepped up and taken it up a notch."

Houston enrolled at University of Chicago's charter school as a
freshman, then transferred to Hope Academy because most of his friends went
there. "I knew the players growing up and in AAU. I felt comfortable with
them. I liked what was going on at Hope," he said.

"I like the teachers. They always help the students. They go out of
their way. They even have Saturday school for kids as long as you are
willing to put the work in. It is a small and close atmosphere."

Like his coach, Houston feels he can play in Division I. He has had
overtures from Kishwaukee College, Benedictine University, Valparaiso and
Cleveland State. His dream school always has been Texas because of Kevin
Durant.

Most of all, however, he believes Hope Academy deserves more respect.
"It bothers me a lot that we aren't ranked because we are in Class 1A. We
have competed in all of our games. We've beaten some big schools that are
rated. Tell (the evaluators) to see us play. We have high fliers like me and
Blaydes. We play basketball as it should be played," he said.

In his previous four years, Edwards has guided Hope Academy to 16-13,
20-7 and 20-11 records. Jalen James isn't the only outstanding player he has
lost. Willie Conner transferred to Crane. But Edwards reminds that James was
an outstanding point guard but not a dominant offensive player. He averaged
13 points, five assists and three rebounds.

"When James left, I told the other kids that they had to make up 13
points," Edwards said. "I asked them: 'What other school in Class 1A is
quick enough to press us even without Jalen here?' There isn't. We have a
lot of balance. Seven different kids have scored over 18 points in a game
this year.

"Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership.
He has matured and taken on James' role. He knows what is at stake. They
have a chip on their shoulder. They want to be ranked. They should be
ranked. They beat Marshall and Rich South, who have been ranked. They led
Huntley by 16 points in the second quarter.

"We have athletes who can play with Public League teams and the
discipline and teamwork to play with suburban teams. We have blended them
both together."

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Mike Montgomery is going where the Cubs couldn't take him in Kansas City

Tonight, former Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery makes his debut with his new team, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are 24.5 games out of first place, even after they won seven out of their last 10. The Cubs are riding a nice stretch in the second half and expect nothing short of a division title and a championship.

So, why would Montgomery want to leave Chicago and go to a team that is going nowhere?

Because he believes his career can go somewhere the Cubs weren’t taking him.

After throwing the golden pitch that clinched the World Series for the Cubs in 2016, he has filled many roles for the team. He starts, he relieves, he closes, he sets up, he is situational, he waits, he pitches hurt, he does what the team needs to be done to help. And for two years, he appeared in 44 and 38 games respectively, with 14 and 19 starts in those years. 

For his entire minor league career, he was a starter and when he broke in, he also started for a while in Seattle. Then in 2016, he went to the pen. But he never lost the confidence that he could be a consistent starter in a major league rotation. 

Montgomery just turned 30 years old, a new father, and there is nothing like age and family to provide clarity about how short and temporary a career can be, especially for a pitcher. 

He got hurt this year, and probably wondered if being endlessly available contributed to his health issues. It takes a toll to always be ready, especially as you get older. Predictability can be comforting, helpful at times to gaining a rhythm, and a way to take care of your body knowing you have some recovery time built in. 

At 30, the window starts to close slowly but inevitably. His time to establish himself as a starter is yesterday and because he has struggled in a utility role in 2019, he is going the wrong way for his career. He is now getting a label as a lefty that can’t get lefties out, but is not a starter either. The pigeonholing has begun.

He has to fight it, quickly and he can with this bold move. Asking out.

Not from the Cubs, but from how the Cubs are using him in 2019. He has decided that he can’t afford to sit back for the glory of oneness and hope they will take care of him on the other side. By this time in his career, he knows how expendable players are in the grand scheme. That the phone will not ring one day, you will become a memory, and even being a great memory can’t stop you from being inevitably sent home.

He knows that it is not a fair exchange to sacrifice health, opportunity and long-term security to be an insurance policy that may never get claimed. Being in that role is casting a shadow over getting handed the ball every fifth day with a chance to eat up innings and waltz into longer term security for his career and his family. It starts to not add up, especially when you already have a ring in your trophy case.

In 2003, I was traded to the Cubs from the Texas Rangers on July 30th. After recovering from an injury, I hit .389 with a .528 slugging, and a .925 OPS in July. I was on absolute fire. At 32 years old, the turnaround was happening, my one-year free agent contract was about to grow into something more if I got my 200+ at bats in the second half. 

While I was rolling along, the Rangers were 44-63 on July 30th, going nowhere, but I was going somewhere up. So I thought. 

The phone rang and the general manager of the Rangers, John Hart called to let me know he had traded me to the Cubs. Poof. Just like that. By the time I got to the locker room to get my stuff and say good bye to my Rangers’ teammates, my boxes were packed, my jerseys were gone. Poof.

Sure, the Cubs were in the race, but they were around .500 when I arrived. They had signed a bunch of veteran players whose starting days were behind them. In my case, Kenny Lofton was the guy in centerfield, which turned me into a bench player from an everyday centerfielder instantly. Not because I wasn’t doing the job in Texas, but because the Cubs needed me to do a lesser job. Lofton played almost every day and in the second half of that season, after the trade, I got 51 at bats. In 28 games. 

Not a great way to find another job after the season. But I had bought in, Dusty Baker communicated well to me and since I had never been in the playoffs, I kept my mouth shut and followed. 

We would go all the way to Game 7 to the NLCS and despite the ending, it was an exhilarating experience. Once in a lifetime. Truly special, but along the ride, no one could guarantee me any of that. Just as easily, the Cubs could have collapsed and I would have been on the bench for a team on the road to rebuilding. And they wouldn’t do it with a 33-year-old veteran centerfielder with a bad hamstring.

I did get my magic hit in the NLCS after sitting on the bench for weeks and when the season ended, Dusty Baker called me personally to express that he wanted me back. I was hoping the silver lining was that some free agent team would see that I could be a clutch performer when it counted. I was happy to get his call, but when all was said and done, he did not have the power to grant me that wish. The phone never rang from Chicago again and I ended up making the Phillies squad in 2004, barely hanging on to my career. 

At 33, I was now a caddy to Marlon Byrd and other young outfielders for the entire season. 162 at bats in 87 games. My career was dead in the water, my coaching career seemed to be growing in front of my eyes, against my will.

Of course, I thought about how I could have played better, I could have made a different decision in free agency and stayed in Philly or signed with Tampa. Those were options, but I bet on myself to go to Texas and regain starter status and after I came back from injury, I did just that. But my age was creeping up and the Rangers had little incentive to keep an aging singles hitter on a team that was fighting for last place. 

Two years after that trade, the phone stopped ringing and by the time it did ring after the Yankees released me, I had taken it off of the hook anyway. I saw the game passing me by. I wanted to start a family. It still stung to see a couple of players get rewarded with multi-year deals who I later learned were in the Mitchell Report for being associated with PEDs, one of which I helped get back to health while I was in Texas. 

So it is a tough question to ask yourself. Would you take the slim chance of winning a World Series as a bench player knowing your career may be shortened 2-3 years? Or would you seek an opportunity to keep playing every day or frequently with a chance to extend your career and have more time to find a way to be on a contender later? 

We only get one career, one shot at it. The greater glory matters, the ring is king and I will always long for the ring I never obtained. But I also learned about what can happen after you are that hired gun, or after you stay silent and accept the role the team thinks is best for them when it starts to run counter to what you believe you can do. It can sound selfish, true, but a player watches how other players are treated, not just how they are personally treated. I played with Ryan Howard when he first came up with the Phillies and years later, covering him with ESPN, he came over and said “Now, I know how you felt in 2004 at the end of your career.” Long memories.

Once a season ends where you were marginalized (even when it is because you played poorly), your career may not recover. So with the Cubs trading Montgomery, they were looking out for him in a way, something they did not have to do, and it is a funny game, he could be back one day.

Only time will tell, but as Montgomery expressed. “It’s bittersweet.” 

Bitter because he wanted to stay and have it all. Be on a contender and be a starter. That was no longer an option. 

Sweet because it was a great chapter in his career, he won, and now he can focus on being the pitcher he believes he can be, not what a team needs him to be. 

In baseball, there is nothing like proving someone wrong …

Or proving yourself right.

Kris Bryant is better than ever

Kris Bryant is better than ever

If the season ended today, these would be all the categories Kris Bryant would set new career highs in:

Batting average
Slugging percentage
OPS
OPS+
Strikeout percentage
wRC+
wOBA
ISO

On top of that, he's on pace for a career high in runs scored and doubles and on track to approach career bests in homers, walks and WAR. 

Even if you don't know what some of those stats mean, the conclusion is clear: Kris Bryant is better than ever.

Yes, that includes his 2016 MVP campaign.

Consider this:

In '16, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554, good for a .939 OPS with 39 homers, 102 RBI and 121 runs scored.

In '19, he's hitting .299/.408/.565, good for a .973 OPS and on pace for 34 homers, 79 RBI and 125 runs scored.

The season isn't ending today, but there's actually a strong chance Bryant even improves on those numbers given the way he's been trending.

Since receiving a day off on June 12, he's slashing .369/.458/.660 (1.119 OPS) with 16 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and 24 runs scored in 28 games. He's also reached base safely in 36 of his last 38 contests.

That includes a solo homer off Sonny Gray to kick off the scoring in Wednesday's Cubs victory.

"KB's been playing really well," Joe Maddon said. "Shoot, for a month-and-a-half now he's been kinda toasty. That ball was properly struck off Gray. Then he continued with base hits, good at-bats, his baserunning again is spectacular, a good play in left field. He's playing pretty much at the top of his game right now."

As Maddon alluded to, Bryant does so many different things to help the Cubs win, from his exceptional baserunning (like going first to third on an infield hit Wednesday) to playing solid defense all over the field. 

In the three-game series against the Reds, Bryant started at three different positions — right field (Monday), third base (Tuesday) and left field (Wednesday).

"It's not an easy thing to do," Jason Heyward said. "When you move around the field, it's not easy to keep the defense. It's gonna take time for anyone to settle in. He takes a lot of pride in offense, obviously, but he takes a lot of pride in being a winning baseball player — he runs hard, hustles and a lot of those things he does don't always show up in the box score. 

"The year he won MVP, obviously he had home runs, he had the numbers, but he hustles, he runs down the line. He wants to make good plays on defense and just gives us another opportunity to move people around and give somebody the day off — like [Kyle Schwarber Wednesday]."

Bryant can also hit just about anywhere in the Cubs lineup and he's been particularly..."toasty," to borrow Maddon's phrase...since he moved to the three-spot in the order just before the All-Star Break.

In those nine games where Bryant has hit between Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, he's posting a .424/.537/.909 line (1.446 OPS) with 4 doubles, 4 homers and 11 runs scored while walking more than he's striking out (8 to 5). 

Even with all Bryant has accomplished this season, he still might not finish any higher than third in National League MVP voting this year, as Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are playing out of their minds.

Still, the Cubs will certainly take what Bryant's given them this season — a deserving All-Star after missing more than 60 games a year ago with a shoulder injury.

The Cubs offense still has some work to do to become more consistent, but a healthy and thriving Bryant has been a large step in the right direction.

"It's huge," Heyward said. "Anytime you don't have an MVP in the lineup and have him missing that kind of time is huge. Let alone, it's Kris Bryant. For him to bounce back — All-Star season, all those things is awesome, but just him being healthy, being out there and competing with us, it goes a long way."