Cubs

Illini make noise from perimeter in win

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Illini make noise from perimeter in win

CHAMPAIGN As Myke Henrys shot finished its arc and swished through the net, giving Illinois a 12-5 advantage over Colgate, the Assembly Hall erupted.

The noise was of a level not heard in a long time in Champaign, certainly not since Bruce Webers Illini went 2-12 in his final 14 games last season. The eruption was even more impressive given the four minutes of silence that preceded it.

As if the transition from Weber to new Illinois head coach John Groce was not noticeable enough, the Orange Krush asked fans to observe silence an Orange Hush until Illinois scored its 10th point of the game. The hush was a reference to Groces alma mater, Taylor University, and their Silent Night ritual.

The effect at Assembly Hall was dramatic, with the crowd roaring to life, showing appreciation for a strong start by the Illini. While the ghost of Webers teams may not have been exorcised completely, Illinois 75-55 win over Colgate made sure the Groce era started properly.

The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish was to play more consistently than performance in our final preseason game, Groce said. We asked them to play compete and play hard in the forty minutes, and we asked them to play unselfishly, and I think we made strides in both areas.

The Illini came out shooting strong from the perimeter in the opening minutes and never let up. The team sunk four consecutive threes to open scoring and finished 13-of-30 from behind the line. The 43 percent outside shooting was a big factor in Illinois victory and Groce praised his players for their solid shooting.

After the first three minutes, I would say 15-of-18 threes were great looks, he said Weve got guys who can shoot the ballthese guys have worked hard this summer to earn right to take shots.

Weve got a lot of confidence in these guysthese guys can make shots and I want them taking good ones.

Inside the three-point arc, however, the Illini had some problems. Those problems caught up to them six minutes into the game, as the Raiders tied the game at 12 then again at 14.

However, senior Brandon Paul stepped up with the game tied. His up-and-under layup started a 12-0 run by Illinois, a run he would finish with a steal and another layup. They would follow it up with another 12-0 run, stretching the score to 35-16 with three minutes left in the half.

Illinois got threes from six players in the first half, including two each from Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and forward Tyler Griffey. Their strong outside shooting, along with 43 percent shooting overall in the first half, helped Illinois claim a 43-25 lead over the visitors at halftime.

The Illini kept rolling in the second half, creating a 20-point cushion and maintaining it throughout the frame. Groces group pushed the pace of the game and kept the pressure on Colgate.

Part of Illinois speed came from the rapid substitution utilized by Groce. Nine players got significant playing time on Friday night, helping wear down Colgate late in the game. The players seemed to have no issue with the substitutions, though, and played unselfishly when they were on the floor.

When Im out there Im going to give it what I got, Abrams said. I want to win, Im sure those guys want to win.

Shooting from the perimeter dropped off in the second half, but the team got better in the paint. After scoring just eight points inside during the first half, Illinois racked up 18 in the second half. Griffey, Nnana Egwu and transfer Sam McLaurin helped the Illini gain an edge over the Raiders in the paint with physical play in the second half.

Despite the increased effort down low, Groce said he would still like to see better play in the paint specifically on put backs. Illinois finished the game with 19 offensive rebounds, many of which came on unsuccessful attempts to tap the ball in near the hoop.

We were 16-of-34 down in the paint. We gotta slow down a little bit in there and finish a little better, Groce said.

Illinois finished the game with an astonishing 74 field goal attempts, making 29 of those shots for 39 percent overall.

Paul led Illinois with 20 points, adding eight rebounds and five assists. He said working hard with the coaches in practice, as well as playing with an unselfish group, helped him find his rhythm.

They gave me confidence to shoot anywhere, the senior said.

Abrams finished the game with 13 points and Griffey scored 10 in the win. Richardson had nine points and led the team with eight rebounds. McLaurin and Henry each had seven rebounds.

Illinois also limited turnovers, beating Colgate 12-17 in a big turnaround from some of the results from preseason games and in practice. The change made Groce very happy, at least for tonight.

Overall I was very pleased with our effort, our attitude and our unselfishness, he said after picking up his first win as the Illinois head coach.

Earlier in the week, after a bad practice, Groce indicated he would have difficulty sleeping because of the lingering worry. After the Illinis season opening win over Colgate, however, his mind should be as quiet as the Assembly Hall before Henrys three.

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Manny Machado as a Dodger creates a formidable foe out west for the Cubs

Well, it's finally happening, or at least it's going to happen. The Athletics' Ken Rosenthal reported during the MLB All-Star game that the Baltimore Orioles had agreed to officially move their franchise player Manny Machado. Neither team has confirmed anything at this time, but the deal has reportedly been as close to a done deal for the last day or so, and it would seem Machado is destined for finish his 2018 campaign in Hollywood. 

Of course, with this addition, the reigning National League champions look primed for another deep postseason run. Though, the club is clinging to a half-game lead in the NL West, with Machado in tow the Dodgers are right with the Cubs and Brewers as the elite squads in the National League. It could be argued the Dodgers didn't necessarily 'need' Machado, with an offense that was already in the top 10 in runs scored, but Machado might be the perfect addition for the Dodgers. 

After losing their young star shortstop Corey Seager for the season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers were in need of a more permanent solution at shortstop. And despite Machado's defensive metrics showing a steep decline in his glove at shortstop, the Dodgers will welcome his robust slash line of .315/.387/.575 while ignoring any shortcomings on defense. 

But what this means for the Cubs, who are only two games off the 2016 World Series club pace, is the path to another championship will likely require another run-in with the Dodgers. The club's biggest threat has been at this point the Brewers, but it's not hard to envision the Dodgers distancing themselves as the clear favorites in the National League with Machado in the heart of the order.

The good news for the Chicago is at least Machado didn't end up in Milwaukee, but that also could mean the Brewers make a more concerted effort to acquire pitching before the July 30th deadline. The Cubs will also see the return of Yu Darvish, who despite only managing to win one game this season in a Cubs uniform, will be a massive upgrade over the scuffling Tyler Chatwood. If the Cubs pitching can start producing like many expected them to before the start of 2018, and guys like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant start to hit alongside All-Stars Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, it's not hard to imagine the Cubs separating themselves from the pack in the 2nd half of season. 

The Dodgers are no strangers to blockbuster deadline deals, acquiring Yu Darvish in a similar three-month rental situation, but the Cubs getting a bat like Rizzo right and an arm like Darvish healthy would be better than any deal Theo Epstein could make to improve this team. And if it's not enough, the Cubs have a solid track record of grabbing former Dodger rentals in the off-season. The push for the playoffs starts Thursday for the north-siders.