Cubs

Illini still looking to improve ahead of Challenge

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Illini still looking to improve ahead of Challenge

CHAMPAIGN Illinois is not resting on its laurels before its first game as a nationally ranked team under coach John Groce.

The ranking is nothing but a number, Groce said at his Tuesday press conference. Its early in the season, were just seven games in.

In the seven games the 22nd ranked Illini have played and won, many things have gone well for the team. However, Groce has seen just as many things he would like to improve. First and foremost, is improving on rebounding.

After Sundays late win over Gardner-Webb, Illinois starting forward, Tyler Griffey, and center, Nnanna Egwu, have pulled in a total of just 7.2 rebounds per game. The teams leader in rebounds is guard D.J. Richardson, who has picked up an average of five per game.

Groce says he is not particularly concerned with who is getting the rebounds because guards picking up rebounds is usually an indication of big men blocking out successfully but he would like to see an improvement in the teams total number of rebounds per game (36.6, 133rd nationally).

The overall rebounding percentage is what were spotlighting, Groce said. Weve had some games where weve done that well, weve had some games where we havent, but we need to be more consistent in that area.

Illinois opponent in the ACCBig Ten Challenge on Wednesday is Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets (4-1) have been a surprising team so far this year, placing third in the DirecTV Classic over the holiday by upsetting St. Marys.

Georgia Tech has averaged 37.2 rebounds and limited opponents to just 31.6 in five games. Groce described his Challenge opponent as a tough, physical team and acknowledged the difficulty of the task facing his team at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday.

They are terrific on the glass and very physical. We have to be ready for that and ready to fight on the backboard, he said.

The Illini has not had to fight too much on the backboard this season, simply because the shots keep falling. In the first NCAA statistical rankings of the season, put out this week, Illinois claimed the nations best three-point shooting average. Through seven games the team has made 76 threes, an average of 10.9 per game. Should they keep up the pace, this years Illini will set a new school record for threes per game.

The teams high clip from behind the arc clearly encouraged Groce, but the coach wants to see better offense all around from his team. Working the ball inside and finding the center in zone defense were two issues he specifically pointed out on Monday.

We have four guys averaging double figures. I'd like to get a fifth, Groce said.

Brandon Paul (18.7), Tracy Abrams (12.3), Richardson (12.0) and Griffey (10.9) are currently averaging double figures per game. Illinois next scorers are guard Joseph Bertrand (7.4) and Egwu (6.1), the center. The Illini will try to boost those two into double figures in Wednesdays contest against Georgia Tech.

Tip-off for Illinois 14th annual ACCBig Ten Challenge game will be at 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2. Illinois comes into the game with a three-game winning streak in the Challenge, and, on the heels of their first ranking under Groce, the team will not be easy to defeat this year.

Haven't lost in the B1GACCchallenge in my career, don't plan on changing that anytime soon, Paul (@BP3) tweeted on Tuesday.

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

Jake Arrieta full of appreciation in return to Wrigley mound: ‘I’ll never forget this city’

The last time Jake Arrieta pitched at Wrigley Field, his night ended with Cubs fans giving him a rousing standing ovation. The former Cubs right hander tossed 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, leading the Cubs to victory in Game 4 of the 2017 NLCS—their only win against the Los Angeles Dodgers that series.

Arrieta returned to Wrigley Field as a visitor on Monday night, making his first start against the Cubs since joining the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Ironically, Arrieta’s counterpart for the night was Yu Darvish, who ultimately replaced Arrieta in the Cubs starting rotation.

Despite now donning Phillies red, Cubs fans once again showed their love for Arrieta, giving him a lengthy standing ovation ahead of his first plate appearance. Darvish even stepped off the mound in respect for the moment.

“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters postgame. “[I’m] very happy that our fans would acknowledge him like that. Yu stepped away from the mound nicely. Jake deserved it.”

Arrieta tipped his helmet in appreciation for the crowd, taking in the moment for more than 30 seconds before stepping into the batter’s box. After the game, he told reporters that moment brought back memories of his time with the Cubs.

“That was something that really brought back great memories of getting that same sort of ovation pretty much on a nightly basis,” Arrieta said. “[I’m] very appreciative of that. I can’t say thank you enough to the city of Chicago, I really can’t.”

Arrieta took fans back to his Cubs tenure on Monday, throwing six innings of one run ball in the Phillies’ 5-4 10-inning win. Although the 33-year-old didn’t pick up the victory, he matched Darvish—who threw six innings of three-run ball—pitch by-pitch.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler noted how well Arrieta handled his emotions throughout the night.

“I thought he handled the emotions really well. I thought he was in control of the game even when we were down,” Kapler said to reporters. “He always maintained his poise and he just got stronger as the outing went on and that’s why we were able to have him take down the sixth inning for us.”

It’s well-documented how Arrieta’s career improved for the better after the Cubs acquired him in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles in July 2013. When the Cubs acquired him, Arrieta held a career 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts). He finished his Cubs career with a 2.73 ERA in 128 regular season starts. He also won five postseason games with the Cubs, including Games 2 and 6 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite moving on in free agency, Arrieta spoke highly of his time with the Cubs, their fans and the city of Chicago.

“Cubs fans all across the country, all across the world, they really respect and appreciate what guys are able to do here for them,” he said. “It means a lot, it really does.

"I’ll never forget this city, the fan base, the organization, everything that they did for me. It was 4 1/2 incredible years of my career.”

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Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish crashed Jake Arrieta's party, but Cubs bullpen falters

Yu Darvish was one pitch away.

Holding onto a 1-0 lead with two outs in the sixth inning, Darvish threw Phillies catcher JT Realmuto a 2-2 cutter. It made sense - Darvish had been spotting that pitch well all night, and the Phillies were averaging a paltry 79.8 mph exit velocity against it.

With one strike standing between Darvish and a 6-inning shutout, Realmuto took Darvish’s cutter and sent it back up the middle for a game-tying RBI single. A 2-RBI triple from César Hernández followed. In the blink of an eye, what was shaping up to be one of Darvish’s finest moments in Chicago was instead reduced to yet another start spent searching for silver linings.

“Really good. He was outstanding tonight,” Joe Maddon said. “He pitched really well.

“He had really good stuff. He had command of his stuff, he had command of himself. I thought he was outstanding - even better than what he looked like in Cincinnati. I thought that was probably his best game for us to date.”

Darvish has continued to lean heavily on his cutter this season, more so than any year prior. After throwing it 13 percent of the time last season, he’s going to that pitch almost 25 percent of the time now. If that holds, it’d beat his previous career-high, set in 2013, by six percentage points.

All things considered, that pitch has actually been good for him this season. It’s his go-to offering when he needs to induce weak contact, and batters are hitting .125 against it so far. He gets batters to chase cutters 29.5 percent of the time, the most of any pitch he throws. While he has admitted in games past that he relies too heavily on his fastball, Maddon sees no issues with the new trend.

“I have no concerns with that whatsoever,” he said. “There’s different ways for pitchers to attack hitters, and if it's successful, I really would not change a whole lot.”

Though the night was dedicated to celebrating one of the franchises most beloved pitchers, it was one of their most maligned that continued to show signs of figuring it out. He’s put together back-to-back starts with three or less walks for the first time this season, and has allowed two or less runs in three of the last five.

The pitcher even stepped off the mound during Arrieta’s first at-bat, in order to let the standing ovation continue on.

“He’s is a legend in Chicago,” Darvish said after the game. “And I pitched against him and pitched pretty good, so it makes me confident.”

The bullpen again struggled on Monday night, as the trio of Mike Montgomery, Brad Brach, and Kyle Ryan allowed two runs on five hits, including the game-winning solo home run from Realmuto in the 10th. For a moment it looked like the Cubs had a win wrapped up when Brach got outfielder Andrew McCutchen to bite on a two-strike slider, but was (probably incorrectly) called a checked swing.  He would eventually draw a walk, leading to Jean Segura’s game-tying single.

“On the field, I thought for sure [that McCutchen swung],” Brach said. “Looking at the first base umpire, I was a little taken aback. That’s why I went off the mound - just to regather myself, because I didn’t want to let the emotion get to me there.

“It’s a 50-50 call, and unfortunately it didn’t go my way.”

 

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