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Illinois notes: Bulletin board material, Scheelhaase to start

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Illinois notes: Bulletin board material, Scheelhaase to start

CHAMPAIGN There are 22 Illinois football players who have played their first minutes for the team this year and none of them are named Ryan Nowicki. But the offensive lineman was a hot issue at Mondays press conference, however.

Nowicki's recruitment from Penn State after the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal has hardly registered for Illinois so far this season, but it has clearly riled up the Nittany Lions faithful.

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was asked multiple times by reporters covering Penn State whether he regretted the recruitment or if he would have done things differently in hindsight. He remained committed to his actions, which were allowed by the NCAA.

We were contacted by a young man prior to anything happening and we pursued him, he said. This game was developed for opportunityI regret that this ended up being this much and is still talked about, but it did give a young man an opportunity to make a decision on what he wanted to do.

Nowickis decision to join the Illini, though, has become a hot-button issue around State College and some reporters indicated it would be a motivating factor for Penn State ahead of their game in Champaign on Saturday. Beckman was not interested in using the issue to fire up his team and dismissed it as a big motivator against the Nittany Lions.

This is our first opportunity to play in the Big 10. Our ultimate goal is play in the Big 10 Championship, he said. Im not big into bulletin board stuff, never have been, its about preparing the players and getting them excited to play.

The players, likewise, downplayed the role of bulletin board material as a motivator for their opponent.

Bulletin board can amp you up during the week, but at the end of the day, its about executing," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "Its about getting on the field and after the first hit, the first series, I doubt theyll be talking crap about what was going on in July. Theyll be concerned about whats going on on the field and so will we."

Other players available to the media said much the same. Illini tight end Jon Davis said he had never heard of Ryan Nowicki before the recruitment and that his transfer to Illinois was a nonfactor.

Wide receiver Ryan Lankford said he keeps all things not related to the game at arms length to keep his mind right for Saturdays.

Im not interested in the politics of the game, its not my thing," Lankford said. "Im not trying to downplay Penn State, but this is just another game."

Scheelhaase will start on Saturday

Nathan Scheelhaase is our starting quarterback, Beckman said on Monday, mixing no words.

After pulling the junior before the end of the first quarter against Louisiana Tech, the quarterback position at Illinois seemed to be up in the air. But Beckman put to rest on Monday the notion that Scheelhaase could have lost his job because of a couple bad plays in his first game back from injury, stating absolutely that the two-time bowl winner would be behind center as long as he remained healthy.

The decision to remove Scheelhaase in the La. Tech game was made by Beckman solely for the safety of his quarterback, he said.

If you watched that game, the first hit Nathan took was a big hit. He got high-lowed from both sides and I was a bit concerned, as a coach and as a guy, I hope, is like a father. I want to make sure everybody is 100 percent, he said. We havent gotten on the field to practice, so I havent seen him yet this week. But since Scheelhaase first got injured there is no question hes improved.

Scheelhaase said that he felt good on Saturday, like he had established a rhythm and was moving well. He also said that he understood the coachs decision, and while it was hard to watch from the sidelines, he was willing to do what he needed to for the team to be its best.

The junior quarterback also said he feels like he is back where he needs to be, in terms of physical fitness and has regained the mobility he might have lacked last week.

Theres been a dramatic difference in my ankles health every weekend, honestly. Yesterday, when we had our lift and run, its felt as good as its felt," said. "I was making all of my times with ease on our run, which was good to see, because I havent really had that burst of speed that early in the week."

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Before Thursday’s game against the Phillies, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given the current state of their bullpen, Tyler Chatwood could see some innings as the closer. 

“I think he’s amenable to it...” Maddon responded. “... the big thing with him is throwing strikes. If he does that -- his stuff is that electric -- we’ll use him any time. As he gets well from [throwing 4 innings on Wednesday night] it’ll probably a solid two days, maybe three, before he’s ready to go again. We’ll see - we’ll see that night needs. I’m not afraid of it by any means.

“I would say that the first time he got a chance with us, it would be because the other guys aren’t available that night.”

48 hours later, with the Cubs white knuckling a two-run lead, it was Chatwood coming out of the ‘pen in the top of the 9th. Two singles, a double-play, and a Yasiel Puig flyout later, Chatwood had closed out one of the Cubs’ more unconventional wins of the season, a 8-6 nail-biter that featured a little bit of everything.  

“It was a little bit [surprising],” Chatwood said. “But I kept myself ready. I was able to get loose in the pen and luckily I got that double play right there, and we won. So it’s good.” 

On a day when the Cubs’ cobbled together their pitching performance, it was Yu Darvish’s 7 innings -- the first time he’s gotten that deep into a game since 2017 -- that kept Chicago in punching distance. The line itself isn’t particularly flattering; six runs on 12 hits is an eyesore. His performance may not have played well on Cubs Twitter, but those inside the clubhouse could not stop talking about it. 

“That was huge. I thought he was really good today,” Albert Almora, who already surpassed his 2018 home run total (5) with a solo homer in the 2nd inning, said. “I didn’t think he was going to come back out, so I said ‘good job’ to him in the 7th. I saw him back out in the 8th and was like ‘all right, he wanted it.’” 

“It looked like he emptied the tank against Puig in the 7th with a big strikeout,” Chatwood added. “But he still went back out there and battled and pitched into the 8th. That’s huge. We didn’t have many people available today, and I think he knew that. I thought that was one of the best games he’s thrown the ball.”

Darvish managed to strand eight base runners, though, and only walked two. He’s now gone three straight games while walking three batters or less, something he’d failed to do at any point prior. 

“I knew that the bullpen was going through a little struggle, and didn’t have much rest,” Darvish said. “So my main goal was to go more than 7 innings today.” 

On a warm day, with the wind blowing straight out at 16 miles per hour, Wrigley played as small as it has all year. The Cubs (and the Reds, for that matter) went deep three times, which brings their homestand total to 11. 

“The wind was a friend to both sides today,” Maddon said. “But really, you’ve got to give Yu a ton of credit for getting deeply into the game today. He still had his good stuff in the end. The stuff was still there, but it’s 107 pitches, and it’s just deflating when all that happens.” 

Not to be outdone by the guy who started the game or the guy who finished it, recently-called up pitcher Dylan Maples was the winning pitcher of record. He and Tim Collins came in from Triple-A Iowa that morning, and Maddon wasted no time throwing Maples into the fire. After walking his first batter, Maples got Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel to strikeout on a 91mph fastball to end the 8th. 

If it hasn't seemed easy of late, that's because it hasn't been. Of the Cubs’ first 50 games, 16 have been decided by one run (9-7). Over their last 12 games, eight have been decided by two or less runs. 

“They seem to all be like that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Especially recently. We’re seeing a lot of good pitching. 

“That’s entertainment, guys. Woah.” 

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Cubs manager Joe Maddon usually isn’t one for conspiracy theories, but even he’s wondering what’s going on. MLB teams are hitting home runs at an absurd rate, including the Cubs, who are hitting them at a historic rate for the franchise’s standards.

Entering Saturday, here’s where MLB teams stand in average home run rate and total home runs in 2019 compared to recent seasons:

2017: 1.26/game, 6,105 total
2018: 1.15/game, 5,585 total
2019: 1.33/game, 2,009 total

While the MLB season is just over 30 percent finished, teams are on pace to hit a combined 6,483 long balls in 2019. This would absolutely obliterate the 2017 total, which, like the 1.33 home runs per game figure, would be an MLB record.

The Cubs are no exception to this home run wave. Including Saturday (game No. 50 of the season), the team has hit 80 home runs (and counting) in 2019. Only the 2000 Cubs (83) hit more home runs in their first 50 games in franchise history.

“We’re having home runs hit here into some firm breezes, which has not happened before,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters before Saturday’s game against the Reds. “That’s the thing that stands out to me. It’s been crazy.

“Even [Kyle] Schwarber’s home run, I know that was hit well, but dang, that wind was blowing pretty firmly across at that point.”

Schwarber absolutely crushed his home run yesterday, a 449-foot blast that needed little help getting into the bleachers. However, Maddon has a valid point regarding home runs being hit despite the wind. Entering Saturday, 54 total home runs have been hit at Wrigley Field this season, 29 of which have come with the wind blowing in.

By the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had hit a combined six home runs, one of which appeared to be a routine fly ball hit by Jason Heyward that wound up in the left field basket thanks to the wind. At the same time, Yasiel Puig hit one 416 feet onto Waveland Ave. that had a 109 mph exit velocity. The wind blowing out at Wrigley Field helps, but it isn’t everything.

MLB players have questioned time and time again if baseballs are “juiced,” including Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester. And while Maddon didn’t flat out say that he thinks the baseballs are juiced, he notices a difference in how they're flying off the bat.

“I don’t know, I’m normally not into the subplot component of all of this and the conspiracy theorists, but I’m telling you right now, it’s jumping,” he said. “It’s absolutely jumping.

“Nobody is ever going to admit to it. The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird.”

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