Blackhawks

The invasion: What to watch for in Cubs-Red Sox

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The invasion: What to watch for in Cubs-Red Sox

Bryan LaHair was surprised to look around Wrigley Field and see so many orange T-shirts.

The Detroit Tigers and the ancient ballpark were the draws that brought 124,782 fans here, the most ever for a three-game series at Clark and Addison in the middle of the week.

The Detroit fans who made a lot of noise went home happy, or out to the Wrigleyville bars, after Thursdays 5-3 win over the Cubs. Expect another invasion for this weekends marquee series against the Boston Red Sox.

But when Theo Epstein left what used to be his dream job on Yawkey Way last October to rebuild everything at Clark and Addison, you probably didnt script it like this.

Does this deserve two games on national television? Yes, because these are two historic franchises with no shortage of storylines. But the Red Sox are 31-32 and tied for last place in the American League East. The 21-42 Cubs are on pace to smash the franchise record for losses.

LaHair was a big Red Sox fan growing up in Worcester, Mass., and will have family and friends in town this weekend. He understands the dynamics between the two markets.

They have that Red Sox Nation thing, and theyre really big-time fans, LaHair said. I still think Cubs fans are the best fans in baseball. Cubs fans will support you whether youre winning or losing. It kind of seems like Red Sox fans will support you when youre winning. But both places usually sellout each game either way. So its good for baseball that the Cubs play the Red Sox.

Feeding that monster wore on Epstein, who seems to be remembered in New England as much for his big mistakes in free agency as his two World Series titles.

When Epstein finally took over as Cubs president after that period of limbo, he joked about feeling like the guy in Office Space locked in the Fenway Park basement with a cubicle and a stapler.

Epstein remains close with many inside Bostons baseball operations department, including general manager Ben Cherington. But it probably wasnt an accident that until the last minute in April, Epstein wasnt invited to Fenway Parks 100th anniversary celebration.

Epstein spent a lot of time this week rehashing his legacy with the Boston media. But for Cubs fans, this is a time to look forward and see what it all means.

Watch how hard Dustin Pedroia plays and remember that he was an undersized guy from Arizona State University before Cubs scoutingplayer development chief Jason McLeod picked the future MVP in the 2004 draft.

See how Starlin Castro responds on the national stage. Bobby Valentine will be on the top step of the Red Sox dugout instead of the ESPN broadcast booth, where Terry Francona now works.

Getting through to Castro is a priority for Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who also emerged as a finalist for the Red Sox job before underwhelming ownership.

Youre just trying to build that whole thing to where preparation is everything, Sveum said. Playing the game the right way is everything and if you dont do it, then well get somebody else.

One player came away from last seasons Cubs-Red Sox series at Fenway Park thinking about how exhausting it was to face that team. Two games lasted close to four hours, and the Red Sox saw 504 pitches that weekend.

This week Epstein fired Rudy Jaramillo, one of the best hitting coaches in the game, to start creating that identity.

You have to make tough decisions when theres a gap between where you are and where you want to be, Epstein said. We felt the importance of getting a new message in here outweighed everything else.

That means Ryan Dempster is almost certainly going to waive his no-trade rights and head to a contender, which in theory could make Friday his final start at Wrigley Field in a Cubs uniform.

Dempster could go to a place like Boston, where every night is treated like Game 7 of the World Series.

Its a reality that were setting that tone and building an organization (toward) that day (where) winning every game is life or death to get to the postseason, Sveum said. (Its building) an organization to where when we leave spring training, were going to win 90-plus games every season. Thats what the ultimate goal is, not to have a three-year window and then you got to rebuild all over again.

There will be a lot of noise this weekend, deconstructing what Epstein built in Boston and assessing how much work has to be done on the North Side. Fans in New England have been spoiled, but a kid from Worcester doesnt forget.

His legacy is reversing the curse, LaHair said, or having a lot to do with it. The curse of the Bambino, they took that down and then won again.

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

NHL Draft Profile: D Quinn Hughes

From June 17-21, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile two prospects per day — 10 total (five forwards, five defensemen) — leading up to the NHL Draft.​

Quinn Hughes

Position: Defenseman
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 170 pounds
Shoots: Left

Scouting report:

"He's got the puck skills, is a good skater, and is a guy with some high-end offensive talent. He wants to get right in there and play where it's hard and where you get rewarded. When he gets that puck on his stick, he wants to bury it."

NHL player comparable: Torey Krug/Kris Letang

Fit for Blackhawks:

It's no secret the Blackhawks are looking to restock their pipeline with some high-end defensemen. Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell are on the way. But the former isn't a lock to be a full-time NHLer this season and the latter will continue playing in college for the 2018-19 season.

Hughes, who shined at Michigan and the IIHF World Championship with Team USA, would have the best chance of the three to crack the Blackhawks lineup first. The problem is, he likely won't be available at No. 8, so if Hughes is the guy they're locked in on, they'd need to trade up to grab him. 

If they did that, Hughes would give the Blackhawks a third blue line prospect they can get excited about. He's a left-handed shot, which evens out the balance in the system, and he would become a prime candidate to eventually replace Duncan Keith as the team's No. 1 defenseman.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.