Cubs

Jones defines the student-athlete term

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Jones defines the student-athlete term

John Chico, who lives on the East Side, and Deandre Taylor, who comes from the Englewood community, enrolled at Jones College Prep because they felt they could obtain a better education than at their neighborhood schools. As a bonus, they could also play basketball.

Chico's older brother and Taylor's sister were Jones graduates. They recommended the school, which ranks No. 9 academically among all public schools in the state. It features a selective enrollment for its 820 students. The average ACT score is 25.5.

"It's hard to get into this school," said basketball coach and athletic director Frank Griseto. "We take them as freshmen and teach them that the commitment level has to be there for athletics like it is in academics. They don't go to college to play basketball. They are students first. But that doesn't lessen their commitment to be competitive. They are driven and focused. They want to be successful."

Like every student at Jones, Chico and Taylor balance sports and books. Chico, who also is an outstanding baseball player, wants to be a sports trainer or sports psychologist. Taylor wants to major in mechanical engineering in college.

They have collaborated on a basketball team that is 18-3 going into the Public League playoff. Not bad for some kids who played on a sophomore team that won only three games. In its last two outings, the newly crowned CPS Blue Central champion edged Tilden 70-66 as Taylor had 25 points and 12 rebounds and Dyett 55-53 as Chico scored 15 points.

"This is the best team I've had," said Griseto, comparing it to his 23-5 team in 2005 that lost to eventual state champion Hales Franciscan in the regional. "They are relentless on defense. They really are a team in every essence. They hang out together and socialize. They pride themselves as being as competitive as possible, academically and in sports."

In his 11th season as head coach, Griseto knows what it takes to build a winning program. A St. Rita graduate of 1970, he couldn't play basketball in high school because his father died when he was a sophomore and he had to go to work. He got bit by the coaching bug while playing basketball on the Union League boys club traveling team.

He coached baseball at Westinghouse, then basketball at Notre Dame, then basketball and baseball at St. Ignatius, then returned to Westinghouse to coach basketball and baseball from 1986 to 1998. His 1996 team went 29-5 and finished third in the Class AA tournament.

After assisting old friend and former Westinghouse coach Roy Condotti for one year at Homewood-Flossmoor, he landed at Jones. It has been quite a change from the time he had five Division I players at Westinghouse, played in the Red-West and contended for a state championship. But he is enjoying the challenge and the experience.

"The opportunity to come into a brand new school that was focusing on academics, to start something from scratch, was a challenge that I was anxious to accept," Griseto said. "They hadn't had teams before when it was Jones Commercial. I also helped to build baseball and cross-country programs. We want to be as competitive as we can."

Jones, located at 606 S. State Street, plays its home games in basketball, soccer and baseball at old Near North High School near Clybourn and Larrabee. Last fall, the boys cross-country team finished seventh in the state meet. And the baseball team has qualified for the Elite Eight in Class 3A in three of the last four years.

Griseto thinks his basketball team has what it takes to be more than competitive in the Class 3A sectional at St. Ignatius, which also includes the highly rated host school.

"I thought we could be pretty good this season," Griseto said. "They want to win and go out as seniors playing the best they can play. This is their chance to make a name for themselves."

He knows it isn't easy for a Blue Division team to compete against Red Division or Catholic League or suburban schools. He has been there. The difference is mostly about depth and athleticism, not calculus and physics.

"Two years ago, we played Marshall in the first game of the city playoff and got pounded. They went on to win state. Last year, we beat Kenwood in the first game, then lost to Harper," Griseto said. "But those teams weren't as good as this team. I tell them they have to get better with every game--and they have. We have made a lot of strides."

Griseto describes Chico and Taylor as his two mainstays. Chico, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard and a three-year starter, averages 16 points and eight assists per game. He is the team leader and a defensive catalyst.

Taylor, a 6-foot-2 senior, also is a three-year starter. He averages 17.5 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks per game. "He is our rock on defense," the coach said.

Other starters are 6-foot senior Jauquis Frazier-Buckman (7 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior Max Puidak (6 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot-10 senior Courtney Copeland (16 ppg). Puidak is in his first year of basketball after being recruited off the baseball team by Griseto. Another baseball player, 5-foot-11 junior Vincent Lindsey, is the first player off the bench.

"The addition of Puidak has helped by giving us more size," Griseto said. "Lack of size has the potential to hurt us. We have to play defense and keep our opponents off the offensive boards. Our objective is to get a clean layup off the fast break."

It isn't a neighborhood team. The players come from the East Side, Englewood and Jefferson Park. But they hang out together between class periods or after school or they gather to eat wings at Harold's Chicken, a block from the school on Wabash Ave.

"We thought we'd be better than the past few years," Chico said. "We're a bunch of seniors who play hard, with passion and poise, work together and never quit. We're looking forward to playing against Red Division teams in the playoff. We're proud that we can be successful and let the underclassmen play in the Red next year. We've seen Simeon and Whitney Young. I wish we could play them to see where we stand."

So does Taylor, whose brother played at Bogan. He acknowledges that the addition of Puidak takes up space in the paint and relieves the pressure on him and his 32-inch vertical leap to get rebounds. And he agrees that the chemistry that his senior class has built up since their freshman year has been a key factor in their success.

"We've been together for four years. We don't have distractions from other classes," Taylor said. "And, yes, I recommend the wings at Harold's."

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels has been here before.

A major reason why the Cubs acquired the veteran left-handed pitcher before the trade deadline was his vast postseason experience (98.1 innings) and a knowledge of what it takes to make it to — and succeed in — October.

Nobody expected him to pitch to a 1.00 ERA in his first seven starts in a Cubs uniform, so this regression that's come over his last few outings isn't anything to panic about.

Hamels lost his second straight start Monday night against the Pirates, serving up a two-out, two-run homer to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning, staking his club to a deficit they could not overcome in a 5-1 loss that left them just 1.5 games up on the Brewers in the division.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos.

"But at the same time, when you give them up in the first inning when you're at home, it definitely doesn't set the momentum and it creates that sort of extra game that you have to play because now you're trying to come from behind. They've obviously already done some damage and you've gotta play with that in your head of what could come throughout a game."

Really, that wasn't even the story of Monday's game.

It was the lack of offense, as Hamels provided the only run off Jameson Taillon — a 437-foot homer in the third inning he hit with a 105 mph exit velocity.

The Cubs' roller coaster offense has been a major talking point the last couple weeks of the season and figures to be the Achilles' heel of this team in October...whether that's in the NL wild-card game or in the NLDS.

In fairness to the Cubs, Taillon has been carving up every lineup he faces lately as he enters the conversation as one of the true "aces" in the game today. 

"Sometimes, you just run into the wrong guy," Joe Maddon said. "... They have a nice rotation that has given us a hard time. We have to somehow overcome that. They are good, but we gotta do better.

"The at-bats early were really well done and then Taillon just started getting command of his curveball, also. He was dropping that in when he was behind in the count for strikes.

"...Early on, I thought we had a pretty good shot, but then he just settled in and turned it up a bit."

So with the Brewers hot on their heels, what do the Cubs need to do the rest of this week against a team like the Pirates that would relish playing spoiler?

Hamels is in the midst of his 13th MLB season and he provided his perspective of how the next six days should go:

"I think I've played this game long enough — when you have an opportunity to be a spoiler, it creates a little bit more energy in the clubhouse and you play for a little bit more to kinda disrupt what's going on," he said. "For us, we just have to keep our focus and keep to the gameplan and go out there and just try to either execute pitches or execute at-bats inning by inning. 

"We do have the talent and from what I've seen, we definitely know how to put up runs — it just hasn't happened this past week. And so I think for what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish, just not try to overdo it. 

"Really just try to get back to the basics from the first pitch from the first inning and just plug away. I think if we're able to do that, good things will happen and we'll be able to overcome any sort of obstacle of what's kind of narrowing down in the last six games."

We're about to find out if the Cubs are up to the task.

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

If you had to pick just one Cubs starting pitcher to take the hill in a must-win game in October, who would you go with? 

Jon Lester, the guy with a ridiculous resume of postseason success?

Kyle Hendricks, aka "The Professor" who is as cold as ice and been the Cubs' best pitcher over the last six weeks?

Cole Hamels, the wily veteran and former World Series MVP who has been rejuvenated since coming over in a midseason trade?

There's a legit case to be made for all three pitchers to start either a wild-card game (Cubs are crossing their fingers they don't need to worry about that) or Game 1 of the NLDS next week.

Hamels, however, looks to be falling back slightly in the race after giving up another homer Monday night — a long two-out blast to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning of the Cubs' 4-1 loss.

It was the sixth homer Hamels has allowed in his last four starts, but that was the only damage he was charged with Monday night as the only other run scored was unearned thanks to Kris Bryant's error.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos."

The 34-year-old Hamels still has a 2.60 ERA in a Cubs uniform and even chipped in with the bat, drilling a 437-foot homer to the centerfield bleachers for the Cubs' only run off Pittsburgh ace Jameson Taillon.

With one start remaining for each pitcher, it appears to be down to Hendricks or Lester for role of Game 1 starter.

After another gem Sunday against the White Sox, Hendricks now sports a 1.37 ERA and 0.79 WHIP over his last six starts. He has set a new career high in innings pitched (191) after tossing 16.1 frames over his last two starts and certainly looks to be peaking at just the right time for the Cubs.

Lester, meanwhile, got through a little midseason hiccup and has been fantastic over the last month-plus, as well. He boasts a 1.96 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over his last seven starts and his postseason resume speaks for itself — 9-7, 2.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 148 innings. 

Right now, my money's on Hendricks to start Game 1, as he did last season in Washington D.C. Lester would likely follow, with Hamels after that and Jose Quintana filling out the rotation (again, assuming the Cubs are playing the NLDS and not the wild-card game).

Of course, the Cubs have to get to the postseason first and though they're close to locking up a fourth straight playoff berth, they still have to fend off the hard-charging Brewers.

As we always do with this column, we'll line up how the Cubs' playoff roster and Game 1 lineup might look RIGHT NOW, in which case, the Cubs would be hosting the winner of the wild-card game. The Brewers are currently the first wild-card team, which means they will host the one-game playoff and as such, we'll project them to win thanks to homefield advantage.

If Milwaukee throws Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game, they would probably start lefty Wade Miley in Game 1 of the NLDS. Here's how the Cubs might line up against Miley:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Ben Zobrist - RF
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Hendricks - P
9. Kyle Schwarber - LF

It's tough to put Schwarber so low in the order when he's entered the final week of the regular season as the Cubs' hottest hitter, but those splits are real. He just hit his first homer of the season off a lefty Sunday and sports a .671 OPS vs. southpaws compared to an .884 OPS against righties.

Addison Russell would normally find his way in the lineup against a left-handed pitcher — moving Baez to third base and Bryant to left field — but he's on administrative leave and his status for the postseason is currently unknown. 

David Bote could also get the start at third base and push Bryant to left against a southpaw this October. Bote hasn't done much at the plate since his ultimate grand slam in mid-August, but he still boasts a .903 OPS against lefties.

The Cubs could also opt to go with Jason Heyward in the outfield against lefties, playing right and pushing Zobrist to left. There are several options at Maddon's disposal and everything will likely change on a game-to-game basis, as per usual.

The real key to this lineup — especially against lefties — will be Bryant. He sat out Sunday to let his "fatigued" shoulder rest and was back in the lineup Monday, but he's been a shell of his former self since the middle of May when he first injured that left shoulder.

If he's right, he'll probably be hitting second for the Cubs in October. But since he's struggled to get going, Maddon has opted for Zobrist in the 2-hole behind Murphy of late.

This lineup would leave the Cubs' bench looking like this:

Victor Caratini
Jason Heyward
David Bote
Terrance Gore
Tommy La Stella
Ian Happ

With Russell's status unclear, there's a clear spot on the postseason roster for Happ, who we had outside the bubble last week in this column

Assuming Russell is not available for October, the only other position player options would be Taylor Davis or Mike Freeman and the only way those guys would find their way on a postseason roster would be due to injury.

The Cubs have utilized 14 position players in the past and this bench of six guys would figure to provide Maddon with plenty of options, including Gore's gamebreaking speed.

Starting rotation

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Cole Hamels
Jose Quintana

As we've discussed earlier, Hendricks has had a fantastic week and will be riding a heck of a hot streak into October if he can have a solid final start. 

Bullpen

Pedro Strop
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Jorge De La Rosa

A lot has changed here over the last week, with Brandon Morrow ruled out for the season and Strop feeling good after his hamstring injury.

Maddon said Strop was feeling really good over the weekend and kind of bouncing around with excitement as he nears a return.

Could he still make an appearance in a game this week before the regular season ends?

It's possible.

"The difference is that he's able to throw," Maddon said. "Had he not been able to throw while he's going through all this, then it'd be a different story entirely. But he's been able to keep his arm moving, pretty much at 100 percent almost. So as his leg feels better, his arm's ready to go."

That would be a huge boost to this bullpen as the postseason draws near, depending on how effective Strop can be with what will be roughly two weeks off in between appearances by the time he does make it back.

The final bullpen spot sure looks like De La Rosa's to lose at the moment. 

Dillon Maples was making a potential push as a darkhorse candidate but struggled against the White Sox and probably has pitched his way out of contention.

Maddon went to both Jaime Garcia and Alec Mills Monday night in what was a Cubs deficit, but still a close game and if the Cubs need an extra arm, those may be the two guys lobbying for the final spot. 

If Strop suffers a setback or is unable to find his form enough to where he is not active for a postseason series, Mills may be the better bet. Garcia has far more experience, but it'd be hard to see the Cubs roll with four lefties in the bullpen and the right-handed Mills has impressed this season with the Cubs (2.87 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 19 Ks in 15.2 IP).

The other good news for this unit is they've actually been pretty well rested of late. After a really tough stretch, Maddon has not had to lean on his best relievers much over the last 10 days, so they should be rested and freseh for the final week of the regular season and into October, especially if the Cubs can lock up the division and get Monday through Wednesday off next week.