Bears

LaHair giving Cubs the power surge theyre missing

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LaHair giving Cubs the power surge theyre missing

The Cubs believed Bryan LaHair would produce in the big leagues if given a chance. The first baseman rewarded their faith by putting together a monster April, hitting .390 with five home runs and 14 RBI.

Four of LaHairs five homers have either tied a game or given the Cubs a lead, and that sense of calm when everyones watching could be a preview for how he will handle success.

I live for those moments, LaHair said. I just stay consistent with each at-bat. I dont let any at-bat overwhelm me. Pitch to pitch, all I do is try to get good balls to hit and hit them hard every at-bat.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnt. As long as Im consistent doing that, Ill be all right.

Dale Sveums relationship with Prince Fielder didnt matter that much in the end, and Theo Epsteins meeting with the agent for Albert Pujols during the winter meetings was mostly about Rodrigo Lopez.

The Cubs werent prepared to do a megadeal.

Sveum, a former Brewers hitting coach, broke down LaHairs mechanics and saw the potential to do some damage.

Heres the scouting report the Cubs manager gave just before the games were about to begin in spring training:

I knew he had power, obviously, because of his numbers, but hes got tremendous leverage through the strike zone, Sveum said. I think hes the kind of guy that can run into 10 home runs a year just because of the leverage.

What I mean by that is he can hit home runs when hes not perfect, when hes off-balance, whether its a changeup or a breaking ball down.

The bat stays through the strike zone and the back side works correctly to where you can get a lot of home runs when it doesnt look like a prototypically perfect swing.

One reason why the Cubs are 8-15 is the power outage throughout the lineup. The last time they hit just nine homers in a month was August of 1981.

The last Cub to account for more than half of the teams home runs in a month was Sammy Sosa in August of 2001, when he hit 17 of 32.

Power usually comes later in the year, LaHair said. You never know with power. (It) comes and goes. We got guys on this team that have power and Im sure theyre going to hit for power.

I dont really read into that kind of stuff.

People should question whether LaHair will really keep this up, and the sample sizes are way too small at the major-league level.

Top prospect Anthony Rizzo is coming fast to play first base at Wrigley Field, though the Cubs have to be curious what it would be like to have both left-handed hitters in the same lineup.

There is also the possibility that the Pacific Coast League MVP who hit 38 homers last season and crushed the ball over the winter in Venezuela is starting to figure it out.

By 29, youve had a lot of at-bats and youve learned a lot of things about hitting, Sveum said. Thats about when most guys are coming into their own anyway.

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

Not unlike Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, it's Year 2 of First and Final Thoughts. Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Cam Ellis talk about what's on their minds between games.

Final Thoughts on the Bye Week 

J.J. Stankevitz: The Bears had a lot of soul-searching to do in their off week, specifically among offensive players and coaches not named Allen Robinson. But more important than anything else will be improvements on the offensive line — better protection and run blocking will go a long way toward helping this offense operate more effectively in the Bears’ final 11 games. That means better play from left tackle Charles Leno and center James Daniels, as well as counting on Rashaad Coward/Ted Larsen/Alex Bars to be better at right guard than a less-than-100-percent Kyle Long was. 

Fix the O-line and a lot of problems will be solved. Don’t and it could diminish how much better Mitch Trubisky is — if he is at all — upon  coming back. 

Cam Ellis: I'll be curious to see where the Bears' bye week preparation show up first. Between the offensive line, an uninspiring run scheme, absent tight end production and no real answers at quarterback (but otherwise it's fine!), they've got to start somewhere.  Is it fixing the run game in hopes that it takes the burden off Trubisky's return? Or is it getting Trey Burton: The Adjuster involved earlier? Speaking of getting the ball earlier, Anthony Miller lightly lobbied for a higher workload, which may not be a bad idea either. This is why they pay Nagy the big bucks, but man, coaching in the NFL seems kind of hard. 

First Thoughts on Week 7 

Stankevitz: I’m going to expand on this more later in the week, but New Orleans’ defense looks like a tough challenge for Trubisky to face in his expected return Sunday. 2018 first-round edge rusher Marcus Davenport is third in the NFL in pass rushing efficiency, generating a pressure once every 13.7 snaps (behind only Nick Bosa and Khalil Mack). Cam Jordan is one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL and doesn’t always get his due for how good he is. 

So New Orleans has an excellent defensive front, one that will take sound technique and strong communication for the Bears’ O-line to block. And then there’s cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who’s shut down the likes of Amari Cooper, Mike Evans and DJ Chark over the last three weeks. His lock-down presence — he travels in zone coverage to take out a team’s best receiver — allows the Saints to not need to always play a safety over the top, leading to extra men in the box to stop the run. 

So Trubisky will have his hands full on Sunday. It’s not like the Saints have an elite defense, but it’s good, and looks like a bad matchup for the Bears’ offense. 

Ellis: To almost directly contradict J.J., I actually think there are yards to be had against a Saints defense that ranks 13th in pass defense DVOA, ninth in yards per play and has allowed five plays of 40+ yards (T6). Marshon Lattimore's had a great month, but his season-long coverage numbers are more good than great. An average pass defense will be more than enough if the Bears' offensive line plays as poorly as it did in London, but if for some reason the combination of Rashaad Coward, a bye week breakthrough, and Taylor Gabriel makes everything snap into place, I think the Bears could move the ball better than people expect.

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How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

The Blackhawks turned in their best 60-minute effort of the young season in Monday’s 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. They controlled the pace of play, got terrific goaltending from Corey Crawford and tightened up defensively.

But they also showed that they added a new layer to their team game this season.

The Blackhawks registered 36 hits against the Oilers, one of which was thunderously delivered by Andrew Shaw, sparking a scrum. Brent Seabrook led the team with six hits, Calvin de Haan had five and Drake Caggiula and Olli Maatta each had four. Heck, even Alex DeBrincat (three) and Patrick Kane (one) got in on the action.

It’s an element of their game that’s been missing the last few seasons and something they feel is important to their overall team success because it keeps other teams honest.

"I don't know if it's because of the personnel we have or the way we want to be strong and competitive and win battles, but obviously the other night we had a lot of finished hits and a lot of physicality that brings up the morale on the bench, which is a good thing," Kane said. "You look at Shawzy's hit, the stuff he's been doing early in the season — whether it's scoring big goals or sticking up for guys after they get hit — it's been awesome for the team. That's something that can really help us. We also need to play a little bit more with the puck, but it's a way we can get the puck back."

The Blackhawks don’t necessarily want to lead the NHL in the hits category, but they do want to establish an identity centered around being a difficult team to play against and adding that dimension is part of it. So is team unity.

"I don't think it's going to be our go-to in the way we're going to beat teams," Jonathan Toews said. "There's no doubt we've got guys that can mix it in. We saw last game with Shawzy and Murph, and [Ryan Carpenter] and [Zack Smith] and go down the list of guys. Even [Caggiula] and [DeBrincat] were throwing the weight around a couple days ago. It's definitely part of our game — we can play with energy and I think it's going to be there when we're ready to go. But our game is puck possession and keeping teams in their end and outplaying them in that sense.”

Through four games this season, the Blackhawks are averaging 33.0 hits per game. The previous two seasons they averaged 16.5 and 16.8, respectively, which ranked 30th.

While it's still early, there's clearly an uptick in the physicality department and it's exactly what the organization was hoping for after bringing in players like Shaw and Smith to add some bite to the roster. The Blackhawks are focused on becoming a team that can win in several different ways and play any kind of style.

"There’s a difference between running around just trying to get a tick on the stat sheet," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "But we definitely want to be physical when we have the chance and force the opposition to make plays before they're ready, and we can create turnovers and transition and offense and get out of D zone. We have some guys who like to play that way and I think it helps our team." 

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