Cubs

Magic front office cleans house; Is Howard next?

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Magic front office cleans house; Is Howard next?

From Comcast SportsNet
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- For months the Orlando Magic have been trudging through the aftermath of a preseason trade request by Dwight Howard that sapped the life out of the franchise as internal team issues quickly affected the product on the floor. Now after easily one of the most tumultuous seasons in their history, they made the first in what promises to be a huge offseason shake-up The Magic fired coach Stan Van Gundy on Monday and agreed to part ways with general manager Otis Smith, severing ties with two of the architects of one of the most successful runs in franchise history. Smith and Van Gundy's relationship with Howard was the centerpiece of drama the team faced all season and following their second straight first-round playoff exit, CEO Alex Martins said the shift was warranted. "It's time for a new leadership and a new approach," Martins said at a news conference to discuss the moves. "We simply came to the decision that we were not on the right track," Martins wouldn't go into many specifics about what he is looking for in replacements, saying only that he and ownership want to fill the general manager post by June's NBA draft. He said he would sit down with ownership on Tuesday to begin ironing out the details of both searches. Phone and text messages left with Van Gundy and Smith by The Associated Press were not immediately returned. Orlando went 37-29 in the regular season but was eliminated in five games by Indiana after a rash of late-season injuries that included back surgery for Howard. Orlando went 5-12 without him. Martins said those consecutive first-round playoff exits were "simply not good enough." In early April, Van Gundy claimed top-ranking team officials had told him that Howard had asked management to fire Van Gundy as a condition of the center signing a long-term contract beyond 2013. Howard denied it. Martins addressed that dispute directly, saying "At no time during that time did Dwight ask me to have Stan fired." With a relationship with Smith dating back to the Magic's inaugural season when Smith was a player and a five-year relationship with Van Gundy, Martins also called Monday "the most difficult day of my career." Both Smith and Van Gundy are under contract through next season and both of their contracts will be honored. The current assistant coaching staff has also been offered the opportunity to stay on for now. Van Gundy coached the Magic for five seasons. He finished with a 259-135 record, going 31-28 in the playoffs. Smith departs after six years. He was the architect of Magic teams that made it to the playoffs in each of those seasons, winning the Eastern Conference championship in 2009. But he also made several questionable moves, including trades for Vince Carter and Gilbert Arenas that failed to work out long-term. The day after the Magic's season ended with the loss to the Pacers, Smith said that he would need a few days to even decide whether he wanted to return to that position following the tough year, setting it as a "50-50" chance. Van Gundy said at the time he wanted to return and was hoping that the ultimate decision would be about performance solely. "When you're talking a professional relationship, what matters -- at least to me -- is the results," Van Gundy said. "I don't care if it's a business relationship where two people at work are driving a business to make money, or if it's a sports relationship, where the object is to win games." But both also have acknowledged that this lockout-shortened season was trying for everyone involved. "This season, and we've been digesting it all year, has been the longest, shortest season that we've had," Smith said. "But it's something that you have to go through. Most sports franchises at some time go through a little bit of uncertainty and this is our time." Martins said that ideally the Magic's next coach will have a championship pedigree, though acknowledged that the search wouldn't exclude assistants or others who have experience. He said the same was true for the general manager position. Martins was effusive in his praise as Van Gundy as a "great strategic coach," but acknowledged that one of the factors they want to see in a new coach is someone who is great at building relationships with players. "Strategically we may not be able to find anyone better," he said. Howard often commented about Van Gundy's grumpy demeanor on the floor, saying it was at times counterproductive for the team. This past summer Smith met with Van Gundy and he left that meeting pledging to make improvements. It included him meeting with a Stanford University psychology professor for advice on how to be a better leader. And it seemed to work, with Van Gundy incurring just one technical during the shortened regular-season, a low during his Magic tenure. But it wasn't enough to save his job. Now the attention shifts to Howard, who remains in Los Angeles recovering from his surgery. Martins said team officials continue to be in dialogue with the all-star, but hasn't yet gotten an answer on whether he would like to stay beyond next season when his contract expires. After a season spent in limbo before Howard finally opted into the final year of his deal, Martins has said the team won't repeat the same ordeal. That at least leaves open the possibility the Magic could trade him at some point should Howard not agree to sign long-term. "I think the decision is on Dwight now," Martins said. "Dwight needs to decide where his future lies."

Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Why Cubs say 'nothing's going to faze us now' after historic 12-3 start

Throughout his career, Jon Lester has called the typical baseball season a roller coaster.

“I think we’re on the Six Flags roller coaster right now,” the Cubs’ veteran pitcher said. “We’re not on the kiddie side of anything.”

Three-month shutdown. Deadly pandemic. Surgical masks. Empty stadiums. Every-other-day testing for COVID-19.

“That being said, I think everybody’s just glad to be doing it,” he said.

As strange as that sounds, maybe that explains it. Maybe the Cubs are just glad to be here.

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Anthony Rizzo, the most tenured player in the clubhouse, said that much in February — said how much he intended to enjoy every day of this season because the nine players left from the 2016 championship were on borrowed time as a group, likely to be ripped apart at the trade deadline with a poor start.

Whatever it is that has brought them to this point, get a load of the Cubs five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training.

After the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak wiped out the Cubs’ series in St. Louis and sidelined them for four days, the Cubs responded by outscoring Cleveland 15-3 to sweep a two-game series — albeit, after that team put two of its best pitchers on the restricted list for violating safety protocols.

The Cubs return home with a 12-3 record that ties its best through 15 games since it went 13-2 in 1907 on the way to a World Series championship. (Of course, the other time it went 12-3 was 1970, when the rest of the season was not so good).

The biggest difference this year, of course, is that 15 games already represents one-fourth of the season, assuming Major League Baseball can pull off this nine-week, 30-team long shot.

So it would be like starting 32-8 in a 162-game season.

Or maybe not a lot different than starting 25-6 — which is what the Cubs did in 2016 on the way to 103 victories and a World Series championship that finished in the same place they just knocked around the best team they’ve played so far this season. (The Cubs were 11-4 through 15 games in 2016.)

“It’s kind of cool,” Lester said of the short season. “It’s kind of cool to have this pressure on you from Day 1. I think sometimes we can all get into the, 'It’s the first month; hey, we’ve got a long way to go.’

“Obviously, we can’t say that. I feel like guys are grinding a little bit more early on. I think it shows in our at-bats. I think it shows in our approach on the mound.”

As they open a 10-game homestand Thursday against the Brewers, the Cubs’ starting rotation is 11-3 with a 2.65 ERA. After a shaky first week, the bullpen has generally performed well. The fielding is among the best in baseball.

And the lineup just scored seven runs each of the last two nights against a pitching staff that hadn’t allowed more than four in a game — after an unexpected layoff.

“There have been so many things going on this whole year I think that nothing’s going to faze us now,” said Kyle Hendricks (3-1), who pitched six strong innings to win Wednesday.

Talk about a push-button operation for a first-year manager.

“Yeah, you haven’t sat in this seat,” manager David Ross said with a laugh when it was suggested he had nothing to complain about 15 games into the season.

“We’ve got good players. That’s what it is,” he said. “There’s nothing to complain about because the talent’s there. The character’s there. The commitment, the focus, the energy, the work — all those things that seem easy to bring every day; it’s not. It’s not easy. Especially in this environment we’re dealing with now.

“It’s all about the players, man.”

Maybe adding a designated hitter is a difference maker for a National League team that had the luxury of good developing and platoon hitters on its bench.

“I can’t really remember a time playing for this team where it was really like that, where 1 through 9 there was damage all through the order,” former MVP Kris Bryant said. “I think it shows in our record and the baseball that we’re playing right now, too.”

“It’s everything right now. Everything’s clicking.”

Maybe some of it’s the right new manager at the right time, like the front office has suggested? Maybe some of it’s the growth of Rizzo as a leader and tone-setter in the clubhouse, like Ross suggested?

Maybe it’s the kind of urgency and focus the front office talked about last year — but that a 60-game sprint through a COVID-19 minefield demands.

“If I had to compare the mindset this season, it’s been more of a playoff scenario,” Lester said, “where every day you show up you pay a little bit more attention to detail, a little bit more attention to that scouting report and what you’re trying to do.

“You don’t have that window to make a mistake. The big thing for us is energy, and I think when we [bring] that, when we show up with energy every day, you see a good product on the field, whether we win or lose.”

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Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Cubs quick takes: Cubs head home with 12-3 start after sweep in Cleveland

Whether Zach Plesac's and Mike Clevinger's Mistake by the Lake deflated hot-starting Cleveland, the Cubs looked anything but deflated during a decisive two-game sweep of the team that looked like the best team on their schedule so far.

After Clevinger was scratched from Tuesday's start because he and Plesac violated COVID-19 protocols and left their hotel over the weekend, the Cubs scored seven runs in each game against a team that hadn't allowed more than four in a game until then.

"The guys are as locked in as I've ever seen," said Wednesday's winning pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, of a lineup that produced home runs by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and another two RBIs by Jason Heyward during the 7-2 win.

Heyward drove in five runs during the sweep, in which the Cubs outscored Cleveland 15-3.

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Quick takes from the victory that sends the Cubs home with the best record in the majors: 

Happy return

Starters Jon Lester and Hendricks pitched with a combined seven extra days of rest, but both were impressive in earning victories in the sweep.

"The starters keep doing their thing," manager David Ross said, adding of Hendricks' mix and location: "It's a clinic."

One night after Lester allowed one run in six innings, Hendricks (3-1) made his first start in Cleveland since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series and matched Lester’s performance.

Hendricks, the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, who struck out five without a walk, lowered his ERA to 3.08 through four starts.

The only run he allowed came after Cleveland successfully challenged what appeared to be a diving catch by Bryant in left field for the second out of the fifth. Instead, it was ruled a catch, loading the bases, and José Ramírez followed with a sacrifice fly.

"I thought I caught it," Bryant said. "Apparently, I didn't. Whatever."

Who needs the DH?

Not the Cubs, apparently.

Ross likes using his second, good-hitting catcher, Victor Caratini, as the designated hitter, when Willson Contreras starts behind the plate.

So what if something happens to the starting catcher if No. 2 is the DH? We found out in the fifth, when Contreras got ticked off at a check-swing, third-strike call, argued, slammed his bat and got ejected.

Rather than go to the third catcher, Josh Phegley, Ross instead surrendered the DH and put Caratini behind the plate, with the Cubs leading 4-0 at the time.

Ross used his bench to pinch hit for Contreras’ spot in the order the rest of the game.

Schwarb-less

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber was scratched from the lineup because of lingering soreness in his right knee after being hit by a pitch in Tuesday night’s sixth inning.

Schwarber, whose status is considered day-to-day, was replaced in left by Bryant (moving from third base) and in the lineup David Bote (playing third). Schwarber pinch hit in the ninth inning, striking out.

Snare scare

Bryant appeared to jam his left wrist making a diving attempt at César Hernández’ shallow fly to left in the fifth. He grimaced in pain on the play, and it appeared to bother him the rest of the inning.

By the top of the sixth he seemed fine, driving a deep home run to left field. He was replaced in the ninth, but for defense, Ross said.

"I'm OK," Bryant said after the game. "It doesn't feel great."

Where they stand

The Cubs reached the quarter mark of their 60-game schedule at 12-3, the best record in the majors.

On deck

The Cubs return home to open a four-game series Thursday night against the Brewers.

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