Morgan Park's Irvin ain't bragging


Morgan Park's Irvin ain't bragging

"It ain't bragging," former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith once said, "if you can do it."

Morgan Park basketball coach Nick Irvin ain't bragging. His team is 16-1, ranked No. 2 in the Chicago area, the early favorite to win the Class 3A championship and will challenge three-time defending Class 4A champion Simeon on Wednesday at Chicago State in a Public League Red-South showdown.

In the wake of Morgan Park's spectacular performance at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament--the Mustangs overwhelmed five opponents by an average of 26 points per game and stomped perennial power Proviso East 82-57 in the final--Irvin can be excused if he takes a few liberties with the English language.

For example:

"We can compete with any team in the country. This is the time. Now people are seeing what I envisioned for this year. But we must keep showing people who we are. We are on a mission. We can't get too satisfied with what we are doing."

"Billy Garrett Jr. and Kyle Davis are the best backcourt in the state. They do different things. It was easy to put them together. They are defense-minded, too. They could take on any backcourt back in the day."

"Garrett sacrifices his game for the benefit of the team. He just wants to win. He should be up for Player of the Year and the McDonald's All-America team. He is our anchor, our trigger, our leader, a type of player like Quinn Buckner and Sergio McClain."

"Davis (a transfer from Hyde Park) is a great all-around player, a winner, as tough as they come. He brings leadership and toughness that we needed. He takes on the challenge of guarding the best backcourt player on the other team."

"Cunningham is the best player in the Class of 2014 after (Whitney Young's) Jahlil Okafor. The difference between him and others is he plays with a motor. He never takes a play off. He is the anchor of our defense. He shows you how tough he is, that he isn't soft. He will be a pro."

"Markee Williams keeps everybody happy. He makes sure the table is set. He gets everybody in the right spot. He plays in the shadow of Garrett and Davis but the ball is in his hands when the game is on the line. He has a winning mentality."

"Lamont Walker is the toughest player in the state. He brings energy and toughness. He is a player you need on your team, a junkyard dog. He makes your team that much better when you tell him to take an opponent off his game. He is the best defensive player in the state."

"Charlie Moore is the best freshman in the state. He reminds me of Isiah Thomas with the way he is flashy with the ball. He is a great outside shooter and has led us in scoring in four games. As a senior, he will be mentioned with Derrick Rose, Imari Sawyer, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway."

"At Proviso West, we won five games by an average of 26 points per game. But if we rebound better and make free throws, the margin would have been 36 points per game. There is always room for improvement."

"At this point, we are playing as well as we can. I can't imagine playing much better than this. But after our loss to Bishop Gorman, the kids came back to win their next game and the Proviso West tournament. The season isn't over, they told me, it is just beginning."

Morgan Park's five-game sweep at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament was the stuff that legends are made. The Mustangs, who are averaging 87 points per game while allowing only 41, won by an average of 26 points per game and capped their impressive run by crushing Proviso East 82-57.

"I was surprised by the Proviso East game," Irvin said. "I thought we were 10-15 points better. But 25? I told the team that they showed me something. But they have been doing it all year."

How good is Morgan Park? "They are a virtual all-star team. They are very good at all positions, strong, smart, athletic. I can't imagine a better Class 3A team. They are as good a team as I've seen in 14 years," said Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose after losing to Morgan Park 67-52 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

In his fifth year, Irvin, a former All-State basketball player at Carver, is seeking to establish a program that will contend with Simeon and Whitney Young for supremacy in the city. Morgan Park won the Public League title with Wayne Blackshear in 2010 and finished 22-9 last year, losing to Hillcrest in the sectional final.

But the Mustangs have advanced beyond the sectional only four times. In 1974, they qualified for the Elite Eight. In 1975, they lost to Phillips in the Public League final. In 1976, Bill Warden's team, led by Levi Cobb, Laird Smith, Jeff Berry and Eric Bowman, won the Class AA championship. In 2001, coach Herb Ray's team finished third.

"I felt this is the team to win it all," Irvin said. "I knew coming in that we had a great backcourt with Williams, Davis and Garrett. Then add Cunningham and White and this is the time."

If anyone thought Morgan Park would suffer a letdown after Proviso West, that notion was dispelled when the Mustangs overwhelmed highly rated Normal University High and Ohio State recruit Keita Bates-Diop 81-51. Davis had 16 points and six steals, Garrett 19 points and six assists and Cunningham 11 points and seven rebounds.

Against Brooks last Wednesday, Morgan Park prevailed 93-45 as Garrett scored 13 points in three quarters, Davis had 19 and Williams 14.

"Coming into this season, this team has a different bond," Irvin said. "I could see it forming in the summer. We won every tournament we were in, all four of them. We won 50 games and lost only two. They love each other. They hang out together. They go to the movies together. They have great unity."

The starting lineup features Garrett (17.7 ppg, 7 rpg, 6 assists), a 6-foot-5 senior guard who is committed to DePaul; Davis (18 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists, 5 steals), a 6-foot-1 senior guard who is committed to Dayton; Cunningham (14 ppg. 11.3 rpg, 4 blocks), a 6-foot-7 junior who has offers from DePaul, Bradley, Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska and is attracting interest from Michigan State; Williams (10 ppg, 6 assists, 3 steals), a 5-foot-11 senior who originally enrolled at Morgan Park, started on the 2010 Public League championship team, transferred to Crane, then played only four games last season after returning to Morgan Park; and White (12 ppg, 8 rpg), a 6-foot-5 senior. Moore (9 ppg), a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, and Torry Johnson (10 ppg), a 6-foot-3 junior guard, come off the bench.

"Defense is the strength of this team. That's our main priority," said Irvin, who is ably assisted by Terry Johnson, brother Lance Irvin, Walter Woghiren and Curtis Blair. "We have always been a defensive team. That's what makes it so special. They defend man-to-man.

"On offense, we share the ball. We make plays for each other. We are unselfish. The kids love passing the ball. They play as one. We're playing good basketball but we can get better at a lot of throw shooting, rebounding, even defense. To go Downstate, we must make free throws and rebound. Everyone has to rebound, not just Cunningham."

Irvin isn't worried about complacency.

"I know they will lay it on the line every night," he said. "After we won at Proviso West, I said we have two more goals to accomplish--city and state championships. We want to gear up to play our last game on March 16."

Jake Arrieta returns to Wrigley Field a different pitcher and a beloved icon

Jake Arrieta returns to Wrigley Field a different pitcher and a beloved icon

When Jake Arrieta takes the mound at Wrigley Field on Monday night, he will have officially pitched against all 30 major league teams. That alone is impressive; the messy results from his early seasons in Baltimore didn’t exactly scream 10-year veteran. There’s something charmingly poetic about Arrieta’s first return — and last new opponent — coming from the place that saved his career.

“He’s a different cat, and I appreciate that about him,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “We talk — he’s a foodie, so we’ve talked a lot about restaurants. He was always making recommendations for me here in Chicago when he had more experience than I had here. Just in general, he likes to talk about things other than the game, which I always appreciated about him.”

Before coming to Chicago in a trade (that also included Pedro Strop), Arrieta had a 5.46 ERA in 358 innings pitched. After a slow beginning to his Cubs career, the righty was arguably the best pitcher in baseball during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The latter season was especially impressive: 229 innings pitched, a 1.77 ERA, and a career-best K/BB% (21.6) - all on the way to a Cy Young award.

Maddon referenced two games in 2015 that still comes to mind when he thinks about Arrieta: the 2015 Wild Card game against Pittsburgh and a late-June (June 21) game in Minnesota. That afternoon against the Twins, Arrieta went all nine innings while striking out seven and only allowing four hits. More importantly, it started a run of 20 straight starts without ever allowing more than three runs in a game. Over that stretch, he allowed only 14 earned runs and had an ERA under 1.00.

“I remember the game in Minnesota, 8-0 I think it was,” Maddon said. “It was a complete game in Minnesota. I thought that this was like, this seminal moment for him. That complete game, I thought, meant a lot to him internally. I thought after that he really took off.”

Monday night won’t actually be the first time Arrieta’s returned to Chicago, though. He came through last season, his first as a member of the Phillies, but didn’t pitch. As far as reunions go, Monday’s at Wrigley figures to be overwhelmingly positive.

“Honestly, I think Jake deserves his due,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said before the game. “His first time back here at Wrigley pitching against the Cubs. He deserves his due for everything he meant to this franchise. I don't look at it as a showdown or a referendum or anything like that. He deserves a warm embrace and a huge tip of the cap for everything that he meant for all of us.

“For me, personally, helping us all get to places we wanted to go. Doing it in such an exciting way. I'm a big Jake Arrieta fan, just not tonight."

2019 hasn’t been kind to Arrieta, who’s seen his walk-rate (9.8 percent) spike to a level not seen in over half a decade. His ERA is on the wrong side of 4 (though is there a right side of 4?) and he’s allowing some of the hardest contact of his career. The numbers say Arrieta’s not the pitcher he once was, but Maddon still sees shades of the Cy Young winner and World Series Champion.

“I would say the biggest difference is purely velocity on the fastball,” he said. “I’m watching the movement on the fastball, and I’m watching the break on the breaking ball. He’s probably more apt to throw the change up out there now than he had, but he looks he looks a lot the same.”

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Cubs get a dose of good news, bad news on the injury front


Cubs get a dose of good news, bad news on the injury front

Monday was a mixture of good news and bad news for the Cubs on the injury front.

Star shortstop Javy Baez was held out of the starting lineup Monday after suffering a heel injury in Sunday night's game, but manager Joe Maddon said he hopes Baez could be available to hit off the bench. 

Closer Brandon Morrow threw from flat ground (45 to 60 feet) Monday, his first day throwing since he suffered a setback earlier this spring in his return from offseason elbow surgery. 

That throwing session "went well," Theo Epstein said before the Cubs and Phillies faced off at Wrigley Field Monday night and Morrow will continue along a regular throwing progression from there, ramping up to throwing off a mound in the bullpen. The Cubs will evaluate along the way, exercising caution with the 34-year-old right-hander.

The Cubs also received encouraging news on Pedro Strop, who is recovering from a hamstring strain initially suffered in Arizona in late April. The veteran reliever threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, which went well, and is in line for another bullpen later this week. 

Then there was the bad news: Top prospect Nico Hoerner will miss at least a month with a hairline fracture in his left wrist. 

Hoerner — playing for Double-A Tennessee — was hit in the wrist with a pitch on April 23 and has been sidelined since then. 

"He went to start his hitting progression; it didn't go great," Epstein said. "After a couple days, they did a CT scan and this time they did find a hairline fracture right where his forearm meets his hand, so right at his wrist essentially. 

"So he's gonna be in a splint for three weeks and get out of it and evaluate it from there. He'll be out at least a month, obviously, with this."

That's bad news for the Cubs, given Hoerner has already missed nearly a month and looked to be on the comeback trail just a few days ago. The young infielder has done nothing but hit since the Cubs made him the 24th overall pick in the MLB Draft last June and was slashing .300/.391/.500 with nearly as many walks (7) as strikeouts (8) in 18 games this season.

Hoerner wasn't expected to impact the big-league level in 2019, but if he continued to flash the skills and production that made him the organization's top prospect all summer, it wouldn't have been surprising to see the Cubs put him on the fast track to Chicago. That seems unlikely now that he'll miss at least two months of development. 

However, the Cubs will certainly take the good news on Morrow and Strop. Morrow was shut down in late April after a suffering yet another setback in his recovery and spent about a month without picking up a baseball. 

Any impact he can make on the Cubs bullpen later in the season would be a welcome addition after he saved 22 games with a 1.47 ERA in 35 apperances last year. But he didn't throw a pitch in the second half and is still a long way off from rejoining the big-league bullpen, even if he continues to show well healthwise.

Strop has been the Cubs' closer in Morrow's stead, though he's had a pair of hamstring injuries (last September and now again this spring). He last pitched on May 6 when he blew a save against the Marlins.

Even without Morrow (and now Strop, more recently), the Cubs bullpen has the best ERA in baseball (2.66) since the rough start to open the season.

"Since that first road trip, they've been — by the numbers — one of the best, if not the best in baseball," Epstein said. "So they've been doing a great job. We've had our hiccups along the way the way like every club will, but even under some difficult circumstances after some short starts, they've found a way to really put some zeros up there. 

"It's been impressive. It's been a group effort, which is nice to see. And Joe's done a great job picking the right spots for those guys, too."

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