White Sox

Mustangs hope to prove coach wrong; again

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Mustangs hope to prove coach wrong; again

Downers Grove South coach Jay Baum doesn't believe his current team, despite the presence of two Division I recruits, is as good as last year's 25-4 sectional qualifier. Only three players have varsity experience. The Mustangs lack a dominating big man. There are a lot of question marks.

"I hope they will prove me wrong," Baum said. "If we are going to win, we need balanced scoring and defense. We have learned that when we take bad shots, it allows the other team to run down the floor and we can't set up our defense. When we set up our defense, we are an outstanding defensive team."

Jerron Wilbut and Jamall Millison, those two Division I recruits, said they are determined to prove their coach wrong. Wilbut, a 6-foot-3 senior, is averaging 15 points per game. Millison, a 6-foot-2 senior, is averaging 12. They led Downers Grove South (8-1) to a smashing 59-26 victory over Palatine in the opening round of the York Holiday Tournament on Tuesday in Elmhurst.

Against Palatine, Wilbut scored 21 points and Millison had 12 points and three assists as the Mustangs demonstrated the kind of energy and defensive handiwork that their coach believes could lead to a trip to the Final Four in March.

"The coach feels we don't get the ball inside enough, as much as he'd like us to," Wilbut said. "Not having a dominating player inside like we have had in the last two years means that we are relying on guards to score more. I feel I need to score more. I feel I have to pick it up to help my team because of our weaknesses."

Wilbut, whom Baum said could score 30-40 points per game "if we allowed him to do it," thinks he should score 25 per game. "I'm a scorer but I know I have to facilitate and get my teammates involved. I try not to do too much because we are a team. The coaches emphasize the word t-e-a-m."

Millison also predicts that the 2011-12 Mustangs will prove the coach wrong "because we prove him wrong every year. He didn't think we would be as good as we were last year. This year, we're faster than we ever have been in my four years. We can pick up where we left off last year and make a run at state," he said.

"We have no big man (like last year's star, 6-foot-8 Ziggy Riauka, now at Wisconsin-Parkside). But we get up and down faster. We spread the court more because we have a lot of people who can handle the ball. Speed will be the difference. The problem will be when we don't make jump shots. But we can get to the basket and the free throw line."

Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye agree with their summation. "When everyone considers the fact that high school basketball continues to become more of a game for guards, Downers Grove South has an opportunity to go a long way in the state tournament because they have possibly the best backcourt duo in the state in Jerron Wilbut and Jamall Millison," Roy Schmidt said.

The Schmidt brothers describe Wilbut, whose recruiting is on hold because he is a borderline academic qualifier, as "the one unsigned prospect in the class of 2012 in Illinois who we have no doubt could play for a high major program right now. He can play either guard spot, can score and distribute, has a great feel for the game and the ability to make all of his teammates better. Come spring, there is no question that he will be one of the most heavily sought recruits."

As good as they are, however, Wilbut and Millison need a supporting cast if the Mustangs are to qualify for the Final Four since former coach Paul Runyon's 30-4 team finished third in 2005.

The other starters are 6-foot-5 senior Kevin Honn (10 points per game), 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Danny Spinnuza and 6-foot-6 senior Greg Garro. In a recent game against Willowbrook, Spinnuza had eight points, eight assists and four steals. He reminds Baum of former Downers Grove South star Bryan Mullins.

The bench includes 6-foot-2 junior guard Jordan Cannon, 6-6 juniors Robert Mara and Kevin Hall, 5-9 junior point guard Tray Simmons, 6-1 senior guard Kevon James and 6-5 junior Scott McNellis. James scored 15 points in the second half against Willowbrook.

"I'd be thrilled to death to get Downstate," Baum said. "I like the fact that although we are talented, the kids recognize the need to work hard in practice and games. It stems from defense. They know what it means to work hard on defense. But what does it mean to work hard on offense? Not settling for jump shots, making the extra pass, moving without the ball. They have accepted the challenge to work hard in everything they do. Win or lose, we are putting out our best effort."

Baum, 54, is in his third year as Downers Grove South's head coach, following three successful coaches in Bill Pelekoudas, Dick Flaiz and Paul Runyon who gave the program a lot of respectability and stability. Baum isn't a newcomer. He has been at the school for 27 years, serving as freshman coach for 12 years, then as sophomore coach for 11 years before moving up. He also coached football for 16 years.

"I waited my time to be head coach," Baum said. "I followed two guys (Flaiz, Runyon) who are in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame."

Baum mixes old-school with a flair for modern-day communication. He still shows up for games in suit and tie. He puts statistics in a computer and pins articles and other motivational material on a bulletin board. High school basketball isn't the only game in town anymore so Baum believes he has to sell it every chance he gets.

"People have no idea what we do as coaches, if it is just 3-to-6 in the gym for practice and showing up for games on Friday and Saturday," he said.

"But coaching in the gym is only 60 percent of the job. The other 40 percent is scheduling, scouting, arranging for buses, dealing with the athletic director, talking to teachers and reporters, dealing with behavioral issues, college recruiting, fund-raising, summer camps, booster meetings, dealing with parents, talking to elementary schools. It's like running a small business."

Baum still recalls his first game as an underclass coach at Schaumburg. He showed up in a sport coach and tie for a Saturday morning freshman game.
"Coaching was a great thrill," he said.

"When the game was over, I took a deep breath and felt like I had just played. The score was 49-21. We won by 28 points and I was a nervous wreck. From then on, it has been a rush. I feel most at home when I'm in the gym."

So do Wilbut and Millison. Wilbut has been playing basketball since he was 7 years old. He often steps on the court early in the morning and doesn't leave until late at night. At the Downers Grove YMCA, five minutes from his house, he began working out at 8 in the morning and didn't leave until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. In the summer, he would take 200 jump shots, run a couple of miles, lift weights and play 5-on-5 games with friends and teammates--all in one day.

"Last season, all of us were disappointed when we lost to Glenbard East in the sectional," Wilbut said. "We felt we didn't give it all we had. We felt we were good enough to get to Peoria.

"But this team, talent-wise, is still there. We are a very young team, only three seniors, and have to learn our roles. But we are crafty. We'll surprise you at times. Everyone has something they do well that will surprise you in the game. You don't know what to expect."

Millison was a soccer player until eighth grade. In fact, he admits he was better in soccer than basketball at the time. But he began to concentrate on basketball and his skills began to develop rapidly.

"All of a sudden, I was getting more attention for basketball," he said.
"I get more excitement out of basketball. There are more exciting plays. You can't be flashy in soccer and I like to be flashy. You can't make oohs and aahs in soccer and get the crowd involved."

But Millison knows this might be his last chance to stir up the crowd. One of his goals is to go Downstate and, as a senior, this is his last chance.

"I thought we would go last year," he said. "I still have a chip on my shoulder from last year. It was so disappointing. We were so close but we came up short. We didn't play as a team like we normally would. We started to play team ball at the end but it was too late.

"We learned a lesson--to always trust in your teammates and play hard from the start with a lot of energy. I see that this year."

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."