Cubs

Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

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Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

Kyle Lindberg was one of the leading soccer players in Illinois for the last two years. The midfielder led Naperville North to fourth place in the state tournament in 2010 and to the sectional final last fall. He landed a scholarship to Illinois-Chicago.

But Lindberg has been playing basketball as long as he has been playing soccer--and almost as well. The 6-foot-2 senior is the defensive stopper on a 13-4 team that has scrapped its way to the top of the DuPage Valley League standings. Who woulda thunk it?

"I like playing both sports but I consider myself better at soccer. I have been playing at a high level for years, traveling teams and AAU," Lindberg said. "Naperville North isn't known as a basketball school. Our motivation this season is to shock everyone."

That's what coach Jeff Powers' team is doing. The Huskies haven't won a conference championship in 14 years and never have advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. In 14 years, coach Dick Whitaker won only one regional title. Coach Mark Lindo won two sectional titles. He was 25-4 in 1994 and 26-3 in 1998. Last year's team was 16-12, losing to highly rated Benet in the regional final in double overtime.

Naperville North, which defeated Rich Central 64-59 on Tuesday night, is used to winning close games. But the Huskies aren't overpowering, have a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts, no one is averaging more than nine points per game and their leading rebounder is 6-foot-2.

"How good are we? Good enough to be 13-4," Powers said. "We're a bunch of guards, only two forwards. We play well and hard together. We have learned how to win close games. It is surprising to everyone that we are in first place in the conference--except to the 16 kids on the team and the four coaches.

"We found out in the summer that they can play well when they play together. They share the ball and play hard on defense. On any given day, any kid can get hot. We shoot well from the three-point line and from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

"Our kids have an edge to them. They felt everyone overlooked them. They were picked to finish sixth in an eight-team race. But they worked hard in the weight room and shot a lot on their own. They wanted to prove to everyone that they were as good as the past two teams. No one believed in them but themselves and the coaches."

What convinced them? When did they begin to open some eyes?

On Dec. 6, when they defeated Benet by four points. "They learned they can win close games. They believed in the scouting report and executed the plan," Powers said.

Also when they demonstrated they could be competitive against the best teams at the York Holiday Tournament. And when they defeated Glenbard East and West Aurora back-to-back.

"That's what really convinced them," Powers said. "They stepped up a level. They knew they could do it. They knew something neat is happening here."

Lindberg and his teammates were excited and driven by the transformation. Naperville North is known as a football school. Coach Larry McKeon, who retired in 2010, won 231 games or 76 percent of his games in 27 years and won state championships in 1992 and 2007.

Now perhaps it is basketball's turn.

"We knew we were losing a lot of players from last year. We knew we had to step up our game to be anywhere near that level. And we don't have a star player like Matt LaCosse last year," Lindberg said.

"But this team has more balance. It is unselfish, works hard and plays together. There are no egos. Personally, in the summer, I was surprised how well we played and how fast we came together. But now I'm not surprised because we are used to it. People are getting behind us."

Lindberg averages only six points per game but Powers describes him as "one of our stars, the key to the defense, our stopper, the guy who plays against the best player on the other team, the one who runs the team on offense."

Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Matt Stacho (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 assists), another relentless defender who covers opposing point guards and scored 16 points in a four-point, triple overtime victory over Naperville Central; 6-foot-5 senior Mike Keane (7 ppg, 5 rpg); 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Derek Westman (6 ppg, 8 rpg), who grabbed 12 rebounds against Naperville Central and 11 in a two-point victory over Danville; and 6-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Rehayem (4 ppg).

Powers describes Westman as "200 pounds of I'll get the ball wherever it is at." He was a guard on the sophomore team last season and also plays tennis.

Surprisingly, the team's leading scorer comes off the bench. Davis Sinikas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, averages 9.7 points per game. An outstanding three-point shooter, he has started more than half the games but needs to improve his defense. Chris Mullin, a 5-foot-11 senior, averages seven points.

Powers, in his third season, is a 1976 graduate of Reavis. He attended George Williams College in Downers Grove but, as the oldest of six children, had to give up basketball after one year to go to work while going to class.

He coached baseball at Hinsdale Central for five years, basketball for one year at Reavis and York, then was hired as basketball coach at Timothy Christian in 1996. He resigned after 11 years and was going back to officiating, which was how he made ends meet since he was a sophomore in college, when he got a call from then York coach Al Biancalana.

He assisted Biancalana for one year, then applied for the Naperville North job when Mark Lindo retired. Was he surprised to get the job? No, because he felt he had built a good reputation at Timothy Christian. Yes, because he hadn't been a head coach for a year. In his first season, the Huskies were 20-7 and lost to West Aurora in the regional final.

"We talk about learning every day, what we have to do to get better," Powers said. "We turn the ball over too much. To win, we have to move the ball from side to side. We are notoriously slow starters. We have to get going at the start of games. I have done all kinds of pep talks. We fell behind Naperville Central 10-0 in the first four minutes and trailed Danville by seven in the first quarter. We have to work on that. We can't do that against good teams in the state tournament."

It is a tiresome clich but Lindberg reminds that the team has an attitude of taking each game as it comes and not looking too far ahead. "That's how we have succeeded so far, being humble," he said.

Lindberg points to the play of Keane, Westman and 6-foot-4 senior reserve Max Lewis under the boards. "We knew we had good shooters and ball-handlers but we are surprised that our post presence has helped us to win games," he said.

"Not many people have taken us seriously. Being picked to finish sixth in the conference motivated us. There is no pressure. We can play loose."

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

The curious ripple effects of the Cubs' trade for Martin Maldonado

While the Cubs put the finishing touches on a lackluster loss to the Reds Monday night at Wrigley Field, the game quickly took a backseat as reports of a trade filtered through Baseball Twitter.

In came a veteran catcher — Martin Maldonado — from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who will live on in Cubs history books forever as the guy who threw the curveball that notched the final out in the 2016 World Series to break a 108-year championship drought.

There are many layers to this move, including the corresponding aspect of Cubs All-Star catcher Willson Contreras hitting the 10-day injured list with a strain in the arch of his right foot. Contreras had an MRI Monday afternoon/evening, which revealed the issue. 

Contreras felt like he could play through it and passionately pleaded his case, but the Cubs want to exercise an abundance of caution with one of their most important players.

"Our medical staff feels like if he were to try to play on it, that he'd be risking exacerbating the injury and turning it into something long-term," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "So we have to get ahead of it, take it out of Willy's hands and take him off his feet. 

"We don't expect it to be longer than 10 days — that's what we hope for, anyways."

But even before the severity of Contreras' injury was known, Epstein said the team was already in talks with the Royals front office.

"We've been having discussions with Kansas City and they had an opening in their rotation after trading [Homer] Bailey and they'd been talking to a couple teams about Maldonado and we knew that," Epstein said. "We'd actually been working on a version of the deal beforehand and it was something we wanted to quickly finalize once it became clear that Willson was gonna miss some time."

That's interesting.

So the Cubs' interest in Maldonado is not solely based on Contreras' injury, which means they value the veteran catcher as more than just a short-term, couple-week insurance policy to pair with Victor Caratini. 

On the one hand, that leaves the Cubs free to trade Caratini over the next couple weeks if a deal developed.

But the move for Maldonado also shores up a major area of depth for the Cubs, which is exactly what Epstein talked about before Monday's game, referencing the change in MLB rules that eliminated the August waiver wire deadline. Now, every team has to make their moves ahead of the July 31 deadline and that's it.

"Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more, that you have to anticipate where you might be vulnerable to an injury and try to build that depth up in advance — preemptively, really — knowing that there's no escape valve in August," Epstein said. "So you gotta really do all your work this month as much as possible and really take a hard look at your organizational depth."

Well, despite fantastic seasons from Contreras and Caratini, the Cubs actually have very little in the way of catching depth beyond those two. Taylor Davis is the only other backstop on the 40-man roster and he has almost no big-league experience. When Caratini was on the IL earlier this year with a hand injury, Davis rarely played in the month-plus he was on the roster.

Even if Contreras' injury is as minor as it appears, it underscores the point that the Cubs' depth is very fragile at the most physically demanding position on the field. What would the team do if Contreras or Caratini suffered an injury in August or September?

Now, they can add Maldonado into the mix — a veteran catcher who draves rave remarks for his defense and game-calling. 

The right-handed-hitting catcher is due to turn 33 next month and is in his ninth big-league season. He hasn't done much with the bat in his career (.289 on-base percentage, .351 slugging) and that hasn't changed this year (.647 OPS), but his work behind the plate was enticing to the Cubs and their veteran-laden pitching staff.

"He's an established catcher in the league who does a lot of great things behind the plate," Epstein said. "He can really receive, he can really throw. He's caught playoff games. He's handled some of the best pitchers in the game; he's a favorite for pitchers to throw to.

"He's very calm back there, very prepared, calls a great game, really soft hands, lot of experience, lot of savvy and someone who we think can step in and share the job with Vic and get up to speed really quickly in what we hope is a brief absence from Willson."

The Cubs haven't yet shared a plan for how they plan to manage the roster crunch for all three catchers when Contreras returns from injury in a week or two, but that might be because they don't yet have a plan. That's more of a "cross that bridge when it comes" type of situation.

When everybody is healthy — if everybody is ever healthy all at the same time — the Cubs could carry three catchers and utilize Contreras' ability to play the outfield and Caratini's first/third base versatility. They could also option Caratini to the minors for a couple weeks and bring him back up when rosters expand in September or if another injury strikes.

Either way, the Cubs front office, coaching staff and pitching staff can rest easier knowing they have another experienced backstop on the roster. 

The other aspect to all this, obviously, is in the Cubs bullpen and starting depth. Montgomery is out, which means there is an easy open spot on the roster for Alec Mills, who is making a spot start Tuesday while Cole Hamels continues to rehab his oblique injury.

In the longer term, this could be a good thing for the Cubs bullpen, as Montgomery was miscast and rarely used as a short-inning reliever. The 30-year-old southpaw last threw on July 2 and has only made five appearances in the last month. 

Montgomery was slowed by injury in spring training and then again in the first couple weeks of the season, but he had been building up his workload of late - throwing at least 2.1 innings in each of his last three outings. Still, the Cubs opted to go with Mills Tuesday against the Reds instead of Montgomery and they also had Tyler Chatwood and Adbert Alzolay in the rotation at various points earlier this season.

Montgomery hasn't started once in 2019, but he made 28 starts in a Cubs uniform, including 19 last year while filling in for the injured Yu Darvish.

The Cubs clearly feel good enough with their rotation depth as is (Mills, Chatwood, Alzolay) and Hamels' return looks to be right around the corner, so the writing was on the wall that Montgomery wouldn't get many chances to start in the short or long term in Chicago.

It's also good for Montgomery, a guy who got the last out in the World Series and did everything asked of him in his three-plus years in Chicago, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen. 

Now he gets an opportunity to start, which he's been vocal about wanting to do, and he'll be thrown right into the fire — the Royals have him penciled in to start Friday...in Cleveland.

How's that for full circle?

After short stint in the majors, White Sox send Zack Collins to Triple-A

After short stint in the majors, White Sox send Zack Collins to Triple-A

When general manager Rick Hahn has talked about bringing up key prospects, he says he wants those players to be able to come up to the majors and stay there. That won't be the case with Zack Collins.

The White Sox sent the catcher down to Triple-A Charlotte following Monday's 5-2 loss to the Royals. No corresponding move will be made until Tuesday, but it is expected Welington Castillo will return from his rehab stint and rejoin the White Sox.

Collins was called up on June 18, but only played in nine games with seven starts in his 28 days on the big league roster. Collins drew a pinch-hit walk in his first plate appearance at the Cubs on June 19. He then homered two days later in his first start in Texas.

After that, Collins struggled. He goes back to Charlotte after hitting .077 (2-for-26) with five walks, the one home run and 14 strikeouts in 31 plate appearances.

It's unclear if Collins had a chance to stick on the roster or if the plan was for him to go back to Triple-A once Castillo was ready to return. Collins certainly didn't do himself any favors at the plate, but he also didn't see regular playing time.

Collins, a first-round pick in 2016, was seen working out at first base in fielding practice before games, but he stuck to catcher and DH. He could have played some first base or DH when Castillo returned. However, the White Sox claimed A.J. Reed off waivers and he debuted after the all-star break. Reed has taken the at-bats at DH, leaving Collins without regular at-bats.

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