Cubs

Next stop All-Star Game: Starlin Castro doesnt have any plans to slow down

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Next stop All-Star Game: Starlin Castro doesnt have any plans to slow down

NEW YORK By Friday afternoon, Starlin Castro hadnt finalized his travel plans for the All-Star Game.

But the Cubs shortstop, along with teammate Bryan LaHair, was trying to hop on a private jet with New York Mets David Wright and R.A. Dickey and fly to Kansas City on Sunday night.

No doubt, thats better than going commercial.

Last year, Castro and then-manager Mike Quade had their flight out of Pittsburgh canceled, which was supposed to take them to Charlotte, N.C., for the connection to Phoenix. On the way home, Quade was also detained by TSA at Sky Harbor International Airport. You didnt have to look very hard to find the symbolism in all that.

Theres also something to Castro traveling Entourage-style to Kansas City, where he will meet his parents and brothers and sisters for what he hopes will become an annual family reunion. Hes a little more comfortable with the idea of being around the best players in the world.

Im going to try to be there every year, Castro said. Next year I want to be the starter. Thats what I want. Its good to be in the All-Star Game, but I want to be a starter one day.

Less than 24 hours after Dale Sveum said he couldnt afford to take Castro out of the lineup, the manager (sort of) gave him Friday off, which made it seem like a good time to assess where the Cubs are at with their franchise shortstop.

Castro was supposed to be the last player in the National League to sit out a game this season. Heading into Game 83, he had played in 714 out of 719 innings. He didnt think he needed the day off he came on in the seventh inning and has no plans of slowing down.

At the age of 22, Castro already has two .300 seasons on his big-league resume. He began the day 2-for-16 on this road trip, watching his average drop to .287.

I feel good at the home plate I hit the ball hard the last six, seven games, Castro said. I dont feel like Im lost at the home plate or something like that. I feel good. I feel (the way I did) my last two years. Its supposed to come back. Its not going to stay like that for a long time. For sure, I know that.

Castro signed with the organization as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, and needed less than 1,000 at-bats in the minor leagues before rocketing through the system. He has never lacked for drive or confidence.

Castro has drawn only 12 walks this season, but six have come within the past two weeks. The Cubs are waiting for more power (six homers) to emerge, and he will have to improve the on-base percentage (.312).

But for all the talk about whos untouchable and whos not, Theo Epstein has made it clear that Castro is a player you build around. Even if he wasnt assembled out of a Red Sox Way manual or wont be nicknamed The Greek God of Walks (like Kevin Youkilis).

(Castro) hasnt completely found his groove overall offensively this year, Epstein said recently. So when youre searching to get locked in, if youre not a naturally patient hitter anyway, it can be hard to be selective and not do more than you can.

With any 22-year-old, you start to get riled up. (But) if you take a step back, and look at the age and understand and close your eyes, (you) say: Whats this guy going to be like when hes 27?

Thats exactly the point, which is hard to make when theres so much airtime and bandwidth to fill.

No, Sveum said, he still hasnt seen any 10s yet from Castros practice sessions, and the manager admits the overall approach is still not right where you want it.

But the quantity is (there) theres no question about that, Sveum said. Hes doing all the work, as much as he possibly can, during the batting practice times. Hes doing every facet, turning double plays, throwing to first, doing the pivot. His work ethic is fine.

Sometimes he gets a little lax, and theres nothing wrong with having a little fun, too, once in awhile. You dont have to be dead serious all the time. Its a long season, as long as everythings mechanically working correctly in the game, then youll give him a little leeway sometimes.

Thats the battle with Castro, whos so naturally gifted with a rocket arm and the speed and the presence to track down balls in the outfield and into foul territory.

Castro has also completely embraced the defensive shifts and positioning pushed by this new coaching staff. Second baseman Darwin Barney has seen the improvement up close.

Its the routine plays defensively, Barney said. Hes cleaned that up a lot and has taken a lot of pride in that. He obviously brings a lot of the same things to the plate that he always has, (and he) wants to be a full, well-rounded player.

Hes only 22, and hes still in that growing process, and its kind of scary.

This is the question to remember with Castro: Where were you when you were 22?

I was playing in like Peoria, Barney said. (So) its pretty surreal to see where hes come from and where hes at. Its fun to watch.

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning

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AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks on wrong side of history in loss to Lightning

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks on wrong side of history 

Earlier this year the Blackhawks made history by appearing in five straight overtime games to start the season, something no team in NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB history has ever done.

But Sunday they found themselves on the wrong side of it after allowing 33 shots on goal in the second period alone. It tied a franchise high for most given up in a single period — March 4, 1941 vs. Boston — and is the most an NHL team has allowed since 1997-98 when shots by period became an official stat.

"It's pretty rare to be seeing that much work in a period," said Cam Ward, who had a season-high 49 saves. "But oh man, I don't even know what to say to be honest. It's tough. We know that we need to be better especially in our home building, too. And play with some pride and passion. Unfortunately, it seemed like it was lacking at times tonight. The old cliche you lose as a team and overall as a team we weren't good enough tonight."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was a tough, tough period in all aspects. I don’t think we touched the puck at all and that was the part that was disturbing, against a good hockey team."

2. Alexandre Fortin is on the board

After thinking he scored his first career NHL goal in Columbus only to realize his shot went off Marcus Kruger's shin-pad, Fortin made up for it one night later and knows there wasn't any question about this one.

The 21-year-old undrafted forward, playing in his his fifth career game, sprung loose for a breakaway early in the first period and received a terrific stretch pass by Jan Rutta from his own goal line to Fortin, who slid it underneath Louis Domingue for his first in the big leagues. It's his second straight game appearing on the scoresheet after recording an assist against the Blue Jackets on Saturday.

"It's fun," Fortin said. "I think it would be a little bit more fun to get your first goal [while getting] two points for your team, but I think we ... just have to [turn the page to the] next chapter and just play and be ready for next game."

3. Brandon Saad's most noticeable game?

There weren't many positives to take away from this game, but Saad was certainly one of them. He had arguably his best game of the season, recording seven shot attempts (three on goal) with two of them hitting the post (one while the Blackhawks were shorthanded).

He was on the ice for 11 shot attempts for and five against at 5-on-5, which was by far the best on his team.

"He started OK and got way better," Quenneville said of Saad. "Had the puck way more, took it to the net a couple of times, shorthanded."

4. Special teams still a work in progress

The Blackhawks entered Sunday with the 29th-ranked power play and 25th-ranked penalty kill, and are still working to get out from the bottom of the league in both departments. In an effort to change up their fortunes with the man advantage, the Blackhawks split up their two units for more balance.

They had four power-play opportunities against Tampa Bay and cashed in on one of them, but it didn't matter as it was too little, too late in the third period — although they did become the first team to score a power-play goal against the Lightning this season (29 chances).

"Whether we're looking for balance or we're just looking for one to get hot, I think our power play has been ordinary so far," Quenneville said before the game. "We need it to be more of a threat."

Four more minor penalties were committed by the Blackhawks, giving them eight in the past two games. That's one way they can shore up the penalty kill, by cutting back on taking them.