From Comcast SportsNetNASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Chris Johnson first wrote the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims on his cleats. Now the Titans running back has sent gifts to the family of Grace McDonnell after speaking with them by telephone.He had the names on his cleats for Monday night's game against the New York Jets, and he scored on a franchise-record 94-yard touchdown run. The family reached out to Johnson through the Titans, and the running back spoke Tuesday with the McDonnells and Grace's older brother, Jack."You get a whole sense of it and just him and the kids ... that he was trying to be strong, but it's a situation I can tell how he feels," Johnson said Thursday after practice. "I lost my grandmother earlier in this year and just knowing how that feels I just kind of wanted to do something to at least try to lift his spirits."Johnson also became a father earlier this year too with the birth of twin boys. He said that just made him appreciate his sons even more. He said he sent over a few Christmas gifts to Jack McDonnell and the family, and he also shared his telephone number in case they need anything that he might help with in the future.The Titans running back said he still plans to auction off the shoes to help families. But he sounded reluctant Thursday as he discussed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School."I kind of what to step back. ... I kind of did it for the kids and the family. I really don't want to make it about me," Johnson said.
The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.
That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.
Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.
So where do the Cubs go from here?
Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.
The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.
"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."
The Cubs better hope so.
For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.
But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems.
Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.
There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away.
The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had.
Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.
When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.
At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.
"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term.
"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."
The Blackhawks wanted to get off to a strong start this season because they know how hard it is to climb out of a hole in the Central Division. Last season was proof of that.
Well, they've picked up only one out of a possible six points through three games and are one of three teams still searching for their first victory of the season. But they're not going into panic mode just yet.
"We know there's things we have to improve upon," Jonathan Toews said. "Jeremy [Colliton] always talks about doing the right thing and over time eventually you're going to get results. I don't know if we can say we're doing things the right things that we want to and we're playing complete games right now, so even having said that, midway through the San Jose game and even against Winnipeg we were in a position to take control of the game going into the third period and we let teams back in. So I think there's a lot of ways we can play better.
"But having said that we're in those games and giving ourselves a chance to win. Obviously that's not good enough, but we're not going to freak out and say, 'we've got to start winning games.' Of course that's the goal, we wanted to get two points the other night."
The quest to pick up their first two points of the season doesn't get any easier for the Blackhawks on Monday night. The Edmonton Oilers are coming to town with a 5-0-0 record, and they're clicking on all cylinders. They have the second-best power play unit (41.2 percent), second-best penalty kill percentage (94.1), the NHL's leading point-getter in Connor McDavid (12) and leading goal scorer in James Neal (seven).
The Blackhawks know at some point they have to start stringing together some wins, but they're not living and dying by the standings right now because everything looks out of proportion. They're focused on the process and putting together a full 60-minute effort.
"It's always magnified at the start of the year," Colliton said. "Your special teams, you got [teams] with 100 percent PK, you got [teams] with 40 percent power play, and all the little things they look way bigger than they are. Would be nice for us to get a win, get some positive feelings but any three-game window among the 82, it's not going to be looked upon as closely as this one.
"So again, we've just got to focus on playing hard, playing the game the right way, do the right thing time and time again and we'll get the results."