Bears

No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

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No doubts: LaHair believes it's about to turn

PITTSBURGH Bryan LaHair knows the trend line, and understands that what he does will be magnified.

The Cubs first baseman gets that its easy to pick out a bad week or two. Its hard to blend in when youre the cleanup hitter for a team on a 10-game losing streak.

LaHair emerged as a bright spot in April, ending the month hitting .390, and it became a story of perseverance. A former 39th-round pick, he had spent parts of the past six seasons on the Triple-A level, and was willing to go play winter ball in Venezuela.

LaHair woke up on Saturday with 10 home runs, tied with Paul Konerko for the major-league lead among first basemen. But his average had dropped 89 points. He was 1-for-25 in his previous nine games. It hasnt shaken his confidence.

Im not getting it done, LaHair said. Im not going to sugarcoat anything. I havent been doing my job to the best of my ability and its tough to do that for (162 games). These kind of things happen. As soon as the season starts, I accept that theres going to be certain parts where I struggle.

Im prepared for it. Its not something I want to happen. But now the challenge is to get past this and get back on track. I got no question Im going to do it. Theres no doubt in my mind.

LaHair looked relaxed sitting in the chair in front of his locker, and he didnt sound the least bit defensive. He believes in all the work that he put in to get to this point, that its made him more mature, better equipped to handle failure.

Its not like LaHair was putting up numbers in garbage time. Seven of his 10 homers have either tied a game or given the Cubs a lead.

Theo Epsteins front office likes LaHairs overall approach, which is why last winter they reassured the Pacific Coast League MVP that thered be a place for him here.

LaHair has been seeing 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked eighth in the National League. He reached base safely in 32 consecutive games between April 8 and May 15.

Before LaHair cooled off, the team president explained why this shouldnt be a mirage.

The results probably arent going to be this Ruthian, so to speak, Epstein said recently, but I think the quality of at-bats will remain consistent. Its not a fluke. Hes doing things the right way. Hes recognizing pitches out of the pitchers hand really early. Hes letting the ball travel and get deep. Hes really short and compact to the ball.

Hes hitting the ball hard. Hes hitting it where its pitched and hes covering just about the whole strike zone. So hes going to go through slumps and everything, but its really encouraging. Not just what hes doing, but how hes accomplishing it.

LaHair has come back down to earth, part of the natural regression as the advanced scouting picks up and pitchers learn more about his game. Manager Dale Sveum, a former hitting coach, has been a big advocate, but sees a few holes.

Hes getting to the point now where I think hes starting to guess along with the pitcher (and) you cant do that, Sveum said. Hes just not taking his walks. (Its) swinging out of the strike zone, trying to do too much (or) trying to put all the weight on his shoulders.

LaHair wants that responsibility, and isnt looking over his shoulder at first base, even though top prospect Anthony Rizzo is coming fast. The Cubs will want to find ways to put those two left-handed bats in the middle of the order.

LaHair doesnt have to be Babe Ruth, but he could still be in the All-Star conversation.

The whole point of Epsteins year of evaluation was to open up opportunities for the future, and give someone like LaHair 500 or 600 at-bats to finally show whether or not he belongs.

These guys believe in me, LaHair said. The confidence level as far as every time I walk to the box hasnt changed from the first six weeks. Its just when thoughts creep into your mind (you have to remember) its what happens. Its baseball. Im not intimidated by struggling.

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Pedro Strop said he feels "ready" in his return from a hamstring injury, but he and the Cubs aren't going to rush it.

The veteran reliever has missed most of May with the injury, but threw 25-pitch bullpens on both Monday and Wednesday and has reported zero issues. He said it's been more than a week since he last felt pain in the area.

But considering this is Strop's third hamstring injury in the last eight months, the Cubs want to be extra cautious to make sure this will not happen again.

Plus, there's no point in rushing him back right now, even with the bullpen struggling. The Cubs would certainly welcome Strop back to the active roster immediately, but he's going to be a huge key for them down the stretch and they need to ensure he's healthy for that.

"I think we're just being overly cautious because we don't want this to happen again," Joe Maddon said. 

But how can Cubs avoid another hamstring injury with the soon-to-be-34-year-old? 

"We're building strength, we're working hard to make it stronger instead of just, 'Oh, it's OK and pain-free, let's go out there and have the same thing happen again,'" Strop said. "We're just taking care."

He missed the final two weeks of the regular season last year and pitched through "severe pain" in the National League wild-card game after first hurting his hamstring in Washington D.C. He then missed time in spring training with an issue in the other leg.

The injuries are not all directly related, but hamstrings are tricky by nature.

"That's a hammy, man. When you mess up with those things, they keep reminding you that they're there," Maddon said. "He has to continue to be proactive with the work in between and our guys in the back there do a wonderful job rehabbing and strengthening. 

"I think some guys are just predetermined to do those kinds of things and it really stinks. But it happens. So our next best thing is to create that program that hopefully prevents it from happening again. 

"In the meantime, just really monitoring him and not pushing him too hard, etc. But hamstrings are hamstrings, man. They're just no fun. Once you pull them once, there's a chance to do it again."

Strop said he will throw another bullpen Saturday and doesn't believe he needs a rehab stint. Because this was a leg injury, he's been able to continue throwing throughout the recovery process and keep his arm strength up.

If Strop continues to report well and doesn't go on a rehab assignment, we could possibly see him back in the Cubs bullpen early next week, which would be a welcome sign for a unit that has suddenly run into some tough sledding of late.

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