Preps Talk

Novak Djokovic ... greatest athlete in the world

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Novak Djokovic ... greatest athlete in the world

From Comcast SportsNetPARIS (AP) -- What a horrific dilemma this could be. The men's 100 meter sprint final and men's tennis final fall on the same day, Aug. 5, at the London Olympics. If forced, which of those would you choose to miss: Usain Bolt possibly becoming the first man since Carl Lewis to win the 100 dash at consecutive games or Novak Djokovic perhaps putting a golden sheen on what promises to be another astounding year? Until Sunday, Bolt would have been a comfortable winner. But now? Impossible choice. And what a memorable day it could prove to be for those with time to rush from one event to the other or to tune into both. Like Bolt, Djokovic is becoming one of those special athletes who transcends the confines of their sport, a figure whose achievements on the field of play teach us not only new things about sporting endeavor but also about the bottomless well of human possibility. Bolt's 100, 200 and relay golds at the 2008 Beijing Games made the Jamaican more than just an Olympic champion sprinter but one of the greatest sportsmen of all time because he redefined our understanding of how fast humans can run. Likewise, in outlasting Rafael Nadal for 5 hours and 53 minutes in the longest ever Grand Slam final, Djokovic played far more than a mere tennis match to win the Australian Open. He tested our definition of human endurance. How, just how, did he find those last drops of energy to first reel in and then finish off the Spaniard who, with a 4-2 lead in the fifth set, looked as though he might wriggle free? It was the incredible will Djokovic demonstrated that made this feat immortal. Like Muhammad Ali flooring George Foreman with a left, then a right in the eighth round of the Rumble in the Jungle or Lance Armstrong picking himself up from a crash at the 2003 Tour de France and powering up a climb with cold-eyed fury on his broken bike, this was epic because it was as much about heart as it was about physical ability. "You're going through so much suffering, your toes are bleeding," Djokovic said. "Everything is just outrageous, you know, but you're still enjoying that pain." At the end, he ripped open his shirt with a primal scream. It wouldn't have been that much of a shock if Djokovic had also ripped open his hairy chest to show us just how fiercely his ticker beats. What a terrifying sight for Andy Murray and Roger Federer. Is Djokovic the most impressive athlete in activity? Certainly, he is part of the debate that that question provokes. We would have to forgive Djokovic if he started to wear his underpants outside of his trousers. The hypochondriac Djokovic who in years past looked unlikely to ever match Nadal's physicality, the joker Djokovic who seemed unlikely to equal Federer's cool professionalism, has been body-snatched and replaced by Superman on a gluten-free diet. Murray, the world No. 4, came away from his five-set, 4 hour and 50-minute Australian semifinal loss to Djokovic feeling that he is edging closer to the No. 1. Maybe. But two days later, on Sunday, Djokovic and Nadal then shifted the benchmark yet further forward. The ferocity of their contest made the idea that Murray could beat first one of them and then the other in a Grand Slam semifinal and final look fanciful again. Same goes for Federer, the No. 3. As long as Nadal and Djokovic are fit, it's only going to get ever harder for the 30-year-old Swiss to get his hands on a 17th Grand Slam title by toppling those men five and six years his junior. From Nadal, Sunday's final offered some evidence that the No. 2 no longer looks in trepidation across the net at Djokovic and that the deep hurt done to his confidence by losing six finals to the Serb last year may not be permanent. In becoming the first man to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals, all to Djokovic, at least Nadal this time pushed his nemesis to five sets. But as positive as Nadal sounded about this defeat -- "I always said is good suffer, enjoy -- enjoy suffering, no?" -- will the scabs on his psyche simply flake right off the next time they meet? One hopes not. Because, like the very best Hollywood blockbusters, this epic cried out for a sequel and left us hungry for more. Some, including 7-time major winner Mats Wilander, are already talking up the possibility of a calendar Grand Slam for Djokovic this year. That is premature, but won't be if Djokovic wins the French Open -- the only major he let slip away in 2011 -- this June. After that, Wimbledon's Center Court will be calling, with the men's final on July 8 and the Olympic final a month later. Just imagine if those produce a Djokovic-Nadal double-bill. If that happens, then the Aug. 5 dilemma won't seem so quite knotty anymore. Anyone want tickets for Bolt?

43 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

43 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Shepard

Head coach: John Rone

Assistant coaches: Vincent Holmes, Andy Schindel, Chris Lewis, Justin Harris and Mark Thomas

How they fared in 2018: 8-3 (5-1 South Suburban Red Conference). Shepard made the Class 6A IHSA state football playoff field, defeated Springfield and then lost to Normal West in second round action.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 vs Leyden
Sept. 6 vs St Francis
Sept. 13 @ Reavis
Sept. 20 @ Evergreen Park
Sept. 27 @ Eisenhower
Oct. 4 vs Oak Lawn
Oct. 11 @ Lemont
Oct. 18 vs Richards
Oct. 25 vs Argo

Biggest storyline: Coach Rone’s first season was a success. Can the Astros make another state playoff run in 2019?

Names to watch this season: LB Matthew Hightower (Sr.), WR/DB Jalen Smith (Sr.)

Biggest holes to fill: The Astros welcome back six returning starters back on defense, but they will feature nearly an entire starting offense with very limited experience.

EDGY's Early Take: Head coach John Rone was able to get the Astros into the  playoffs in his first season in charge of the Shepard program. It was also the fourth straight playoff appearance for the school. The Astros always have plenty on hand in the skills department. But the defense may need to carry a talented —but younger— offense. If the pieces can gel, they can challenge for another IHSA state playoff appearance.

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

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AP

Kyle Ryan's emergence is coming at exactly the right time for Cubs

With the MLB trade deadline two weeks away, bullpen help figures to be on the Cubs' wish list.

But thanks in part to Kyle Ryan's emergence, the Cubs don't absolutely need that reliever to be left-handed (though it would probably be ideal).

The Cubs began the week with three southpaws in their bullpen, but at some point this weekend, Ryan may be the lone lefty remaining. Mike Montgomery was traded to the Royals late Monday night and with Carl Edwards Jr. progressing in his rehab (he threw again Tuesday), he might take Randy Rosario's spot in a couple days. 

The Cubs like Edwards against lefties and they also feel confident in Pedro Strop against either handed hitter when he's on. But Ryan has worked his way into Joe Maddon's Circle of Trust and is currently the only lefty residing there.

That's not to say the Cubs don't need another reliable southpaw in the 'pen, but Ryan looks like he's going to get some big outs for this team down the stretch.

"He's done a great job for us since he's been here," Jon Lester said of Ryan last month. "I don't think he gets enough credit for what he's been able to do."

Ryan impressed the Cubs with his work as a multi-inning reliever in Triple-A last season and turned heads again in camp this spring. Still, Rosario made the Opening Day roster over him, though Ryan got called up on the team's season-opening road trip and made his first appearance on April 6.

Since then, he's been a mainstay while Montgomery battled injury and ineffectiveness, Rosario and Tim Collins have bounced between Triple-A Iowa and Chicago and veteran Xavier Cedeno's time off the injured list was short-lived.

Ryan looked to be finding his way throughout his first month in the bullpen, but after his infamous "freeze" moment against the Marlins, he endured some struggles (7 runs allowed on 12 hits in 7 innings from May 8 through June 1).

He's righted the ship since then, permitting only 1 run over his last 17 appearances (14 innings) and lowering his season ERA to 3.21 to go along with a 1.31 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 33.2 innings.

A big part of that recent success can be tied to Ryan's increased improvement against left-handed hitters. 

Lefties hit .344 with a .405 on-base percentage off Ryan through June 5. But since then, Ryan has surrendered only 3 hits — all singles — and zero walks to the 19 left-handed hitters he's faced (.158 AVG).

He credits part of that turnaround to working on a changeup, which he thinks has helped lock in the "feel" of all his other pitches as well as his mechanics. 

As he works to add a new pitch to his repertoire, Ryan has leaned on Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for assistance, while also picking the brains of veterans like Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Brad Brach who have all thrown changeups for quite a while.

But even with all that work, he still hasn't resorted to using the changeup much in games. The pitch is so foreign that it's still being picked up as a sinker, including on the Wrigley Field video board Sunday when he threw one in his inning of work.

"Eventually, I'm gonna find the changeup and it's gonna be a comfortable, confident pitch," Ryan said. "But I do think it's gotten me behind all the rest of my pitches and it's maybe a little bit better feel for everything. It's gonna stay where it is for a while. I'm gonna keep trying."

Ryan said one of the things he likes about the changeup is that it can eventually be a nice weapon because it "goes in the opposite direction" of all his other pitches.

We'll see if the new pitch can ever become a factor for the 27-year-old. But if it's helped lock in his other pitches, that's great news for the Cubs, especially as they look to fortify their bullpen this month.