Cubs

NU's Siemian struggles through the air continue

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NU's Siemian struggles through the air continue

Both Northwestern's and Nebraska's offense expected to see stout run defense against their highly-successful ground games. Bo Pelini's group entered Saturday's affair as the top rushing team in the Big Ten, running for 292.0 yards per game. The Wildcats also had attacked via the ground game through seven weeks, rushing for 229.9 yards per game, fourth best in the Big Ten.
And, for the most part, both offenses were limited on the ground.
Led by Damien Proby's 12 tackles, Northwestern held Nebraska to 44 rushes for 201 yards, its lowest rushing total this season. The Wildcats rushed 38 times for 180 yards, their third lowest total of the year and second lowest total in Big Ten play.
But the difference Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field was that one team, Northwestern, couldn't make up for the low run totals through the air in the Cornhuskers' 29-28 win at Ryan Field.
Nebraska was the 15th best pass defense in the country when they entered Evanston on Saturday, and ranked behind only Michigan and Minnesota in the Big Ten. Pelini's group used that to their advantage, constantly stacking the box against Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter.
The response was simple: attack the box against eight- or nine-man fronts, or try and attack the Nebraska cornerbacks one-on-one with little safety help over the top.
"Schematically you knew they were really going to load the box and we were going to have to take some shots down the field," Fitzgerald said.
The Widcats did a little bit of both, but couldn't rely on the latter to balance out the attack.
Northwestern's Trevor Siemian finished 15-of-35 for 116 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Toby Jones, who beat single coverage down the right sideline to give the Wildcats a late second quarter lead.
Siemian's other touchdown pass, a 10-yard strike to Dan Vitale, came on the heels of a muffed punt return by Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. The Wildcats recovered on the Huskers' 14, giving Siemian a short field to work with.
But the second half was a nightmare for Siemian. Though he was never sacked and had relatively good protection, the junior signal caller finished was 6-of-18 for 57 yards after halftime. At one point he threw incomplete on six straight passes in the third quarter.
The plan, coach Pat Fitzgerald said, was to take chances on the outside and see if the Wildcat wide receivers could win those one-on-one battles. It happened once with Jones, but they needed one more play from the skill players they never received.
"If we make one of those catches and throws it's a different game. We ended up making one for the touchdown pass, but there were about four or five other ones that, if they're gonna go out and play one-on-one, we've got to take advantage of it," Fitzgerald said, "and we just couldn't make those plays."
Credit must be given to the Cornhuskers' secondary, which played aggressive and confident throughout the game. On his own, cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste broke up five passes, more than half of the nine Nebraska compiled as a team.
The heavy run support was also meant to shut down Kain Colter, who finished with just 57 all-purpose yards, easily his lowest output of the season. He was a non-factor much of the afternoon, especially compared to his performance last season against the Cornhuskers, when he had 229 all-purpose yards in the Wildcats' 28-25 win.
But even without the luxury of Colter and Venric Mark, who left with an undisclosed injury in the fourth quarter, Siemian almost made up for his sluggish second half. On Northwestern's final drive, completing three straight passes for 32 yards to get inside the Nebraska 40 yard-line trailing by one.
That range was close enough for kicker Jeff Budzien, but Siemian threw an incomplete pass, tucked and ran for three yards on second down, and threw incomplete again on 3rd and 7 in an attempt to get closer. Budzein missed the 53-yard attempt wide right.
"We were in position to make a few plays there down the stretch and we didn't make them," Fitzgerald said.
On the other end, Taylor Martinez made up Northwestern's tough run defense with his arm, throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns. The Big Ten's most efficient passer got better as the afternoon went on, scoring three second half touchdowns, including two passes in the final seven minutes.
In the end there was more than one reason Northwestern failed to take down the Huskers in a crucial Legends Divison game. But if teams continue to key in on the run, knowing Siemian will struggle throwing the ball, Saturday afternoon could be a trend for the Wildcats.
"We gave ourselves every opportunity to do it, but we didn't make plays down the stretch," Fitzgerald said, "and we give credit to Nebraska for doing that. We ended up on the short end."

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.