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Practice not just about BCS Championship for Notre Dame

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Practice not just about BCS Championship for Notre Dame

With exactly one month until the BCS Championship, Notre Dame held its first bowl practice Friday as the team begins preparation for Alabama. But there's more to this month of practice -- interrupted by a six-day break for Christmas -- than breaking down what the Irish need to do to beat the Tide in South Florida.

As is the case with all bowl-eligible teams, the extra weeks of practice that come with a bowl bid are used to get reps for guys who haven't played much, or at all, in the regular season. That's no different for Notre Dame despite playing in the biggest bowl game of them all.

"We really think that weve got the nucleus of some great young players that are going to get a chance to develop in this time as well," coach Brian Kelly said. "Its going to be a little bit like preseason camp, where were going to have a chance to do a lot of fundamental work, were going to get some young guys running -- were going to see Amir Carlisle. Were going to get a chance to see some guys who havent played this year.

"Thats really exciting to me and our coaches, theres no question about that, as well as getting our guys' weight back up and getting stronger in the weight room and developing our football team and getting a little bit more (weight) on an Everett Golson. Those are really exciting because they move your program along. And then get a chance to focus on Alabama."

Carlisle, a running back who transferred to Notre Dame from USC but redshirted in 2012 with an ankle injury, is one of a handful of players who will get early looks for 2013 in the coming weeks. Gunner Kiel, who also redshirted, is among the high-profile players who should get a look as well.

But it's not just about guys who redshirted. Plenty of freshmen played, but not frequently and will get an extended chance to develop in December. One of last year's emerging stars from bowl practice was Stephon Tuitt, who emerged in 2012 as one of the nation's top defensive ends.

"From that point to the bowl game, it hit me to know about the defense," Tuitt said earlier this year. "It was all better, it was all comfortable then."

As for what Notre Dame will work on in preparation for Alabama, topping the list is red zone efficiency. The Irish scored on 79 percent of their trips to the red zone, good for the 78th-best rate among FBS teams. More concerning, though, is the offense only converted a red zone opportunity into a touchdown 46.5 percent of the time -- the sixth-worst rate in the nation.

It's no surprise, then, that Notre Dame kicked more field goals (19) on red zone trips than any other FBS team. That's something that the Irish recognize has to change.

"We definitely have to improve. We're not there yet, we don't feel like it," running back Theo Riddick said after the USC game. " coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Cubs ride unconventional pitching performances to 8-6 win over the Reds

Before Thursday’s game against the Phillies, Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon was asked if, given the current state of their bullpen, Tyler Chatwood could see some innings as the closer. 

“I think he’s amenable to it...” Maddon responded. “... the big thing with him is throwing strikes. If he does that -- his stuff is that electric -- we’ll use him any time. As he gets well from [throwing 4 innings on Wednesday night] it’ll probably a solid two days, maybe three, before he’s ready to go again. We’ll see - we’ll see that night needs. I’m not afraid of it by any means.

“I would say that the first time he got a chance with us, it would be because the other guys aren’t available that night.”

48 hours later, with the Cubs white knuckling a two-run lead, it was Chatwood coming out of the ‘pen in the top of the 9th. Two singles, a double-play, and a Yasiel Puig flyout later, Chatwood had closed out one of the Cubs’ more unconventional wins of the season, a 8-6 nail-biter that featured a little bit of everything.  

“It was a little bit [surprising],” Chatwood said. “But I kept myself ready. I was able to get loose in the pen and luckily I got that double play right there, and we won. So it’s good.” 

On a day when the Cubs’ cobbled together their pitching performance, it was Yu Darvish’s 7 innings -- the first time he’s gotten that deep into a game since 2017 -- that kept Chicago in punching distance. The line itself isn’t particularly flattering; six runs on 12 hits is an eyesore. His performance may not have played well on Cubs Twitter, but those inside the clubhouse could not stop talking about it. 

“That was huge. I thought he was really good today,” Albert Almora, who already surpassed his 2018 home run total (5) with a solo homer in the 2nd inning, said. “I didn’t think he was going to come back out, so I said ‘good job’ to him in the 7th. I saw him back out in the 8th and was like ‘all right, he wanted it.’” 

“It looked like he emptied the tank against Puig in the 7th with a big strikeout,” Chatwood added. “But he still went back out there and battled and pitched into the 8th. That’s huge. We didn’t have many people available today, and I think he knew that. I thought that was one of the best games he’s thrown the ball.”

Darvish managed to strand eight base runners, though, and only walked two. He’s now gone three straight games while walking three batters or less, something he’d failed to do at any point prior. 

“I knew that the bullpen was going through a little struggle, and didn’t have much rest,” Darvish said. “So my main goal was to go more than 7 innings today.” 

On a warm day, with the wind blowing straight out at 16 miles per hour, Wrigley played as small as it has all year. The Cubs (and the Reds, for that matter) went deep three times, which brings their homestand total to 11. 

“The wind was a friend to both sides today,” Maddon said. “But really, you’ve got to give Yu a ton of credit for getting deeply into the game today. He still had his good stuff in the end. The stuff was still there, but it’s 107 pitches, and it’s just deflating when all that happens.” 

Not to be outdone by the guy who started the game or the guy who finished it, recently-called up pitcher Dylan Maples was the winning pitcher of record. He and Tim Collins came in from Triple-A Iowa that morning, and Maddon wasted no time throwing Maples into the fire. After walking his first batter, Maples got Reds’ rookie Nick Senzel to strikeout on a 91mph fastball to end the 8th. 

If it hasn't seemed easy of late, that's because it hasn't been. Of the Cubs’ first 50 games, 16 have been decided by one run (9-7). Over their last 12 games, eight have been decided by two or less runs. 

“They seem to all be like that,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Especially recently. We’re seeing a lot of good pitching. 

“That’s entertainment, guys. Woah.” 

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Joe Maddon on MLB's absurd home run rate: 'The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird'

Cubs manager Joe Maddon usually isn’t one for conspiracy theories, but even he’s wondering what’s going on. MLB teams are hitting home runs at an absurd rate, including the Cubs, who are hitting them at a historic rate for the franchise’s standards.

Entering Saturday, here’s where MLB teams stand in average home run rate and total home runs in 2019 compared to recent seasons:

2017: 1.26/game, 6,105 total
2018: 1.15/game, 5,585 total
2019: 1.33/game, 2,009 total

While the MLB season is just over 30 percent finished, teams are on pace to hit a combined 6,483 long balls in 2019. This would absolutely obliterate the 2017 total, which, like the 1.33 home runs per game figure, would be an MLB record.

The Cubs are no exception to this home run wave. Including Saturday (game No. 50 of the season), the team has hit 80 home runs (and counting) in 2019. Only the 2000 Cubs (83) hit more home runs in their first 50 games in franchise history.

“We’re having home runs hit here into some firm breezes, which has not happened before,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to reporters before Saturday’s game against the Reds. “That’s the thing that stands out to me. It’s been crazy.

“Even [Kyle] Schwarber’s home run, I know that was hit well, but dang, that wind was blowing pretty firmly across at that point.”

Schwarber absolutely crushed his home run yesterday, a 449-foot blast that needed little help getting into the bleachers. However, Maddon has a valid point regarding home runs being hit despite the wind. Entering Saturday, 54 total home runs have been hit at Wrigley Field this season, 29 of which have come with the wind blowing in.

By the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, the Cubs and Reds had hit a combined six home runs, one of which appeared to be a routine fly ball hit by Jason Heyward that wound up in the left field basket thanks to the wind. At the same time, Yasiel Puig hit one 416 feet onto Waveland Ave. that had a 109 mph exit velocity. The wind blowing out at Wrigley Field helps, but it isn’t everything.

MLB players have questioned time and time again if baseballs are “juiced,” including Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester. And while Maddon didn’t flat out say that he thinks the baseballs are juiced, he notices a difference in how they're flying off the bat.

“I don’t know, I’m normally not into the subplot component of all of this and the conspiracy theorists, but I’m telling you right now, it’s jumping,” he said. “It’s absolutely jumping.

“Nobody is ever going to admit to it. The wind’s being broken here. It’s really weird.”

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