Cubs

Second time's the charm for Ervin

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Second time's the charm for Ervin

In his second tour of duty at his alma mater, Tim Ervin has turned Providence-St. Mel into an Elite Eight qualifier. The Knights will carry a 23-7 record into Tuesday night's game against Class 2A favorite Seton Academy in the supersectional at Joliet Central.

This has been an eye-opening, record-setting season for Providence-St. Mel. The Knights have won three regionals in a row but this marks their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2002. It has been a long time since Tom Shields coached St. Mel to three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight and the state championship in 1985.

"We were the No. 1 seed in our regional but I don't think people thought we were the best team," Ervin said.

"These kids don't relate to the 1980s but they know about it. They see the trophies in the trophy case. Those things have a short shelf life. But these kids know the importance of tradition. They want to restore the feeling of the 1980s in the school."

Ervin, a St. Mel graduate of 1991, is in his third year as head coach--for the second time. He walked on at Purdue, played for Gene Keady, then assisted coach Billy Garrett at St. Mel in the late 1990s. He was head coach for three years but was fired after going 0-25.

"I was out of coaching for six years," Ervin said. "But I remained involved with the school. When coach Todd Kelly left to become an assistant at North Central College in 2009, they asked me to come back. I had no bitterness over being fired. I understood. It all worked out."

Providence-St. Mel hasn't lost since Jan. 21. Last Friday, the Knights defeated Tilden 65-52 for the sectional title. Tevin King, a 6'1" sophomore, scored 21 points and 6'1" junior Khalil Small had 15.

They have been battle-tested against such strong opponents as Marshall, Hope Academy, Corliss, Dunbar, Foreman and Lake Forest Academy. In the regional semifinal, they trailed Raby by 20 in the second quarter and rallied to win by four in overtime.

"That taught us not to take any team lightly and if we trust and believe in system, it will work out," Ervin said. "It showed me that they had grown up and they had become mature. They fought through adversity. Small got 29 points and took charge."

Ervin welcomed only one returning senior from last year's 18-10 team that lost to Aurora Christian in the sectional. But he felt this team had a chance to reach this point because it played good man-to-man defense and played hard all the time.

"What I am surprised about is how well they are playing," he admitted. "They bought into our system early, playing hard and playing defense, being a family. They are excited about how much progress we have made."

The starters are King (13.5 ppg), Small (16 ppg), 5'11" junior guard Teadric Anderson (7 ppg), 6'1" junior Donald Morgan (8 ppg) and 6'2" senior Vesper Young. Anthony Mosley (8 ppg), a 5'11" freshman, and 6'2" sophomore Bernard Lilly (4 ppg) come off the bench.

"King is a winner. He has a great personality and the other kids like him and respect him," said Ervin of the youngster who was rated as one of the best eighth grade players in the city coming out of grammar school. "He and Anderson and Small bonded well together last year. They are our team leaders. We're successful because the kids play well for each other."

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: