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Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

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Theo Epstein says Cubs will grind through tough start

Near the end of spring training, Theo Epstein told beat reporters that he could write their stories for them. The Cubs president of baseball operations already saw their angles.

Epstein didn't know when it was coming, but at some point he predicted the headlines would scream: The honeymoon is over.

The city isn't there yet, even if the Cubs had lost five of their first six games. As much as fans will demand to see Epstein riding on a float down Michigan Avenue, deep down they seem resigned that 2012 will be a bridge year.

Epstein watched batting practice from behind the cage on Thursday at Wrigley Field and then walked into the Cubs dugout.

Holding a dark suit jacket in his hands, the collar to his white dress shirt open, Epstein declined when a reporter jokingly asked him to write the lede.

"No, we've been in every game," Epstein said. "We just got to grind through it. These things even out."

A few hours later, almost everything fell into place in an 8-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. A lineup that had scored 19 runs in the season's first six games dropped eight on Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and went 7-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

There was Alfonso Soriano flicking a broken-bat, two-run single into right field, then stealing second base and crossing home plate with dirt covering the front of his uniform.

There was Matt Garza, one out away from a complete-game shutout, firing the ball into the seats behind first base. Who writes this stuff?

"No, I'm not discouraged about anything," Epstein said. "We just got to keep grinding. We faced some pretty good pitching. We haven't really locked in our approach yet. Our right-on-right performance hasn't been exemplary yet, but we'll get there.

"We got to make things tougher on opposing starters. It's tough to win games when they can be as efficient as they've been. Even early in the season, with the lower pitch counts, it keeps them in the games late. When you go starting pitcher, setup guy, closer, it's tough to win.

"You got to try to get into the other end of their bullpen. You do that by grinding at-bats, seeing pitches, having a disciplined approach. So we'll get there. We're a week into the season. We're finding our way."

No, the Cubs aren't relentless like those Boston Red Sox teams that used to grind out at-bats and play deep into October. You can't just rewire this lineup, flip a switch and expect it to be patient.

But the rotation has been better than advertised, and you've noticed how aggressive the Cubs have been on the bases. Dale Sveum projected calm after the bullpen meltdowns and doesn't carry himself like a first-year manager.

That's why catcher Geovany Soto pointed out they're only one pitch away, and second baseman Darwin Barney said you don't pull the chute in Week 1.

"Yeah, we've had a couple nights where we haven't had the best of luck," Garza said. "But I'll take the way we're playing over anything right now. The record might not show it, but we're playing good baseball.

"We're running out balls. We're making other teams panic. We're pitching, throwing strikes, playing catch.

"That's good baseball right there. The hits and the offense will come. But as long as we keep pitching and playing defense, we'll be all right."

Epstein has promised that his front office will block out all the noise on talk radio and shrug off what's written online and in the newspapers. The sky is falling in Boston, where the Red Sox also woke up on Thursday with a 1-5 record.

"Tough starts are always amplified," Epstein said, "no matter where you are, because there's no reference point for anybody when you're that early in the season.

"When teams have tough weeks at the start of the season, it gets a lot more attention than it would if it was the middle of August somewhere. No matter what team you're talking about, they're getting into the grind of the season.

"I'm not going to talk about another team, other than to say, 'Hey, they have a ton of time, they'll be fine.'"

The Red Sox will be celebrating Fenway Park's 100th anniversary on April 20. Every ex-player and manager has been invited to that game against the New York Yankees, for what should be a blowout ceremony.

This week Terry Francona told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy that he has no interest in attending. The former manager felt like his reputation was stained by anonymous sources on the way out of town last year.

Epstein grew up not far from Yawkey Way and helped build two teams that won World Series titles and changed New England forever. Will he be there?

"No, we have a game that night," Epstein said.

Blakchawks Talk Podcast: What should the Blackhawks be asking for this holiday season?

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USA TODAY

Blakchawks Talk Podcast: What should the Blackhawks be asking for this holiday season?

On the latest Hawks Talk podcast, Pat Boyle, Steve Konroyd and Charlie Roumeliotis discuss Corey Crawford's concussion, Henri Jokiharju leaving the team to play in World Juniors, how the Blackhawks defensemen stack up, and what gift do the Blackhawks need this holiday season?

01:30 Corey Crawford's concussion

04:00 You can't use Crawford's injury as an excuse this season

06:10 Hawks able to get a look at Collin Delia

07:00 Henri Jokiharju to play for Finland in World Juniors

10:30 Erik Gustafsson's potential

14:00 Strome and Kane playing on the same line

17:00 What have the guys seen from Dylan Sikura

21:30 Tough back to back games at Dallas and Colorado

24:30 Guys give their holiday gift to the Blackhawks

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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Nets rebuilding starts to gain momentum ahead of showdown with Bulls

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USA TODAY

Nets rebuilding starts to gain momentum ahead of showdown with Bulls

After years of being handcuffed by the ill-fated Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce trade that cost the Nets’ franchise several prime lottery picks, Brooklyn is starting to come out of the abyss under energetic young coach Kenny Atkinson.

The Nets’ front office was able to absorb the contracts of veteran players like DeMarre Carroll, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur for draft considerations, while also picking up former #2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell by taking on the massive contract of Timofey Mozgov from the Lakers. In addition, they also traded veterans Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic for 1st rounders that became starters Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.

Under Atkinson’s direction, the Nets have bought into a culture of hard work and unselfish play. They improved from 20 to 28 wins a year ago, and are currently within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the East.

LeVert is currently sidelined after dislocating his right ankle in a scary fall in early November, but he should return at some point this season. At the time of his injury, LeVert was leading the Nets in scoring at 18.4 points per game while shooting nearly 48% from the field, looking like a candidate for a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. In his absence, the Nets have gone with a share the wealth approach, with Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all scoring in double figures.

Dinwiddie is the name that should be familiar to Bulls’ fans. He was with the team during training camp in 2016, but let go when the Bulls acquired Michael Carter-Williams in a deal with Milwaukee. Since that time, Dinwiddie has fully recovered from an ACL injury he suffered in college and emerged as a top candidate for the NBA’s 6th man award, averaging 17.2 points and 5 assists per game while shooting almost 48% from the field. Hindsight is always 20-20, but Dinwiddie would certainly look good in the Bulls’ backcourt right now.

Still, the most exciting thing for Nets’ fans right now is the team’s salary cap situation. Thanks to all the moves made by General Manager Sean Marks, Brooklyn could have the ability to offer 2 max contracts in 2019 free agency. Whether Marks will be able to get a meeting with any of the big names like Durant, Leonard, Irving, Butler and Thompson is still to be determined, but at least there’s finally some hope for a turnaround in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have sunk to 7-24  and have been the league’s least efficient offensive team since Jim Boylen took over as head coach. Boylen wants his shorthanded team to play at a more deliberate tempo in direct contrast to the current pace-and-space trend that’s taken over the league. With leading scorer Zach LaVine out because of injury and Jabari Parker inactive while the front office tries to work out a trade, the Bulls are painfully short on offensive options and need to rely on an improved defense to stay competitive in games.

Like Brooklyn, the Bulls figure to have cap space this summer to pursue free agents, but they’ll need to show improvement and stability over the final 51 games to make their sales pitch effective.

As for Wednesday’s game, here’s what the Bulls need to do to have a chance for a home court win.

1.   FAST BREAK POINTS.  We know Boylen wants to put the brakes on the Bulls’ transition game, but the Nets come to town after hosting the Lakers Tuesday night which means there could be a few players on the court with tired legs. When the Bulls force a turnover, they need to look for an easy scoring opportunity before the defense sets up. Oklahoma City had a 27-9 advantage in fast break points on Monday.

2.   MARKKANEN IN THE POST.  The 7 foot forward was extremely effective in the 2nd half of the come-from-behind win in San Antonio by isolating against smaller defenders for drives and step-back jumpers. Markkanen will have a height advantage against Brooklyn’s smaller frontcourt, and he should be able to shoot over the top of Hollis-Jefferson, another former Arizona Wildcat.

3.   SHUT DOWN SPENCER.  Dinwiddie has been in celebration mode this week after signing a brand new 3 year, 34 million dollar contract extension. Still, Dinwiddie gets pretty serious in talking about the 2 NBA teams that gave up on him (Pistons and Bulls) knowing that all he needed was time to fully recover from a serious knee injury. The 25 year old guard has been providing instant offense off the bench for Brooklyn, and you can bet he’ll have the green light when he enters the game at the United Center.

We hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me for Bulls Pregame Live at 6:30 Wednesday on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app. After the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for Jim Boylen’s media session and player reaction from the locker room on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by Bulls Outsiders.