Bulls

Waiting on Almora deal, Cubs see draft class take shape

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Waiting on Almora deal, Cubs see draft class take shape

Albert Almora is the biggest name at the top of the board.

Sources say the Cubs are confident they will be able to sign Almora, that it would be a surprise if the No. 6 overall pick didnt come to an agreement before the July 13 deadline.

Almora, whos being advised by super-agent Scott Boras, has a full scholarship to the University of Miami, but the 18-year-old outfielder has played up almost his entire life.

Almora made the Mater Academy varsity while still in grade school, played for the year-round elite travel teams in South Florida and has already won five gold medals with Team USA.

While waiting to close on Almora, the Cubs announced on Saturday that they have signed 15 players from their 2012 draft class, including Paul Blackburn, a right-hander from Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif.

The 18-year-old Blackburn, who had committed to Arizona State University, will receive a 911,700 bonus as the No. 56 overall pick, according to Baseball America. He went 8-3 with a 1.27 ERA as a high school senior, striking out 84 in 77.1 innings while walking only 17.

After using their top pick on Almora, the Cubs took seven consecutive pitchers, and 22 in total, trying to address the organizations biggest need. That was the takeaway from the first draft of the Theo Epstein administration.

Obviously, we went pitching heavy, Epstein said recently. Theres a pretty big void of pitching in our system, so beginning to address that issue with quantity, as well as quality, was something that was attractive to us, because theres so much attrition pitching-wise.

Blackburn is a more advanced, sort of polished high school pitcher who also has a chance to have three average-to-above pitches.

You need to draft numbers in order to withstand all the attrition that happens. We needed to stock the system with pitching, and we feel like we did.

The Cubs have also signed: Coastal Carolina right-hander Josh Conway (fourth round); University of Virginia infielder Stephen Bruno (seventh); University of South Carolina Beaufort left-hander Michael Heesch (eighth); University of California-Berkeley catcher Chadd Krist (ninth); and Georgia high school outfielder Rashad Crawford (11th), whos said to have eye-opening athletic ability and is regarded as a sleeper pick from this draft.

The Cubs have not made the Pierce Johnson deal official, but the Missouri State University right-hander recently posted this message on his personal Twitter account: Just signed with the Chicago Cubs! Thanks to God, family, teammates, coaches, and friends. If it wasn't for you guys I wouldn't be here!

Injury concerns probably pushed Johnson down to the No. 43 overall pick. He had a 2.53 ERA in 14 starts this year and notched 227 strikeouts in 216 innings during his three seasons at Missouri State.

Pierce Johnson is somebody that we watched closely all year, Epstein said. We didnt think we were going to have a chance at him. The little forearm strain that he had probably played to our advantage, because he doesnt get out of the first round if he had stayed healthy the entire year.

He threw great right before the draft and looked really healthy and we were real happy to be in a position to choose him. Hes got a plus fastball and gets swings-and-misses and groundballs with it, and has a plus breaking ball as well. Hes a real competitor on the mound.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

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AP

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."