Blackhawks

What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?

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What if Rizzo had been here all year with the Cubs?

ATLANTA This is what Theo Epstein would categorize as external noise, the stuff the Cubs front office has vowed to ignore.

The newspapers, cyberspace and talk radio have been trying to measure the Anthony Rizzo Effect since the organizations top prospect was promoted from Triple-A Iowa last week.

But on this level, even manager Dale Sveum can identify with anyone on the message boards, or any other first-time caller, long-time listener.

Have you thought about what this team would look like if Rizzo had been here the entire season?

Well, Id be lying if I said I didnt, Sveum said with a laugh before Thursdays 7-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves left the Cubs at 31-51. Its obviously a more dynamic offensive team.

Were getting to that plateau a little more of scoring four or more runs. (That) gives you a heck of a lot better chance, especially (since) when we score four or more we our records pretty good (23-15).

Sure, you think about it. You think about if (Luis) Valbuena was here all year, (how hes) produced and played the defense he has. But thats not how baseball usually works.

Actually, the Cubs have hit that mark in only four of the nine games since Rizzos arrival. And even Sveum will tell you that everything revolves around starting pitching, and any bounce (six wins in nine games) has as much to do with standout performances by Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija.

But its hard to ignore the numbers Rizzo has put up: .314 average, three homers and six RBIs. He became the Cub to ever have three game-winning RBI in his first five games with the team.

Factor in the plus defense that had the staff thinking Rizzo would have made that play in the beginning of April, and you begin to understand why people are getting carried away.

It definitely hasnt hurt, Samardzija said. Rizzos presence in our lineup is big. Any time you add a big lefty bat to your lineup, it strengthens it big-time. He plays great defense at first, (so) hes definitely been a big part of it, no doubt.

We expect big things out of him every day. And I think the best thing about him is he expects that out of himself.

There is something to be said for an infusion of youth and energy into the clubhouse, which cant be quantified. Even Bryan LaHair who had to move to the outfield but might wind up starting at first base for the National League All-Star team said of Rizzo: Im going to push him, and hes going to push me.

To be clear, even Rizzo, 22, has said that he benefited from the extra time at Iowa. The Cubs have insisted that player development drove the decision. Between this season and last, he played 163 games at the Triple-A level, essentially a full season to make sure he never goes back there.

General manager Jed Hoyer has repeatedly said that he made a mistake while running the San Diego Padres, rushing Rizzo to the big leagues last summer and watching the kid hit .141 with one homer and 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats.

Of course, there were financial incentives to preserve an extra year of club control and make sure Rizzo doesnt become a free agent until after the 2018 season. It didnt stop the Cubs from positioning him to be a Super Two player eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season.

Obviously, he was hyped and hes living up to it, Maholm said. But I think the thing that impresses you most is he comes in every day (and) he works hard. (Hes) prepared for the games.

A lot of young guys that come up, you can see them up there just hacking at the first pitch and not wanting to get into deep counts and strike out.

Whenever they groove him one first pitch, hes ready for it, but hes willing to grind it out. Hes willing to take a walk. Hes willing to get the guy over.

Hes obviously matured as a hitter since his struggles last year in San Diego. Hopefully, you continue to see him do that and relax and just let the talent work and not think that he has to put us on his back.

Rizzo had a reputation for tinkering, but the Cubs feel like he solidified his mechanics at Triple-A. You certainly notice the difference in those split-screen shots between San Diego and Iowa. The hands are lower, and the swing is more compact.

The new swing he has is going to play at this level, Sveum said. Everything is just playing way more into the ability to hit a major-league fastball.

Would Rizzo have been a game-changer the first two-plus months of the season? Maybe it could have made things interesting, or he could have fallen into the same bad habits. Well never know the answer, but no one should pretend this team was one piece away.

For all the cameras and microphones that have surrounded Rizzo, and the buzz he generated on Twitter, he comes across as low-key and even-keeled. He certainly isnt asking for the attention.

Reading everything will just make your head go crazy, Rizzo said. (With) all the clamor about a month ago, I was still getting away with things at the Triple-A level that you cant get away with here. I think staying down for an extra couple weeks really helped me out.

Thats a good, politically correct answer. For Epstein and his crew, it was never about this year or next year. Its supposed to be playing baseball in October year after year after year, with Rizzo the calm at the center of the storm.

Blackhawks record 500th consecutive sellout at United Center

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USA Today

Blackhawks record 500th consecutive sellout at United Center

The Blackhawks have had many ups over the last decade-plus, highlighted by three Stanley Cups. They've also had some downs recently, missing the playoffs for two seasons in a row after nine straight appearances.

But the fan support hasn't wavered.

On Monday against the Edmonton Oilers, the Blackhawks announced a crowd of 21,260, which became their 500th consecutive sellout at the United Center (436 regular season, 64 postseason). The NHL record is held by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are at 572 games and counting. 

The Blackhawks have led the league in attendance for 11 straight seasons, which started during the 2008-09 campaign.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.