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What we learned about the Cubs at the halfway point

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What we learned about the Cubs at the halfway point

ATLANTA The history of this franchise isnt divided into two parts before and after Anthony Rizzo. It just seemed that way for a few news cycles.

But in one-plus week, Rizzo has come through with enough clutch hits and acrobatic plays at first base to make you think the Cubs have something here, not to mention his sense of calm and maturity in the clubhouse and the dugout.

After all, this is Rizzos third organization in three years, so he already understands that its a business and you cant get too comfortable.

The Cubs are at the halfway point of the season after Wednesdays 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in front of 40,604 fans at Turner Field. There are 81 games in the books, and along with the Colorado Rockies, they have the worst record in baseball (31-50), even after winning seven of their last nine.

When youre 20 games under .500, youve obviously underachieved, manager Dale Sveum said. The thing about it is two really glaring things: We have to start throwing strikes. Period. And you have to hit with men in scoring position. (Thats) where weve struggled.

The defense has been pretty good. (Were) a much more stable team than we were a month ago as far as the lineup goes (and) the back end of the bullpen has been pretty solid.

The next 81 games will be about identifying and acquiring core pieces to build around Rizzo and Starlin Castro, and figuring out what to do with the rotation going forward.

On the Fourth of July, Paul Maholm limited the Braves (42-39) to one run across six innings, which means his name will probably pop up next to Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza on MLBTradeRumors.com.

Rizzo and Bryan LaHair each homered, and that made you wonder what the record would be like if those two big left-handed bats were in the lineup together all season.

And Alfonso Soriano the 136 million lightning rod who is loved by teammates and hated by some fans made a key defensive play, throwing Chipper Jones out at home to end the sixth inning and preserve a one-run lead.

We played a ton of close games (where) the pitcher didnt make the pitch (or) we didnt come up with the big hit, Maholm said. But guys are coming in here preparing and expecting to go for nine (innings), and thats all you can ask. Guys take it hard losing, but you also understand that you got to get back after it tomorrow.

Three-plus months isnt a long time if youre Theo Epstein, who believes in Bill Walshs theory that an executive or coach gets 10 years in an organization before everything becomes stale. The Cubs president of baseball operations has total authority, working for an ownership group that seems to be happy to be his wingmen.

But several things have become clear since Opening Day. Sveum hasnt gone viral with a wacky YouTube moment, projecting calm in his first year on the job. You saw the preparation and attention to detail in the first inning, when Freddie Freeman hit a ball up the middle, right where Castro was standing, for a double play.

Perhaps the fastest way to anger this coaching staff is to freelance and go off the script. The night before, Sveum called out Chris Volstad for shaking off catcher Steve Clevenger too many times, in his 20th start without a victory.

Pitching coach Chris Bosio is a former advance scout with the Milwaukee Brewers, and the staff believes in statistical analysis and defensive positioning. The front office made significant investments in video technology and hired more scouts. Thats why Volstad appeared to have committed a cardinal sin.

Ill just say we wandered a little bit from what we like to do, Bosio said. We do have a clear game plan and when we execute our plan, for the most part, weve been in every game.

Its when we deviate, we walk guys or dont make pitches. We have to make pitches and put the ball in play and not walk guys. ... You got to trust your stuff and let our defense work.

At the age of 22, Castro is a two-time All-Star shortstop, and you cant take talents like that for granted. LaHair has so far taken advantage of the chance of a lifetime, hitting 14 homers in 222 at-bats and being voted an All-Star by his fellow players.

Sveum thinks Darwin Barney who hasnt committed an error in 68 games and routinely makes highlight-reel plays could be a Gold Glove second baseman and perhaps a foundation piece for the future.

Ian Stewart whos scheduled to undergo exploratory surgery on his left wrist that could end his season doesnt look like a long-term answer at third base. Follow his personal Twitter account for updates.

Clevenger has played well enough behind the plate that Sveum has to insist that Geovany Soto isnt a platoon catcher (even if it sometimes looks that way).

The Cubs are 14-23 in games decided by one or two runs, which could be a sign that theyre not light years away. Adding Rizzo and fixing closer Carlos Marmol (whos converted his last six save opportunities) could make a difference on the bottom line.

Its frustrating, utility man Jeff Baker said. We lost a lot of games early in the year that we probably could have won. We put ourselves behind the eight-ball to where now were playing spoiler.

We still got a competitive team. Well go out there and play hard. Guys are making improvements. Youve seen guys get better.

Sveum thinks the goal is to play .500 ball or better the rest of the way, though no one knows what this team is going to look like before and after the July 31 trade deadline. The changes could be drastic.

Thats the reality of the game when youre in the situation we are, Sveum said. Day-to-day, it could be a completely different roster. You never know whats going to happen. (So) you can have a different lineup (or) a different pitching staff at any time during the month of July, and even into August.

A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask

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USA TODAY

A sneak peek at Cam Ward's new Blackhawks goalie mask

It's a new year, new team for Cam Ward, who spent his first 13 NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes before signing in Chicago on a one-year deal this summer. That means a newly-designed goalie mask is required to match up with his new team's colors, uniform and Blackhawks logo.

The designer of Ward's goalie masks Steve Nash, whose clients include 2017-18 Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, two-time Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick and three-time 30-win netminder Martin Jones, shared a teaser on Twitter of Ward's new Blackhawks-themed mask for the upcoming season and it's sweet.

Check it out:

Bears confirm OLB Leonard Floyd underwent surgery to repair fracture in right hand

Bears confirm OLB Leonard Floyd underwent surgery to repair fracture in right hand

Bears head coach Matt Nagy confirmed to reporters on Monday that OLB Leonard Floyd underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his right hand he sustained in the first quarter of Saturday's 24-23 preseason win over the Denver Broncos.

The good news is, the Bears are optimistic that Floyd will be available to play in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers. The bad news is, he'll likely have to play with a cast on until his injury fully heals.

"I don't think it's going to be healed, I think he's going to have to end up playing through it," Nagy said. "It might require something in regards to having a cast or a club-type deal. There's been evidence of guys that have had that and been productive, so that's what we're hoping." 

TE Adam Shaheen, who suffered a right ankle sprain on the first drive of the game, is still being evaluated and it's unclear whether or not he'll be ready by Week 1.

"We're not sure there yet," Nagy said. "We're hoping. We'll probably know more later today after the tests come back."