White Sox

Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

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Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

Everybody talks about team chemistry. Yes, talent is important. But even the most talented team can fumble the ball if it lacks team chemistry, if egos are perceived to be more important than teammates.

Ask Nat Zunkel.

The fourth-year coach at Mercer County in Aledo expected to field a strong and talented team this season. The Golden Eagles were 11-1 last year, losing to Stark County in the state quarterfinals, and returned 17 starters this season. So Zunkel isn't surprised to be 13-0 going into Friday's Class 2A championship game against Belleville Althoff.

"I like what we do. We have bunch of kids who work hard. It's a good feeling to be in charge of a group of great athletes," he said. "We anticipated that we would have a great team, that they could be something special. They have come together in the last few weeks and have played well in the playoffs."

But it hasn't always been that way. "These kids have played together for several years. Their egos have been parked on the side. But we had to deal with it earlier in the year," Zunkel said.

"I was having some parents and kids who were annoyed on the sideline. I could see it. We were ahead by a lot in some games and some kids didn't get many carries and got snotty about it. 'Hey, I need more carries. Hey, I need more playing time.' I sensed trouble and I wanted to end it right away."

At a film session, Zunkel stepped up and said: "If anyone thinks he should be more carries or catches or playing time, stand up in front of your teammates and say so."

"That was the end of it," he said. "I dealt with it and we haven't had to worry about it since then."

Mercer County has gone about its business in surgical fashion. The Golden Eagles have scored 540 points while allowing 93. No opponent has come within 11 points. They ousted Clifton Central 26-7 in last Saturday's semifinals as quarterback Taylor Matlick completed 14 of 23 passes for 211 yards and Zach Nelson scored two touchdowns.

Mercer County (enrollment: 384) is a consolidation of several small towns that merged with Aledo in 2009. They include Joy, Seaton, New Boston, Keithsburg, Burgess, Mannon, Eliza and Millersburg, all in Mercer County.

Zunkel, a 1955 graduate of York in Elmhurst, played football under Gary Grouwinkel. He competed in football and track at Illinois Wesleyan, then coached at Kankakee, Homewood-Flossmoor and Mattoon before becoming head coach at Mercer County in 2009.

"I knew of Aledo. I couldn't find it on a map but I followed high school sports when I was at York and I knew they had a great football program," said Zunkel, who is 41-6 in four years.

Aledo had one of the most successful programs in the state under Cullen Welter, who was 113-22 in 11 years. He won state titles in 1998, 2001 and 2002 and was second in 2005 and 2006.

Zunkel is following in his footsteps. He is running what he calls a "pro-style spread," akin to what the New England Patriots do with four or five receivers and one or two tight ends and one or three or no running backs.

Matlick, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior, is the triggerman. He has passed for 1.900 yards and rushed for 220. Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound senior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. Payton Holmes, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior wide receiver, has accounted for 600 yards via pass receiving and averages 15 yards per catch. The offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior tackle Matt Zimmerman.

"Matlick is our leader. He gets us organized. He is tough. He drives us. He is a special kid," Zunkel said.

The defense, which could be 3-4 or 4-3 or 5-2, features 5-foot-8, 200-pound senior linebacker Caleb King, 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior linebacker Chris Neeld and 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior cornerback Bryce Skiles, who hasn't given up a touchdown pass in two years.

What is the scouting report on Belleville Althoff? "They are good and fast and big. The key is we have got to do what we have done all year--put points on the board and hold them to very few. We have to score and stop them. We haven't had trouble doing that most of the year," Zunkel said.

He cites one statistic above all others that he believes is the difference between victory and defeat, between being a state champion or a runner-up.

"We are plus 35 in the turnover ratio this year. We have 17 interceptions," he said. "That shows how efficient we are on defense. Our kids fly to the ball and make plays."

He hopes they will do more of the same on Friday.

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."