Category Archives: Baseball

Cubs Ahead of Schedule, But Fans Should Still Practice Patience

The Cubs’ 9-game win streak came to an end this weekend, after a dominant 15 strike out performance by Chris Sale in a loss to the White Sox on Sunday at U.S Cellular Field.

And this is no disrespect to the Cubs, but when I saw Sale vs. Haren, I knew the end of the road was near. Oy-Cubs

The loss ends an exciting run of games by this young Cubs team who are performing well above expectations and ahead of schedule.

The last time the Cubs won nine games in a row was in May of 2008. The fact that they are in playoff contention and winning in this fashion so late in the season is not only remarkable, but also completely unexpected. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this was their longest streak in August or later since they won 10 in a row in September, 1953.

After being swept by the Phillies at the end of July, many analysts thought this would be the beginning of the downward spiral for this young Cubs team. They had kept themselves in contention for longer than anyone expected, but lack of experience was finally going to get the best of them as the games started to matter more and more.

The Cubs didn’t see it that way.

They went on to win 16 of 19 after that series, including a 4-game sweep of the defending champion San Francisco Giants. During that stretch, Kris Bryant had a 12-game hit streak and Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler both hit near .400, not to mention the hot run Kyle Schwarber has been on since his most recent call up. But it hasn’t just been the bats. In his last 10 starts, Jake Arrieta is 7-1 with a 1.23 ERA, which is 3rd best since late June. The Cubs also have the best road record in baseball at 33-25.

This is not a fluke. The Cubs really are this good. They’ll tell you themselves.

And it has been so much fun to watch, in part because you can tell it has been so much fun for them. This does not feel like a “curse-busting” team of strung-together players like we saw during the playoff runs in 2003 and ’07-’08. This does not feel like a group carrying the baggage of 109 years of losing like those teams did. This is a whole new type of Cubs team, a complete re-build of not just a roster, but a way of baseball in Chicago.

The Cubs are somehow still “quietly” sitting with the fourth best record in baseball, in part because of the quality of their own division. Two of the three teams with better records than the Cubs also reside in the Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the exception of the AL Central, the Cubs would be in first place in every other division in baseball. The fact that the hype machine has not completely overtaken Chicago yet is a factor I believe is helping the Cubs focus entirely on improving as a team and winning games.

As great as they are playing on the field, I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the work Joe Maddon is doing. As exciting as the Maddon hiring was prior to the start of the season, expectations were still not through the roof. Baseball managers do not add more than 3-4 wins above replacement, especially on a team with their best days still expected to be ahead of them. As much as Maddon is known for his personality and antics, his biggest role so far in Chicago has been to keep them grounded – focusing on fundamentals, not taking anything for granted and earning their way onto the field every day. So far there has been very little drama and they look like a team that belongs in the playoff race every time they come out onto the field.

But as I watch and as expectations continue to rise, I feel it is important to make a plea to Cubs fans not to forget to exercise patience in a sports world focused on results, viewing anything short of a title as a failed season.

As great as they have been, there is plenty of time to regress. We’ve seen them go through stretches where they struggle to score runs, and with a tough final 7 weeks ahead of them that will see two series’ each against the Cardinals and Pirates, it is still possible that despite their record, the Cubs could still miss the playoffs – be it by record or a loss in a play-in game.

It is important to remember, we were not supposed to be here yet this season. This is still a team with four rookies that are more or less everyday starters. We were not even supposed to see Schwarber or Addison Russell until next season. Let’s not let our history of bitterness and cynicism spoil what this team has already done. I hope as much as anyone that this continues into the playoffs, but if it doesn’t, this season was still a huge success. The Cubs are finally moving in the right direction. It is not always going to be an exponential growth, there will be setbacks, but the fans on the north side need to appreciate that they have the privilege of watching the Cubs play in games that matter in August and September. That even if they lose those games, the fact that they are happening at all is something to be grateful for.

Truly “Mr. Cub”; Ernie Banks dies at age 83

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I’ve been a Cubs fan since birth, and sadly, being a Cubs fan has never really been about winning. Sure I still root for them every year, but I’ve grown weary of the “this is our year” mentality that tends to end in heartbreak. For me, being a Cubs fan has always been about my connection to the Cubs through my family. My dad is a Cubs fan, as was his dad who, like Ernie Banks, lived 80+ years and never saw the Cubs win a World Series.

In many ways, Ernie Banks embodied the true spirit of what it means to be a Cubs fan. Even after his playing days were long over, he found so much joy just being around the team. Everything friendly about the confines of Wrigley Field came out in his smile.

But “Mr Cub” wasn’t just about bringing positivity to the ballclub. His “Let’s Play Two” mentality is something we still remember fondly and embodies his “live life to the fullest” spirit. He was also one of the best who ever played the game. Banks was an 11-time all-star who played in 2,528 games, all of them as a Chicago Cub. He was the first African-American player ever on the Cubs and was also the first number to be retired by the Cubs organization. To this day he is still the Cubs’ leader in games played, at-bats and extra-base hits and is second in home runs, hits and RBIs.

No matter how well (or not) the Cubs are doing, I get a very special feeling walking into Wrigley Field. I feel like a little kid again. Growing up in Chicago, the Cubs were always a big part of my life. It has always felt like family there, and Ernie Banks always felt like the godfather of that family. He felt that sense of joy and appreciation every time he entered the ballpark. In a world, particularly in sports, with so much importance put on on results, Banks proved that so much of the joy came in the doing. So rarely nowadays do we appreciate our lives in the moment. We look at so many things in terms of “getting it over with” or thinking ahead to the next thing we’re doing. I feel like even though Ernie Banks never won a World Series, he loved playing baseball so much that you’d never know it to hear him talk about his playing days.

It is an exciting time to be a Cubs fan again, and a good time to be reminded that this exciting off-season doesn’t automatically equal immediate results. But instead of finding things to complain about, instead of nit-picking 20 year old ball players who are still growing and learning how to play, just allow yourself to enjoy watching the first team of players in the last decade to truly be proud and excited to be playing for the Chicago Cubs, just like Ernie Banks was every single day of his life.

Cubs introduce Lester; New Era

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The Cubs introduced their new big money ace Jon Lester yesterday, and while the press conference itself wasn’t particularly entertaining – lacking the quirk and quotability of the Joe Maddon presser just a few weeks ago – its significance is apparent. The signing of Lester, along with the hiring of new manager Maddon, is a clear message to Cubs fans that the era of bottoming out is over and the era of winning is ready to begin.

In fact, Lester’s contract quieted any speculation that the Cubs either didn’t have the money Theo Epstein needed, or were hesitant to spend. His contract, $155 million over six years, is the largest multi-year contract in the history of Chicago sports.

So the big question is, is Lester really worth it? Yes, he’s a proven ace who can be the head of a championship pitching rotation. A lefty with the mechanics built for a long career, and just the kind of experience a young Cubs team needs. He has won two World Series, both with the Red Sox, and is a three-time all-star. He provides the kind of stability on the mound the Cubs so badly needed, which will also take some of the pressure off of their young bats every fifth game while they continue to grow.

But to me, more than what he brings to the field, this signing is the Cubs brass sending a loud message to the fan base that this Cubs team is ready to win now. espnapi_dm_141210_mlb_olney_lester_why_cubs_wmainBoth Lester and Maddon discussed it at both of their press conferences, as did Epstein. Lester is by no means young. Entering his tenth season, this signing was much more about the present than it was about the future.

Some have compared this deal to the one they gave Alfonso Soriano, an eight year, $136 million deal he signed in 2006. But the biggest difference to me is that when they signed Soriano, the Cubs were not focusing any energy on their farm system. There wasn’t a young bat like him in the wings preparing to take over once Soriano began his decline, which started sooner than I think even the Cubs predicted. But this is a new era, and while Lester is helping the Cubs win now, he is also allowing youngsters like Kyle Hendricks and CJ Edwards develop at their own pace.

This is the first time in almost a decade that I’ve been truly excited for baseball season. Regular season baseball games on the North Side will actually matter in 2015. Since Theo Epstein was hired back in 2011, the Cubs have preached patience. And I don’t care what “Back to the Future 2” says, I am not expecting a World Series next year. But now we can finally start to see the fruits of our collected suffering over the last seven years.

As long as we remember to continue temper our expectations and understand that the growing pains are still far from over, we are in store for an extremely entertaining baseball season – words that I’m hoping to become more and more comfortable using in reference to the Cubs for many years to come.

Sweet Home Month in Review: November

Its been a strange November here in Chicago. Winter came early, and much like the Chicago Bears, like a slap in the face. The Bulls and Blackhawks started off a bit bumpy, have overcome some core injuries and ended the month hot. The White Sox were the first to strike in free agency while the Cubs have been silent, at least on the personnel front, as the Wrigley renovation is finally underway. Lets take a look back at this month in Chicago sports.

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Chicago Blackhawks – 9-5

The Blackhawks started the month of slow, dropping three of their first four games. Early this month lines were constantly changing as coach Joel Quenneville attempted to find the right combinations. Corey Crawford returned to the  lineup after being injured for most of October, but they lost Patrick Sharp to a lower body injury on November 4. Despite losing Sharp and, later this month, Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Blackhawks finally found their offense thanks mostly to their Kane, Richards, Versteeg line. Brad Richards, off a slow start to the season, seems to be finally finding his role with the team and has been right at home playing alongside Kane and Versteeg.

While their offensive awakening has helped the Blackhawks return to the form we have come accustomed to seeing, it has been their defense that has really impressed. They are second overall in the NHL in Goals Against, and first in Penalty Kill Percentage (91.3%). The team finished 5-1 on their “circus trip”, no easy feat, and won eight of their last ten games.

December looks to be a challenging schedule, which kicks off Wednesday with three tough games in a row, against St Louis, Montreal and Nashville.

Chicago Bulls – 10-5Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets

It has been an up and down start for the Bulls as the Derrick Rose saga continues. In the first month of the season, Rose has only started and finished five of the team’s 17 games. But when he has played the entire game, he has looked very good helping the Bulls to a  5-0 record in those games.

But Rose hasn’t been the biggest story for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler has looking like an all-star early this season as he tries to prove to the Bulls he is worth more than the four year, $40 million contract he turned down before the season started. Butler leads all Bulls in scoring and is ranked third in the East behind only LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Its hard to say if Butler can keep this up, especially given the 40 minutes per game he is playing (1st in the NBA by more than a minute), but at least for now the Bulls are greatly improved on offense.

Pau Gasol is quietly having an all-star season as well, averaging a double-double and giving the Bulls the low post presence on both ends that they’ve been searching for. But the most exciting thing for me is the success of the Bulls’ bench. With an early season injury to Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic has taken advantage. He appears to be a better player than I thought he would be, with his ability to spread the floor and hit three pointers, but also drive to the hoop and rebound. Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich help round out what looks to be one of the best second units in the league.

The key to the Bulls is staying healthy. They are undefeated when their intended starting lineup plays, which has only happened five times. It will be an ongoing storyline worth watching as the season moves along

Chicago Bears – 2-2

matt-forte-stephen-tulloch-nfl-chicago-bears-detroit-lions-850x560And now, the bad news. As in, “Bad News Bears”. And they are living up to the name. The Bears entered this month coming off the bye week with an opportunity to get their season back on track, but it all came tumbling down as they gave up 55 points to the Green Bay Packers. They followed that up with wins against two bad teams (Minnesota and Tampa Bay) but continue to underachieve on both sides of the ball. The offense still hasn’t clicked, the play calling has been unoriginal and unproductive, and the defense has fallen to one of the worst in the league, giving up 28.1 points per game (tied for 30th with Oakland). They got off to a good start on Thanksgiving against the Lions, opening up with a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, but bafflingly continue to keep the ball out of Matt Forte’s hands and ended up losing 34-17 as any playoff hopes they might have had were ripped from their delicate grasp.

Its difficult to identify what the Bears will be playing for in these final four games other than pride. The bigger question will be how much of the coaching staff will be turned over and how soon it will or won’t happen. The obvious choice would be to replace everyone from the GM on down, but the Bears have not been known to make such bold moves.

In other news, Lance Briggs has been placed on season-ending IR, and has likely played his last game as a Chicago Bear. While Briggs has been a Hall of Fame player for most of his career here in Chicago, he’s been merely a distraction in his last two seasons.

Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox 

d88a375755f416b15988787c253397a3_crop_northThe Cubs started off the month strong, bringing in Joe Maddon as their manager and thus bringing tangible hope to the North Side. With his winning reputation and locker room shenanigans, Maddon is exactly the kind of manager the Cubs needed to bring excitement to the upcoming season while they hope to replace “rebuilding” with “contention”.

The acquisition of Maddon was supposed to spark a big free agent splash, but so far it has been all quiet on that front. The Cubs missed out on Russell Martin, and are in discussions with Jon Lester, although there is nothing eminent as he continues to meet with teams.  The Wrigley renovation is finally underway, but hit a snag this month as the team announced that the bleachers might not be ready in time for Opening Night. It’s always something, isn’t it?usa-today-8085980.0

While much of the focus in the offseason as been on what moves the Cubs would make, the White Sox struck first and signed first baseman Adam Laroche. The 35-year-old first baseman agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract, and will likely fill the role left vacant by Paul Konerko.

 

 

Sweet Home Week in Review (3/31-4/6)

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Chicago Cubs – Weekly Record: 2-4

Chicago White Sox – Weekly Record: 3-3

The baseball season kicked off this week, and it looks like this year is going to be as ugly as advertised here in Chicago. I got to watch a little of both teams this week and here is what I’ve learned – Jose Abreu is, in fact, a beast. Already has 6 RBI in his first week and its only a matter of time before he starts sending a few out of the park. The Cubs are still a major work in progress on offense, but their pitching has actually been solid. They just can’t score runs and leave way too many runners in scoring position. Elilio Bonifacio gave Cubs fans something to cheer about in his first two games, but appears to be coming back to earth, as expected. They need to start to see more from Castro, Rizzo, Olt and Lake otherwise any interest that may have been able to get in the Major League club this year is going to sputter out fast.

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Chicago Blackhawks – Weekly Record – 3-0

The Blackhawks have bounced back strong from their second big injury in as many weeks. They got good news as well that Toews and Kane should be back at full strength for the playoffs, and the Blackhawks have earned some much needed points this week as they attempt to get home ice in the first round. Their 5 points in their three games this week was capped off with a huge win over division rival St. Louis. They now sit in the 5 seed, 2 points behind San Jose and Colorado, who lost to the Penguins on Sunday. This is just the kind of effort they need to get back to being the champs we remember from last year, who had depth and were getting contributions from every line. Hopefully some wins to finish off the year without their two best players will be the extra motivation this team needed to head into the post-season with some serious momentum.

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Chicago Bulls – Weekly Record: 4-0

The Bulls have won 8 of their last 10 and continue to defy all odds this season as they are fighting for the 3-seed in the East. D.J Augustin has been amazing, taking the team on his back and leading them in scoring come off the bench. This from a guy who was picked up off the slush pile midway through the season. As much as we don’t expect the Bulls to be serious title contenders this year, I’d love to see them make a playoff run and make some teams sweat. The ideal scenario I see has the Bulls getting themselves the 3-seed and getting Washington (who spent the week talking shit about how they could beat the Bulls only to be embarrassed by them Saturday night) in the first round and Indiana, who is in the middle of a late season free-fall in the second round, all while avoiding red hot Brooklyn in round one and Miami until the conference finals.

Sweet Home Week in Review Double-Issue (3/17-3/30)

We missed a week, caught up in March Madness and what little time we had for non sports-related real life. So we present out Double Issue to look back on the last two weeks in Chicago sports. These last two weeks saw a some great highs and potentially devastating lows for our Chicago teams.

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Somewhere in the middle, today is Opening Day in baseball for the Cubs and White Sox, and while Opening Day always comes with a sense of excitement, there is still the sobering reality that both teams are re-building and expectations remain rock bottom on the North and South sides. There has been excitement for the Cubs in spring training with their young stars and future core, but most of them won’t see a Major League field for at least another year. So for now we hope to see steps forward from Castro, Rizzo and Wood and hope Mike Olt can continue his great spring and pan out to be one of the team’s biggest steals. But for both teams there won’t be much motivation to go to the ballpark outside of the general enjoyment of taking in a ballgame. And honestly, I’m still going  to enjoy that, especially since ticket prices on stubhub will likely drop with the quality of the baseball leading to some cheap tickets for me.

The Bears made another big splash in free agency last week, signing veteran DE Jared Allen from the Minnesota Vikings. This was a really unexpected move by the Bears who didn’t seem to be seriously perusing Allen. But he adds depth to a defensive line that has undergone a complete overhaul in free agency after an awful season. It will also allow the Bears more flexibility in the draft to address a secondary still in dire need of help. Allen fills the veteran Julius Peppers role, but hopefully has more in the tank than the older Peppers did last year. He is not going to be the 22 sack player he was a couple years ago, but if he can get to the quarterback as part of a tandem with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, it will be a major upgrade for the Bears at a much better price. I also love how much the Bears have been hanging out this off-season, eveything from pottery to go-cart races. This is Marc Trestman’s philosophy at work, and hope a team that plays together grows together it’ll find its way onto the field come the fall.

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Chicago Blackhawks (3/17-3/30) – 3-4-1

The big low has been the Blackhawks. After losing Patrick Kane for the remainder of the regular season last week, Jonathan Toews suffered an injury in Sunday night’s game and will be out for a yet unknown amount of time. This coming during a span where the Blackhawks have lost 4 of their last 5 games, with only 6 games left in the regular season. They have not looked like champions all season but have shown up in big games when they needed to. But with Kane and now Toews out, their chance at defending their title seems to be dwindling. Hopefully the two will be back and full strength by playoff team, otherwise it may be an early exit in a greatly improved Western Conference.

Chicago Bulls (3/17-3/30) – 4-3

The Bulls are still fighting along, 1 game out of the 3 seed in the East. Last night DJ Augustin went for 33 points off the bench and Joakim Noah flirted with another triple-double in a winning effort against the Celtics. Derrick Rose is practicing again, but the Bulls have not budged on their stance that Rose will not be returning this year. Only 9 games left in the regular season and the Bulls look to be on pace for another second round exit in another exciting but still lost season.

Looking Ahead

Will the Cubs and Sox enjoy winning records, even if just for a day or two early in the season? Will injuries to Kane and Toews keep the Blackhawks from chasing the title again this year? Do the Bulls have enough to make a longer run in the playoffs and can they stay healthy enough to do so? Are the Bears done making moves?

Sweet Home Sports Podcast Episode 2

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Eric and Justin return to the podcast to discuss the Bears’ week 17 loss to the Packers and whats next for the Bears. Should Jay Cutler be their QB? How can they fix the defense?

Click the link below to Subscribe to the Sweet Home Sports podcast and download the latest episode!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sweet-home-sports-podcast/id783332961?mt=2