Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Sports

10/21/2016

Cubs Are Hitting, Winning and Defying the Ghosts

Spo

LOS ANGELES — It took 13 years, and of course it would be an unlucky number. These are the Chicago Cubs, after all, and no omen is too trivial. Not with that triple-digit streak of seasons without a World Series title, anyway.

Thirteen years ago, the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field for Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, leading three games to two. We know how that turned out. The pennant slipped away, the misery continued. The Cubs have mostly been bad since, and when they were good, they flopped in October.

Now they are back at the precipice, poised for a celebration decades in the making. The Cubs have not even reached the World Series since 1945, with Phil Cavarretta and Stan Hack and Harry (Peanuts) Lowrey. One more win and they will be there again.

“We’re not going to run away from anything,” Manager Joe Maddon said after Thursday’s 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in Game 5 of this N.L.C.S. “It’s within our reach now. But I do want us to go after it as though – hate to say it – but Saturday. Let’s just go play our Saturday game and see how it falls.”

This particular Saturday will be tougher than most. The Cubs will face Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, who shut them out for seven innings in Game 2. If the Cubs lose, they would face Rich Hill on Sunday. Hill blanked the Cubs for six innings in Game 3.

The Cubs have appealing options, too. Kyle Hendricks, who had the majors’ lowest earned run average (2.13) in the regular season, starts Game 6, followed by Jake Arrieta in a possible Game 7. Then again, the Cubs lined up Mark Prior and Kerry Wood for Games 6 and 7 against the Marlins in 2003, and could not win.

The ghoulish events of those nights just might flash in the minds of Cubs fans before Saturday night. There is no need to dwell on it here, except to say, for the sake of accuracy, that history picked the wrong villain. Nobody would remember the name Steve Bartman if Alex Gonzalez, the Cubs’ shortstop, had turned a double play to end the fateful eighth inning with a 3-1 lead in Game 6.

Cubs fans, rightly, might be conditioned to expect the worst. David Ross, the veteran catcher, said the players must feed off the crowd’s energy on Saturday without absorbing its anxiety. He repeated his winning line that a Cubs championship would be the holy grail of sports.

“You win a World Series in Chicago and, I mean, that’s the tops...


Dodgers face elimination with 8-4 loss to the Cubs in Game 5 of NLCS

Spo2

The whiteboard inside the Dodgers clubhouse Thursday was blank after an 8-4 defeat by Chicago in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. There were no words of wisdom, no message of snark or substance. The Dodgers milled around the room, quiet in the wake of back-to-back losses, 48 hours removed from a scene of joy.

Two days earlier, fumes from a smoke machine clouded the room and a disco ball refracted a rainbow of light. The Dodgers had cradled this series in their hands, up a game with two to play at Dodger Stadium, two victories away from the World Series. 

House money lasts only so long. The Dodgers may not play another game in this ballpark until April. After bumbling through Game 4, the group managed another dispiriting performance in Game 5, bequeathing control to the 103-win Cubs. Shut out in Game 2 and Game 3, Chicago blitzed the Dodgers for 18 runs in the last 18 innings.

“Honestly, these last two nights, we got beat,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “We got beat.” 

Even before the bullpen collapsed Thursday, the offense failed to dent Cubs starter Jon Lester. Kenta Maeda was unable to complete four innings. Joe Blanton served up his second game-altering homer of the series, this one a two-run blast by shortstop Addison Russell to break a sixth-inning deadlock.

His team down two runs in the eighth, Roberts handed the ball to reliever Pedro Baez and watched the night turn into ash. The inning was torture. It lasted nine batters. The Cubs scored five runs, the first two aided by imprecise fielding from Baez and his defenders, the last three plated by second baseman Javier Baez’s double off another reliever, Ross Stripling. 

“They didn’t hit the ball hard, and they scored a bunch of runs, until the double,” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “We’ve got to do a better job of making outs when they’re there.” 

For the second round in a row, the Dodgers turn to Clayton Kershaw to stave off elimination. If the Dodgers win Game 6 on Saturday, Rich Hill will start on Sunday in the finale. Kershaw and Hill have combined for 13 scoreless innings in this series. 

The pitching matchup Thursday did not favor the Dodgers. Maeda gave up an RBI double to first baseman Anthony Rizzo in the first inning. The spotlight returned to Lester, who survived Game 1...



07/19/2016

Cubs End Their Streak of Futility Against the Mets

Spo1

CHICAGO — Since losing all seven of their regular-season matchups last year, the Mets had clobbered the Chicago Cubs, toppling them eight consecutive times, from a sweep in the National League Championship Series to a four-game series sweep this month.

The Cubs halted that losing streak on Monday, defeating the Mets, 5-1. Steven Matz, the Mets’ starter, allowed four runs in five innings, with the Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo hitting a three-run homer.

Matz, who has been pitching with a bone spur in his elbow, flashed strong velocity against the Cubs, but his mistakes were hit hard.

“I don’t think my command was 100 percent where I wanted it to be,” he said.

The Mets went 7-2 in Matz’s outings to start the season. Since then, however, they are 2-6 in his starts.

After Monday’s game, Matz said his elbow felt “good,” and Mets Manager Terry Collins said he was unaware of any problems. The Mets had slotted Matz second to last in their rotation coming out of last week’s All-Star break, and Matz said he appreciated the extra rest.

The game pivoted during a third-inning at-bat by Rizzo, who has been one of the hottest hitters in the majors for the past month. With two men on, Matz fired pitch after pitch to the outer half of the strike zone. Rizzo fouled off six offerings, including five in a row.

Matz thought Rizzo had zeroed in on his sinking fastball, so he tossed a changeup for the 10th pitch of the at-bat. Rizzo hammered it into the right-field seats for a 3-0 Cubs lead.

“Just got to have better focus when big hitters are up,” Matz said, later adding, “It wasn’t necessarily the wrong pitch, just bad execution.”

At the plate, the Mets again could not convert men on base into runs. Jon Lester, the Cubs’ starter, surrendered only one run in seven and two-thirds innings despite allowing four hits and walking three.

“Guys want to step up and be the guy, so maybe they chase a little bit more and want to be that guy who drives those runs in,” Collins said. “I don’t think they put undue pressure on themselves most of the time, because we’ve got some veteran guys here.”

Including Monday’s 0-for-7 effort, the Mets have gone 2 for 28 with runners in scoring position in four games since the All-Star break, and they rank last in the majors this season with a .207 average with runners in scoring position.

...


Struggling Steven Matz rocked again in Mets' loss to Cubs

Spo2

CHICAGO — The biggest battle of the night came in the form of a 10-pitch at-bat between Mets left-hander Steven Matz and Chicago Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo in the bottom of the third inning. 

Rizzo came up to face Matz with a pair of runners on base and no outs in a scoreless game. Rizzo fouled off five straight pitches before blasting a 2-2 changeup to right-center field to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead. 

"The biggest at-bat of the game was that Rizzo at-bat," Matz said. "He was battling, battling, battling. I make one mistake, throw a changeup, and he capitalized. It seems like that's kind of what's been going on with me the past five starts or so. 

"You really just want to grit your teeth and really try to beat this guy. Unfortunately, he won."

Rizzo's homer propelled the Cubs to a 5-1 win in Monday's series opener at Wrigley Field, snapping the Mets' eight-game winning streak against Chicago that dated back to last fall's National League Championship Series. 

Matz took the loss after giving up four runs on eight hits over five-plus innings. He was pulled from the game after he allowing a leadoff double to Matt Szczur in the sixth inning and departed after throwing 102 pitches. Szczur later scored on David Ross' sacrifice fly to put the Cubs ahead, 4-0. 

"I don't think my command was 100 percent where I want it to be, which could lead them to fouling pitches off — leaving pitches a little bit on the heart of the plate," Matz said.

The 25-year-old left-hander, who is pitching with a significant bone spur in his elbow, is now 0-5 with a 4.76 ERA over his last nine starts and is winless since May 25. 

"It's been killing me the last few starts," Matz said. "I just think it's just making a mistake to these big hitters in these lineups. It's really been hurting me."



06/03/2016

The Warriors' game plan is simple: Find Kyrie Irving and score on him

Spo1

After the Golden State Warriors handled the Cleveland Cavaliers easily in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, winning 104-89, the talk was about how the Warriors’ scoring came from unexpected people. It wasn’t the Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — leading the way with scoring (though they did have some big buckets) but the Warriors’ supporting cast that provided the buckets.

Watching the game back, however, it’s clear the Warriors’ scoring wasn’t a result of a game plan to have Shaun Livingston (who finished with 20 points), Leandro Barbosa (11 points) or Harrison Barnes (13 points) take the shots. Those guys scored because of who was defending them: Kyrie Irving.

By the fourth quarter, the Warriors’ game plan had become simple: Everyone work their tail off on defense, and on offense, find the guy who Kyrie is guarding. And then give him the ball and let him score.

The Cavaliers had to have seen this coming, and thus went with the somewhat counterintuitive strategy of having Irving guard Curry to start the game. Cleveland knew they were probably going to have to send a double team anyway, so might as well make Irving the first guy there who can hold Curry up for a second until help arrived, usually in the form of LeBron James.

With James cheating to help Irving with Curry, though, the Warriors promptly found Barnes — James’ man — on a back-door cut.

So that wasn’t working. The Cavaliers then made the quick adjustment and decided to try and have Irving guard Barnes directly. The Warriors immediately sent Barnes baseline around a series of picks, which Irving had no chance dealing with. Another easy bucket for Barnes.

At the end of the first quarter, Livingston came in, and the Cavaliers thought they’d roll the dice and have Irving guard him.

Look where Curry immediately goes with the ball:

These are all just from the first quarter. The Warriors were running their offense, but they all seemed to reach the same conclusion. Wherever Irving was, that’s where the ball went.

I’m not trying to be mean to Irving here, I’m really not. But the Warriors are so good and so deep that this isn’t a team that allows you to hide someone on defense. All night, the Cavaliers tried to trap the Warriors’ shooters. At times it worked, but more often than not Curry or Thompson would just move the ball around until they...


Irving has Game 2 to look forward to

Spo2

Had Kyrie Irving dreamed about the opportunity he would have Thursday night, his nocturnal aspirations might have looked very much like what he experienced.

A big game individually. Healthy and active, with the ball in his hands all night. Productive enough not merely to lead his Cleveland team in scoring but to singlehandedly outscore the All-Star backcourt pushing against him and the Cavaliers.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson uncharacteristically needed help, managing just 20 points – nine fewer than they had totaled in any game all season. Irving scored 26.

The dream at that point pretty much fizzled, with Cleveland losing for the sixth consecutive time dating back to last June (last three games of The Finals, two regular-season meetings and now the 2016 opener). Golden State's bench picked up its out-of-synch guard tandem with 45 points – the Cavs' backups had 10 – and a 16-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist performance by Draymond Green. The rest came courtesy of defense, which limited Cleveland to 38 percent shooting and got 17 turnovers that got turned into 25 points in Golden State's 104-89 Game 1 victory.

For Irving, the game that unspooled wasn't quite the stuff of nightmares he had endured in Game 1 a year ago, when his left kneecap fractured in a convulsive stop and collision with Thompson. That injury sent him out of Oracle Arena on crutches, Irving and his father and his agent exiting amid tears and fears and curses. It not only ended his postseason, the subsequent surgery dominated his offseason and squatted on the first two months of 2015-16 as well, his return delayed until nearly Christmas.

But this one, in the building with such rotten mojo for him, was bad enough. Irving had three of those turnovers and just four assists. He missed 15 of his 22 shots, desperation as the Warriors' lead bulged enticing Irving to try even tough looks (one caromed off the side of the backboard).

LeBron James scored 23 the hard way too, shooting 9-of-21, and like his point guard, James was a minus-9 in Game 1. Kevin Love finished with 17, leaving the Big Three short of that magical 20-20-20 mark that generally translates into victories; it would have left them far short Thursday.

"We missed 28 shots in the paint," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, parsing his team's 52 misses. "To get to the basket missing 28 shots in the paint, that's not us."

Irving, James and Love combined for 19 points in the...



05/05/2016

Larry Bird shows courage in his convictions by firing Frank Vogel

Sports1

Larry Bird sounded cruel.

The Pacers president announced to the world that Frank Vogel begged for his job. Not only did he oust the coach anyway, Bird seemed to toy with him at a press conference today. Asked what he’d tell someone checking Vogel’s references, Bird answered with a resounding: “He’s the best.” What will Bird look for in the Pacers’ next coach? The same things that led him to Vogel during the last search.

So why did Bird fire Vogel?

“My experience has been good coaches leave after three years,” Bird said.

And maybe Bird is cruel, foolish, self-absorbed or any other adjective being thrown at him today.

But also realize he sincerely believes this.

After all, he also ousted a coach who went 147-67, reached two conference finals and an NBA Finals and won Coach of the Year in his three-year tenure.

Himself.

Bird coached Indiana from 1997-2000, and even though he guided the team to the 2000 NBA Finals, he still stepped down after that third season.

“Three years is enough for a coach in any one place” Bird said he told the Pacers when they hired him.

Despite all his success, he stuck to it.

Bird said he spoke to Red Auerbach about the value of coaching turnover, and Boston had plenty. Bill Fitch got four years at the helm of Bird’s Celtics, K.C. Jones five – “nicest man I ever met, and they let him go, and we were having success,” Bird said – Jimmy Rodgers two and Chris Ford two (and another three after Bird retired).

Vogel coached Indiana five-and-a-half years.

“That’s a long time for me for a coach,” Bird said.

As so many teams across the NBA chase continuity, Bird actively rejects it – maybe to his detriment. Five of the six longest-tenured coaches in the league are still alive in the playoffs: Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Dwane Casey (Raptors), Terry Stotts (Trail Blazers) and Mike Budenholzer (Hawks). The Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle is the exception.

Bird just doesn’t want to follow that model.

“Every day the same voice and the same, I think guys sometimes tune that out,” Bird said. “It happens. It’s unfortunate.”

It is unfortunate, and it cost Vogel a job he appeared to be succeeding in and wanted to keep. You can wonder whether Bird and not just players tired of Vogel’s message, even if it were a wise one. Bird clearly believes he can assemble a roster,...


Only Larry Bird thought Frank Vogel could do better

Sports2

Larry Bird told media members assembled at Bankers Life Fieldhouse he had higher aspirations than most people regarding how far the Indiana Pacers might advance in the 2016 NBA playoffs. Which just goes to show you it’s not always the fans who are delusional.

Bird did not want his action Thursday to be viewed as firing head coach Frank Vogel. His contract expired following the 2015-16 season, and Vogel will not receive a new one for 2016-17. So those are the semantics of the transaction.

MORE: Latest SN mock draft | College coaches that could jump to NBA

The immediate evaluation: This is so very, very dumb.

At the close of the Pacers’ first-round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, in which Indiana as the No. 7 seed pushed the No. 2 seed into the final seconds of game seven, the franchise had three significant assets, ranked in this order: 1) all-star forward Paul George, coming off a strong season following a year lost to injury; 2) center Myles Turner, completing a strong rookie year; 3) Vogel, who has drained the most possible wins out of pretty much any team handed to him.

Seriously, if any other playoff team were given a free shot at anyone else on the Indiana roster, who might the Pacers lose?

Monta Elllis? At age 30, in his first year with the team and 12th in the league, he saw his production plummet from 18.9 points per game to 13.8. In the playoffs, when the team needed a bucket, he was even less available. He averaged only 11.6 points and 4.3 assists.

George Hill? He, as well, saw a big decline as the big 3-0 approached, dropping from 16.1 points a year ago to 12.1. Never really a true point guard, he was even less of a playmaker this season and not at all in the Toronto series, getting only 2.1 assists on average. Hill remained valuable as a catch-and-shoot player but didn’t seem worth 34 minutes per game.

C.J. Miles? Attracted as a free agent in 2014 to deepen the rotation, he shot 40.9 per cent from the field this season.

Lavoy Allen? A great power forward to have as a ninth or 10th man, he wound up starting nearly a third of the season and three times in the seven playoff games. But, as if to show how much of a stretch that was, Vogel won game 4 of the series while relegating to Allen getting a DNP.

This was a playoff roster only in Vogel’s hands, but in Bird’s mind it was something more.

“It comes down to what you’re looking for going forward,” Bird said Thursday....



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