Cubs

Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

WASHINGTON – The Cubs are not the team where rookies are supposed to be seen – and not heard – and veteran players rule the clubhouse with an iron fist. It’s a next-man-up philosophy inside Theo Epstein’s scouting-and-player-development machine, and a simple dress code for anti-rules manager Joe Maddon: “If you think you look hot, you wear it.” 

Albert Almora Jr. believes that he belongs here at the age of 22, playing in this prime-time series against the Washington Nationals. It’s only been one week in The Show, but he’s already demonstrated how he could help the Cubs win a tight, low-scoring game in October.

Almora delivered in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory at Nationals Park, lining the first pitch he saw from Washington lefty Sammy Solis past Washington shortstop Danny Espinosa and into left-center field for the go-ahead RBI double.

It didn’t matter that Almora had been a defensive replacement in the eighth inning, and only got 54 games of experience at the Triple-A level, and was supposed to be an offensive project while looking like a potential Gold Glove outfielder. This is what the Cubs do.

“He’s feeling (comfortable) because we’re a free team,” reliever Pedro Strop said. “We’re not the old-school style where rookies can’t do anything. Just be yourself.

“That’s because of the way Joe handles the situation, and we got really good veterans here, too. They don’t care about old-school (hazing). Just be who you are – and then help us win. We want to win the World Series. That’s what it’s all about.”

Maddon managed this like a playoff game, the way he went for the jugular against the San Francisco Giants during that four-game sweep of the defending World Series champs last August at Wrigley Field.

After John Lackey walked off the mound with runners on second and third and no outs in the seventh inning, Strop bailed him out and notched his 13th hold. Maddon also felt enough urgency that he called for Hector Rondon to try to get a five-out save in a one-run game.

Where Rondon allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning – before needing only seven pitches to slam the door in the ninth – the Nationals (40-25) now have endgame uncertainty with closer Jonathan Papelbon (intercostal strain) on the disabled list.

“The Giants at that time really were a team that we had to earn our stripes against,” Maddon said. “The Nationals are the same kind of team. They got a bunch of gamers out there, man. They’re just like us. We’re just like them. Every pitch matters. Nobody takes a pitch off. None of their pitchers take a pitch off, none of their defenders do, none of their hitters do, and I love it.” 

That’s where Almora fits in as someone who grew up playing against elite competition in South Florida and performing for Team USA, a precocious nature that drove the Cubs to draft him No. 6 overall in 2012. Almora actually played with Solis – who will turn 28 this summer – in the Arizona Fall League in 2013.

“We looked at each other,” Almora said. “I gave him a little nod of the helmet and it was time to go to work.”

“How about Almora?” Maddon said. “Come on, the guy’s been up here for five minutes and is not passive. He went out there and he jumped on the first pitch and I loved it.

“The guy’s going to be playing in the big leagues for a long time.”

It took another Jorge Soler hamstring injury for the Cubs (44-19) to promote Almora, but this is how you force the issue and make sure you never go back to Iowa.

“This is the way I think: I’m just trying to do anything to help this team win,” Almora said. “I feel like if I do that, then it makes my job easier, because I can sleep well at night saying: ‘Hey, I left it all on the table.’ Whatever they choose to do – it’s their decision – I don’t care. I’m here to win.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”