Blackhawks or Lightning? Joe Maddon conflicted for Stanley Cup Final


Blackhawks or Lightning? Joe Maddon conflicted for Stanley Cup Final

Who will Cubs manager Joe Maddon be rooting for when the hockey teams from his former and current city face off in the Stanley Cup Final?

“I hate to say may the best team win,” Maddon smiled, “but I’m going to say may the best team win.”

Maddon spent nine years managing the Tampa Bay Rays, during which he got to know several members of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who the Blackhawks will face in the Stanley Cup Final beginning Wednesday night. Maddon said he’s close with Lightning coach Jon Cooper and welcomed players like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (when the latter was still in Tampa) to Tropicana Field.

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon argues against the designated hitter]

Cooper and his wife recently dined at Ava, the Italian restaurant Maddon co-owns in Tampa. So the first-year Cubs skipper isn’t quite ready to ditch his support of the Lightning just yet.

But since moving to Chicago, Maddon said he’s started to pull for the Blackhawks. The entire Cubs team donned red Blackhawks jerseys for a photo op at Wrigley Field before Saturday’s rained out game against Kansas City — and because the game was rained out, Maddon was able to watch the Blackhawks beat Anaheim in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.

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“I’m becoming the Blackhawks fan, as I should be,” Maddon said. “I do have some roots back there in Tampa, I know coach Cooper really well, he’s a really good guy. I’ve not met coach (Joel) Quenneville yet. But I’m really excited about watching the whole thing, I think it’s going to be a powerful series.

“… I watched the game last night, pretty incredible victory and you could see how they did break the will of the other team with the things we’re talking about here. That was my takeaway, the way the game began where the Ducks had a chance to do something, they did not and here come the Blackhawks. It was pretty interesting to watch. And then to finish it out the way they did. I think if you’re a hockey fan you gotta be into this thing.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”