Cubs: Ben Zobrist denies stealing signs from 'paranoid' Dodgers

Cubs: Ben Zobrist denies stealing signs from 'paranoid' Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — Ben Zobrist saw the Los Angeles Times story that directly quoted Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal accusing the Cubs of stealing signs, adding another level of intrigue to this National League Championship Series between two cutting-edge teams.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Zobrist said after Monday’s workout at Dodger Stadium. “No, I was not stealing signs, but I appreciate him thinking my baseball IQ is that high.”

What began as a perceptive feature on Grandal working through communication issues with Clayton Kershaw became a talking point heading into Tuesday’s pivotal Game 3. With a best-of-seven matchup now tied, Grandal highlighted an eighth-inning comeback on Saturday in Game 1, when Zobrist led off with a double against Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton and Addison Russell worked a 3-0 count.

“All the sudden, Russell is not taking good swings at sliders, looking like he’s looking for a fastball and in a certain location,” Grandal told the LA Times. “Did we know Zobrist had the signs and was doing something for it? Yeah, we did. That’s why we do it.”

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Zobrist is the switch-hitter who helped the Kansas City Royals win last year’s World Series with his veteran presence and clutch performances. Russell is the 22-year-old All-Star shortstop now batting .045 (1-for-22) during these playoffs.

“I’ve tried before, but it’s never worked out,” Zobrist said. “With Addie up to bat there, I was just looking for him to hit a ball to the right side of the field and try to get a good jump. I don’t know what (Grandal) was looking at or what he thought he saw.

“But really from second base at Wrigley, it’s very tough to even see the signs because it’s so dark. All the lights are behind the hitter there.

“I guess (Grandal) probably used the right word when he said that almost all catchers are a little bit ‘paranoid’ about that.”

Kershaw ensured that wouldn’t become an issue for the Dodgers during Sunday’s 1-0 win, allowing only two singles before closer Kenley Jansen got the last six outs in Game 2. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts wouldn’t completely dismiss Grandal’s conspiracy theory.

“Every team’s going to try to get any advantage they can,” Roberts said. “That’s kind of the gamesmanship part of the game. That’s why catchers or guys on second base give multiple signs and change sequences. So if they are, it wouldn’t be a surprise, and there are many clubs that we’ve played against that do the same thing. That’s part of the game.”

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.”