Cubs

Cubs: Bryant, Rizzo take their All-Star experience in stride

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Cubs: Bryant, Rizzo take their All-Star experience in stride

CINCINNATI - Anthony Rizzo doesn't see how any of this could ever get old.

Even though it was his second straight All-Star Game appearance, it was still a week of firsts for Rizzo and rookie teammate Kris Bryant.

Both sluggers took part in their first Home Run Derby and Rizzo also found his name in the starting lineup as the designated hitter, which made things even more special for the 25-year-old.

"I never would have thought something like this would happen," Rizzo said. "[The All-Star Game] is equally awesome this time around. It's fun. Something that I don't think will ever get old."

Rizzo finished 0-for-2 with a groundout to first base and a fly out to center field as the American League beat the National League 6-3.

Rizzo is in his first pennant chase with the Cubs this season, but he still saw the two-day detour to Cincinnati as a break, even though his schedule was packed to the brim with obligations, appearances, parades and so on.

[SHOP CUBS: Get an Anthony Rizzo All-Star Game jersey right here]

Rizzo spent the week posing for pictures with fans and hanging around every player he could, not necessarily trying to pick up tips, but just taking everything in stride.

From chatting with veteran stars like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to young bucks like Joc Pederson and Bryce Harper, Rizzo was content to just have a good time. Case in point:

 

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"I just like to talk," he said. "Whatever they're talking about, just listening, absorbing, trying to take it all in."

Rizzo and Bryant will both go home with some lifelong memories and souvenirs that include jerseys signed by each player on the NL roster.

On a roster packed with third basemen - hometown slugger Todd Frazier got the start while Colorado's Nolan Arenado relieved him - Bryant's versatility came in handy as NL manager Bruce Bochy put the Cubs rookie out in left field to start the sixth inning.

Bryant walked in his first plate appearance in the seventh inning and then flew out to the warning track in the bottom of the ninth off Minnesota Twins closer Glen Perkins.

But it didn't really matter what transpired Tuesday, as Bryant's best memory came in the Home Run Derby Monday night, when his dad pitched to him.

[RELATED - Home Run Derby an 'emotional roller coaster' for Bryant family]

"Nothing's gonna top that," Bryant said.

Just like with that Home Run Derby, Bryant said the result of Tuesday's All-Star Game didn't really matter much to him.

"It's more the experience," he said. "I think 20 years from now, I'm not gonna remember what the score was or what I did in this game. I'll just remember that this is my first All-Star Game and I had a blast."

Bryant and Rizzo are in the middle of a heated NL Central battle with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, but found a way to coexist in the same locker room with the combined 10 All-Stars those two teams sent to Cincinnati.

"It's good. We're all baseball players. We're all human beings," Bryant said. "We're on the field competing against each other and we want to beat 'em, but any time other than that, I think, we're friends.

"We're all in this together, playing this crazy game because we love it and enjoy it. Everybody - from the Pirates to the Cardinals - they're all really good people and very friendly, so I think it's actually pretty cool."

[MORE - Reds fans and Albert Pujols boo the Cardinals during All-Star Game introductions]

Bryant took the same path as Rizzo, spending his first All-Star Game soaking it all up.

"Just looking at guys and how they're preparing for a game, how they take their batting practice round," Bryant said. "I think sometimes, you can learn more from not even talking to them, just watching how they go about it. There's a lot of guys here to watch."

Bryant and Rizzo only have two days off now before the season's unofficial second half resumes Friday, but that's enough time for them.

"It's gonna be nice to go home and chill out for a couple days," Rizzo said. "Reset, recharge the batters and then back in the saddle.

"We're ready to go. We have a lot left to do potential-wise."

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.”