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Cubs flip the script on Cardinals, sweep doubleheader

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Cubs flip the script on Cardinals, sweep doubleheader

This looked like something concocted by a Cubs fan in a dream scenario: The Cardinals melting down while the Cubs catch break after break.

The Cubs (46-37) flipped the script on the team with the best record in Major League Baseball, sweeping a doubleheader from the Cardinals (54-30) with a 5-3 win in front of 35,703 fans at Wrigley Field in the nightcap.

[MORE - All-Star snub? Jake Arrieta proves his worth as Cubs beat Cardinals]

"Our guys were great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It's not easy to play those split doubleheaders. It really isn't for anybody, especially after a tough loss like that the night before.

"To bounce back like that was tremendous. It's how high you bounce after the fall that really matters. I was really proud of our guys."

Historically, it's been the Cardinals taking advantage of the Cubs' mistakes (which they did Monday night vs. Jon Lester), not the other way around.

But with the Cardinals up 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, the Cubs finally caught a break (or two) against their division rivals. With runners on first and second, Addison Russell just stuck his bat out and bounced a ball that was just fair down the first-base line, scoring Miguel Montero and sending Jonathan Herrera to third.

Was it magic?

"I think so," Russell told CSN's Kelly Crull on the field after the game.

Cardinals pitcher Seth Maness lost it on first-base umpire Pat Hoberg and was promptly tossed from the game. The next batter, Dexter Fowler, tapped what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball to Maness' replacement, Kevin Siegrist, but Siegrist threw ball into center field, giving the Cubs the lead.

Anthony Rizzo drove in another run later in the inning with a sacrifice fly and Starlin Castro added an insurance run of his own on an eighth-inning sacrifice fly.

The Cubs needed all of those insurance runs as the Cardinals began the ninth against their former closer Jason Motte with three singles in the first four batters, but Motte shrugged off the "here-we-go-again" feeling and settled down to retire the next two batters.

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"When you're able to take two games from a team like that," Motte said, "Especially the way we hung in there the first game and came back in the second game, it's definitely a confidence-booster."

These are the kinds of breaks the Cardinals usually get against the Cubs. Are the Cubs finally over that "mental hump"?

"We're gonna find out," Maddon said. "The thing is, if you stop trying, you'll never know how close you were to accomplishing something. That happens in a lot of situations. You try, you try, you try to move forward and it doesn't happen.

"And then you get to the precipice and do you continue on or do you fall back and say 'I give up'? You never give up.

"With us, it's really rewarding to watch our guys battle through the whole thing. Entirely a team effort."

Maybe Simon the Magician was in the stands somewhere waving his hands and keeping Russell's ball fair? Or maybe it was the duck on the field in front of the Cardinals dugout

Whatever way you look at it, the Cubs walked away winners from a long day at the ballpark Tuesday, doubling their season win total against the Cardinals.

The Cubs are now 7.5 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and they extended their wild card lead to 3.5 games over the New York Mets.

Maddon's bunch is also nine games over .500 - tying their season high mark - and they're having a ton of fun with it, between the postgame dance parties in the clubhouse (complete with a smoke machine - "I feel like I'm at a Grateful Dead concert," Maddon said) and the odd occurrences in-game, like when Herrera couldn't find his helmet during the tide-turning seventh inning.

[RELATED - What we learned about the Cubs in the first half]

Herrera was set to pinch-hit for the pitcher's spot, but was late getting into the batter's box and then went back to the dugout during the at-bat to switch helmets (from Mike Baxter's helmet, which he said was too small, to Chris Coghlan's helmet). It all worked out, as Herrera singled and came around to score the go-ahead run.

"That was what took so long - he couldn't find his helmet," Maddon said. "He hit with Coghlan's helmet. He couldn't find his helmet. I mean, how does that happen?

"I mean, the magician was in New York; he was not in our clubhouse. I have no idea how that happened. We might have to consult with Simon. Simon's got the helmet. Simon: Please return Jonny's helmet."

Just another day in the life of Joe Maddon's Cubs.

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.”

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.