Cubs-Pirates: Maddon, Hurdle love the drama of one-game playoff


Cubs-Pirates: Maddon, Hurdle love the drama of one-game playoff

PITTSBURGH — One and done?

After 162 games, the fact the second-best team in baseball is hosting the third-best team in a winner-take-all one-game playoff is unfair, objectively speaking.

Teams with 98 and 97 wins should have earned more than just one night to showcase their team.

But that's the world we live in with Major League Baseball's current wild-card format, and both Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle can at least agree to appreciate the drama the one-game playoff brings, even if they wish they had a chance to play in a complete postseason series.

"It's great TV," Hurdle said during his press conference Tuesday. "There'll be a lot of people watching. It's probably a great revenue-maker. You gotta love the concept. It's great sport.

"It's been drawn up; we knew the rules coming in. ... It's the postseason. Only a few teams are in. A lot of teams are going to be left watching."

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Maddon would rather MLB hold a three-game series between the two wild-card teams because he thinks that's the most fair way to do it, but he can still enjoy the do-or-die format.

"The only time you like one and done is when you win that first game," Maddon said. "Then you absolutely love it. ... It's the most fun and no fun at the same time."

Both Maddon and Hurdle acknowledged it would be tough for MLB to keep a division winner waiting for five, six or even seven days in order to play a three-game series between the wild-card teams.

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein shared his idea with reporters at Wrigley Field earlier this season — a three-game series but the first two games come in the form of a doubleheader to help save time.

Most Cubs players have yet to experience the thrill — and pressure — of a one-game playoff, but the Pirates understand what this is all about, having played in the last two National League wild-card games.

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The Pirates beat the Reds in 2013 to advance to the NLDS but lost to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants last season.

"The definition of this game is a 'wild-card' game," Hurdle said. "There are some things we're looking at that we need to do differently than we did in the past.

"Maybe there's a little bit of a 'wild-card' mentality for us as well."

Maddon has been in this one-game playoff situation before, too, as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013.

He refused to share his ideas for the Cubs' lineup against Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, but a reasonable expectation is to have Kris Bryant in left field, Kyle Schwarber in right and Tommy La Stella at third base. That's how they lined up behind Jake Arrieta on Friday in Milwaukee, and both Schwarber and La Stella saw extra work in the field during Tuesday's team workout.

Either way, a Cubs lineup packed with young, inexperienced talent will have to avoid letting the pressure get to them with a Game 7-type atmosphere.

"You're thrown right into the fire," Bryant said. "I really wouldn't have it any other way."

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.”