Cubs

Cubs show win-now urgency in pulling closer Hector Rondon

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Cubs show win-now urgency in pulling closer Hector Rondon

WASHINGTON – There were no epic meltdowns or shots fired through the media. You didn’t hear the sound of 40,000 fans booing at Wrigley Field. But once again the Cubs have a closer controversy.

Jason Hammel had been doused with a mixture of Monster Amino supplements during the postgame mosh pit, leaving a pinkish/white substance all over his shirt and the back of his head.

Joe Maddon lobbied for his pitcher to make the All-Star team during the manager’s postgame media session. Addison Russell looked smooth making his first big-league start at shortstop. The Cubs are in position to win a series against one of the National League’s elite teams.

But Maddon’s decision to pull Hector Rondon after facing one batter in the ninth inning definitely drove the conversation coming out of Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“It was about winning the game today,” Maddon said. “I am not ordaining anybody new. It was a moment for today.”

Hammel pitched into the ninth inning and walked off the mound at Nationals Park after giving up Bryce Harper’s 19th home run this season. Maddon then watched Rondon throw nine straight fastballs – each one clocked between 95 and 97 mph – and walk Anthony Rendon.

Wilson Ramos had already homered once this afternoon and Maddon didn’t hesitate to call for Pedro Strop, a better fit with his groundball rates when compared to Rondon’s flyball tendencies.

Remember when Rondon threw the Milwaukee Brewers 19 consecutive fastballs last month, almost blowing a four-run lead before hanging on for a 7-6 victory?

[MORE: Why the Cubs once passed on Addison Russell in the draft]

“It’s just how the walk occurred, too,” Maddon said. “I wasn’t comfortable with what I was seeing.”

Strop forced that groundball in the Ramos matchup and then struck out Clint Robinson and Ian Desmond, getting them to swing at sliders in the dirt. Strop pointed to the sky and pounded his chest after notching his second save.

Rondon might not be the ninth-inning answer in Maddon’s bullpen equation.

“I may look for an opportunity for him just to pitch more freely in a different moment,” Maddon said, “so he can go out there and work on some stuff, because this guy’s done a great job here in the past finishing games off. He’s going to do it again. But for right now, I just thought that was the right thing to do today.”

[ALSO: Soler expecting a fast recovery]

Rondon saved 29 games last year, but the stakes are much higher for a 29-25 team that’s playing with a win-now sense of urgency.

“It’s just being more assertive, aggressive, confident,” Maddon said. “The stuff is great and the guy’s great. He came up to me, fist pump after the game, which shows me what kind of a professional that he is. It was outstanding. He wants to win. He’s a team guy. He’s going to be a big part of our future. Today, I thought it was better to do what we did.”

Rondon admitted he felt “a little bit” surprised by Maddon’s quick decision but said all the right things and appeared to handle it well, calmly answering questions at his locker.

“Any situation they want to put me in, I’ll take it,” Rondon said.

It’s not like Rondon is losing velocity or looking like a total mechanical mess or causing scenes in the clubhouse. His overall numbers are actually pretty good: 3-0, 3.09 ERA, 10 saves, 21 strikeouts vs. seven walks in 23-plus innings.

But Rondon is trending in the wrong direction and a manager and a front office that has already shaken up the roster several times within the first two months will only have so much patience.

“If (Maddon) puts me in the ninth inning, the fifth inning, seventh inning, I don’t care,” Rondon said. “I need to do (my job).”

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.