Cubs

Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

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Cubs still trying to measure up to Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Baseball’s marathon schedule doesn’t lend itself to statement games, and nothing will be decided in early May, but the Cubs should find out what they’re made of here at Busch Stadium.

To be honest, the Cubs haven’t held up their end of the rivalry since winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. The St. Louis Cardinals continue to be the gold standard, with 11 playoff appearances since 2000 and 11 World Series titles overall.

The Cardinals (19-6) still have the best record in baseball after Monday night’s 10-9 victory over the Cubs in front of 41,981 and a national-TV audience. The Cubs have done a lot of things right in their deliberate rebuild, but nothing will be handed to them in the National League Central.

“I love this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want our guys to love this. I hate that I constantly bring up the past, but the Rays got better because they played in Yankee Stadium a lot and they played in Fenway Park a lot. That’s how these guys are going to get better.

“You got to get past that point where – I don’t want to say you’re intimidated by it – but you’re taken by it a bit. You’re not as comfortable with it. And then you start embracing it. You start looking forward to it. As our young guys start getting into this moment here, I really believe that we’ll be that group also.”

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The Cubs put up five runs in the first inning, and knocked out Carlos Martinez by the fourth, but the Cardinals are relentless. St. Louis does not quit. Mark Reynolds responded with a grand slam off Travis Wood in the first inning, and the Cubs bullpen could not stop the bleeding.

Help is on the way: Justin Grimm threw a scoreless inning for Triple-A Iowa on Monday and appears to be very close to rejoining the team after his right forearm injury.

James Russell is also trying to force the issue after getting released by the Atlanta Braves near the end of spring training and returning to the organization on a minor-league deal. The lefty has not allowed a walk through 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa, notching 12 strikeouts.

The Cardinals have an assembly-line quality to them, still rolling even with ace Adam Wainwright missing the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Cardinal Way won’t go away, which became a talking point during Cubs president Theo Epstein’s end-of-season news conference last year.

“How do you balance like admiration and contempt?” Epstein said. “I’m a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals, but I also admire the way they run their baseball shop…for basically the better part of a century.

“They’re really consistent. They make good decisions. All the way back to George Kissell, they teach the game the right way. They stay true to that vision of how to play Cardinals baseball, and they develop homegrown players who are loyal to it.

“I hate to say this on the record, but in some respects, we have to do a lot of things they do in order to be successful. On the other hand, I think we’re building something that has the chance to go toe-to-toe with them and surpass them. I think we have the chance to win this division, and win it on a consistent basis, and we’re going to need to in order to win the World Series.”

[CUBS ROAD AHEAD: A measuring stick in St. Louis]

Kris Bryant (four walks) and Addison Russell (2-for-5, home run) got their first tastes of the rivalry and should be fixtures for years to come. The Cubs are 13-11 – 5.5 games behind the Cardinals – and will get three more chances to make up some ground this week.

“I’m here to tell you, man: You want to play good teams,” Maddon said. “If you want young kids to get better, you want to play the best teams as often as you possibly can.”

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.”