Cubs

Cubs think their resiliency could pay off in playoff race

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Cubs think their resiliency could pay off in playoff race

The Cubs believe they have the players to grow their early-season success into a legitimate playoff run. The first wave of talent is here, the roster is sprinkled with veterans and Jon Lester — despite his early-season mediocrity — is an established ace atop the rotation.

But it takes more than sheer talent to reach the playoffs, and the Cubs believe they have one of those inscrutable mental factors that should help them as the pressure builds in August and September. There’s a certain resilience the Cubs have captured through the season’s first two months, which showed up a few times on their recent road trip.

Before returning to Wrigley Field with a 6-3 win over Cincinnati Thursday night, the Cubs opened a lengthy road trip with a series loss to the lowly Marlins. That was followed by a series win over the stacked-on-paper Nationals, and after losing 6-0 to Detroit Tuesday, the Cubs followed with their biggest win (in terms of scoring margin) of the season.

“That’s what makes a difference between good teams and bad teams,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “Bad teams, it carries over about what happened yesterday, good teams eliminate it.”

[MORE: Cubs get back to normal with re-opening of RF bleachers]

The Cubs haven’t lost more than two games in a row in over a month, have six walk-off wins and 14 wins when trailing after six innings. That kind of resiliency, Montero said, can be fostered with come-from-behind and dramatic wins, which leads to few extended losing streaks.

Manager Joe Maddon said it’s a trait not every team he’s been a part of has had.

“I’ve been on teams where I thought have been negatively impacted just by that, the fact that you just couldn’t drop it, you could not take that rock and drop it in the nearest lake,” Maddon said. “Just leave it alone, you don’t need it. You often hear me talk about I want to see how high we bounce after the fall. We’ve done pretty good.”

First baseman Anthony Rizzo agreed.

“No one really lets too many things affect them, whether it’s giving up runs, not having a good week, not having a good game,” Rizzo said. “We just play together and have fun together. You don’t see anyone really pouting too much and if he is or if someone is, we pick him up as a team.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]

That bounce-back ability has certainly played into the Cubs’ 32-26 record after Thursday’s win, a mark that puts them squarely in the way-too-early wild card discussion. But it’s a less-than-quantifiable measure that doesn’t guarantee anything, and sometimes isn’t necessary to reaching the playoffs. Montero said the 2007 Diamondbacks team he played on — which reached the NLCS — didn’t have that belief it’d win every game, even though it won 90 games and the National League West.

But the Cubs don’t have a large margin for error this year, not with most of its core players having never experienced a pennant race. But the hope is the resilient attitude possessed by all these young players and experienced veterans — and, perhaps most importantly, by the manager — will play an important role if every pitch begins to matter come the late summer and early fall.

“Just don’t be bringing bad vibes into the clubhouse because we had a bad day the day before,” Maddon said. “I think that’s where a lot of groups go wrong, when you want to carry something negative or a defeat from the day before into the next day.

“Leave it in the past, man. It serves no really good purpose.”

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.”