Cubs will find out how they measure up to Giants dynasty


Cubs will find out how they measure up to Giants dynasty

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs are about to find out how they measure up to the dynasty that produced three World Series titles within the last five seasons.

The San Francisco Giants did it with their pitching-and-defense formula, some clutch hitting and the guts to win 34 playoff games since 2010. Their front office also had a knack for identifying and acquiring the right players at the trade deadline.

The Cubs didn’t get great pitching from Dan Haren or the bullpen or airtight infield defense during Wednesday night’s 7-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. A young team didn’t play with razor-sharp focus, ending a six-game winning streak and making the kind of mistakes that kill you in October.

The Giants will be the next test as the Cubs open a four-game series against the defending World Series champions on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, beginning a stretch of 19 consecutive days in Chicago, where the buzz around the team keeps building.

[MORE CUBS: Are Cubs trying to phase out Starlin Castro as everyday shortstop?]

“I can’t wait to see what Wrigley is like this weekend with the series we got coming up,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 12-for-23 with four homers and 10 RBIs during this six-game road trip. “I feel like (with) every win we’ve had there, it’s just really getting louder and louder. I expect no different this weekend.”

The Cubs (58-48) didn’t see Haren as their first choice or a long-term solution. But Haren has a bulldog reputation, and the Cubs needed someone to keep them in games, preventing the fifth-starter spot from becoming a black hole.

Haren — acquired from the Miami Marlins in the final hours before the July 31 deadline — watched Gregory Polanco drill his fourth pitch in a Cubs uniform out to the right-field seats for a leadoff homer.

Andrew McCutchen hammered another Haren pitch that bounced off the green batter’s eye in center field in the third inning. But that will happen when your Twitter handle is @ithrow88.

“I’m glad that’s out of the way,” said Haren, who lasted five innings and gave up four runs, three earned in a no-decision. “I’ve got to obviously be a lot better than that to help this team. It’s over and done with.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs put Rafael Soriano on DL, add Clayton Richard to bullpen]

Haren needs his defense to make plays behind him. Kris Bryant’s fielding error extended the first inning when a groundball bounced off the third baseman’s glove.

The Cubs had put on a shift in the fifth inning when Bryant and Starlin Castro got crossed up on another ball hit to the left side of the infield, allowing a chopper to skip past them to make it a 4-1 game.

“I think Kris will tell you he probably should have gotten it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s the first guy across. That’s the guy that normally is going to get it, and the shortstop normally backs up.

“I think there was confusion based on the alignment. Sometimes, they’re just not used to it. The ball was hit at a speed and in a spot that just messed them up. Our young guys will get it right. But this was one of those moments that was very awkward.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Pirates (62-44) would be in position to host the wild-card game if the season ended tomorrow. The Giants (59-48) moved to a half-game ahead of the Cubs in the race for the second wild card with their 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.

It should be a wild weekend in Wrigleyville.

“It’s obviously important to find your stride at this point of the season,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “We need to keep it rolling as long as we can, because we know that the Cardinals aren’t slowing down and (the Pirates) aren’t either.

“It’s our job to just continue to put the pressure on ‘em — and let ‘em know we’re coming.”

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.