Cubs

Frustrated John Lackey after Cubs lose in Milwaukee: ‘This is the big leagues’

Frustrated John Lackey after Cubs lose in Milwaukee: ‘This is the big leagues’

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans took over Miller Park again on Saturday night, booing Ryan Braun when he stepped into the batter’s box, wearing Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant and Darwin Barney jerseys and chanting “Let’s go, Cubbies!” over and over again.

Big Boy Game? Eh, not so much for John Lackey, the two-time World Series champion the Cubs imported to anchor their playoff rotation and give the clubhouse some much-needed edge. Not when it’s late July and the Milwaukee Brewers are near the ground floor of a full-scale rebuild. 

But the Brewers haven’t sold off All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy yet, and Lackey still looked annoyed some three hours after a game-changing play in the first inning.

“You guys can decide” if that was a double-play ball, Lackey told the reporters at his locker after a 6-1 loss. “This is the big leagues.”

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Lackey threw up his arms in frustration after Braun hit a groundball toward second baseman Javier Baez, who flipped the ball to shortstop Addison Russell for the second out. Lucroy, the next batter, hammered Lackey’s 93-mph fastball off a second-deck advertisement in left-center field for a two-run homer. 

Baez (age 23) and Russell (age 22) have the potential to become Gold Glove winners, already transforming this team’s defensive profile. Lackey has a reputation for being ornery on the mound and with the media. This isn’t the first time Lackey (7-7, 3.79 ERA) has alluded to tightening things up, and it probably won’t be the last.   

Even though you could wonder about the offense, the rush from Dexter Fowler’s return to the top of the lineup wearing off quickly as rookie right-hander Zach Davies limited the Cubs to only one run across 6.1 innings, drawing comparisons to Kyle Hendricks from manager Joe Maddon.

[RELATED: Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?]

And Cubs fans started heading toward the exits in the eighth inning after Mike Montgomery – the high-upside lefty Theo Epstein’s front office acquired in advance of the Aug. 1 trade deadline – gave up a three-run homer to Kirk Nieuwenhuis that made it a beat-the-traffic game.

Nieuwenhuis (.195 average entering Saturday) had led off the fourth inning by homering off Lackey, who put together his first quality start since June 30 but still hasn’t earned a win since June 8. 

“They just purely beat us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit.”

The Cubs (58-38) say they aren’t scoreboard watching now, even though the St. Louis Cardinals (52-45) have closed to within 6.5 games in a division race that looks much tighter now. 

“No, you can’t,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “They’re playing well. They’re a good team. They know how to win. That’s what they have done for a long time. It’s not going to be a cakewalk. But that’s the way baseball is. We know that. Everyone knows that.”  

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.”