Cubs

Joe Maddon: No place for retribution in Cubs-Pirates rivalry

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Joe Maddon: No place for retribution in Cubs-Pirates rivalry

The Pittsburgh Pirates know where to find Chris Coghlan if they believe in eye-for-an-eye justice.

That’s how a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column previewed this showdown at Wrigley Field: “Will Pirates-Cubs finally boil over?” These two teams already appeared headed toward a collision in the National League’s wild-card game on Oct. 7.

And then Coghlan took out one of Pittsburgh’s most valuable players when he slammed into Jung Ho Kang last week at PNC Park, breaking the infielder’s left leg and tearing a knee ligament with an aggressive slide.

“It was a good baseball play,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s 3-2 loss. “There’s nothing to cause retribution at all. I would hope not. For me, for us, it’s a dead issue. And that’s it.

“I think the people involved within the Pirates, they understand that. Others that may want to fan the flames are just fanning flames. They really don’t know what they’re talking about.”

[MORE CUBS: Playoff party on hold as Cubs lose to Pirates]

That column mentioned a feeling around the Pirates that mirrored the reaction from Pittsburgh fans on social media: Why did Maddon sound insensitive, downplaying a potential knee injury and saying he heard Kang had plantar fasciitis?

“It wasn’t my thought,” Maddon said. “It was coming from the Pirates’ side. That’s what I was hoping — that it wasn’t that serious. There’s no way I would ever make something like that up or even think about that.

“That’s what we had heard. And I thought: ‘Oh, good, then he’s not that badly hurt.’ That was my first thought. That’s all.”

Coghlan is a deeply religious person who plays with an edge and doesn’t take this for granted. He knows what it’s like to turn a double play, come back from a serious injury, get non-tendered and compete for a job after signing a minor-league deal.

Kang, a shortstop/third baseman from South Korea, is looking at a six-to-eight month recovery period after making his mark (15 homers, 58 RBIs, .816 OPS) during a superb rookie season. Hours after that devastating play, Kang exonerated Coghlan with a statement released through his agent.

[MORE CUBS: Gerrit Cole getting stronger as wild card game vs. Cubs looms]

Even if there are no fireworks this time — Maddon compared the St. Louis Cardinals to “The Sopranos” last weekend — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has certainly noticed a different vibe around the Cubs.

“You’d have to be blind not to,” Hurdle said.

After enduring 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have become a model organization in many ways, combining scouting-and-player-development methods with a strong analytical structure to clinch a playoff spot for a third straight year.

After stripping down the big-league product and sitting through five consecutive fifth-place finishes, the Cubs are on the verge of securing a wild card in Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration.

“It was a work in progress,” Hurdle said. “When the new front office came over, they had a direction and a purpose. Everybody has direction and purpose. How it plays out? Nobody ever shows up on a new job and says: ‘You know what, let me wake up and see how I can screw things up.’ No. Managers don’t. Coaches don’t. Front-office executives don’t. General managers don’t.

“There comes a point in time where things make more sense. They find more rhythm and rhyme — and they have. They’ve been able to cultivate a very fertile and solid foundation of young players that have skills. They’ve also created a pitching staff that’s got experience, and (they) went about that a couple different ways. They have a good team. There’s no doubt.”

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.”