John Lackey's gem guides Cubs to shutout win over Diamondbacks

John Lackey's gem guides Cubs to shutout win over Diamondbacks

The Cubs didn’t offer John Lackey much run support for most of the game, but it didn’t matter.

Another gem by Lackey guided the Cubs to a 6-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the series opener on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

Lackey fanned nine batters and only allowed five hits and two walks in 6.2 innings pitched. He received a standing ovation from the Wrigley crowd of 38,813 when he was pulled.

Lackey improved his record to 6-2 on the season and led the Cubs to their ninth win in their last 10 games, enhancing their league-leading record to 38-15.

Right now, the Cubs have all five starters – a group that has the best ERA among starting pitchers – contributing on a daily basis.

Manager Joe Maddon called Lackey the “linchpin” of the Cubs’ starting five.

“I’m good with that," Lackey said of Maddon's comment. "I take a lot of pride on being someone you can count on."

The team’s 2.33 ERA by their starting pitchers this season is lower than 72 of the 110 Cy Young-winning seasons in MLB history, according to CSN's Chris Kamka.

"I’ve seen some pretty good starting pitching, but this is really, really good," Maddon said. "Each one goes out there and you feel pretty good about them getting pretty deep into the game.

"They’re hitting their spots. It’s been fun to watch.”

In Lackey’s last seven starts, all of them have been quality ones. His stat line during that time: 49.2 IP, 29 H, 10 ER, 13 BB, 49 K, 1.81 ERA, 0.85 WHIP.

“I’m a guy that kind of gets better as things go along," Lackey said. "Hopefully we keep doing that."

Much like the Diamondbacks, the Cubs didn’t generate any offense in the first six innings of the game. The Cubs only registered four hits – the same amount as the opposition until that point.

It wasn’t until the bottom of the sixth inning that got the Cubs on the board first.

Anthony Rizzo hit a two-out double that scored Jason Heyward from first, picking up his 39th RBI of the season.

Lackey returned to the mound to start the seventh.

After retiring the first two batters, Lackey walked Chris Owings and then gave up a single to Yasmany Tomas on his 100th pitch of the day.

Maddon admitted it was tough to pull the veteran since he hadn't allowed a run all game, but that wasn't his indicator.

"I love John in that moment as much as anybody, but it was 100 pitches – a little bit warm out there, etc. – so I just thought it was the right thing to do," Maddon said. "Happened to work."

Adam Warren came in to relieve the Lackey to record the final out of the seventh. Pedro Strop pitched a perfect eighth.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs' bats came alive. They added some insurance runs, beginning with a two-out, two-run double from Addison Russell, who entered the game in the top of the inning on defense.

Later in the inning, Javier Baez smacked a two-run double to center field and came around to score on an error to give the Cubs a 6-0 lead. In the last two games, Baez has five RBIs.

Maddon said Hector Rondon (back stiffness) was available to pitch in the game, but elected not to after a save situation became out of reach. Justin Grimm came in to cap off the ninth, and secure the win.

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.”