Cubs

Jon Lester's message to frustrated Cubs: Figure it out

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Jon Lester's message to frustrated Cubs: Figure it out

Jon Lester's message to the frustrated Cubs was simple: "You gotta figure it out."

The two-time World Series champion and three-time All-Star knows what it takes to make it in the big leagues and has been a steady voice in a young clubhouse filled with guys still trying to adapt to "The Show."

The Cubs (46-40) had to field questions about the grind after dropping their third straight game, this time a 5-1 loss to Chris Sale and the White Sox (41-44) in front of 41,596 fans at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon.

"You gotta figure it out," Lester said. "The grind in the minor leagues is just the same in the big leagues. The only difference is — you get to take planes to different cities as opposed to buses.

"The grind's there. ... We all go through it. It doesn't matter how old or young we are."

[MORE: Could Cubs and White Sox get together on a Samardzija trade?]

The All-Star break may be coming at a good time for a Cubs team that just went 18 innings in between runs stretching from the sixth inning Wednesday until Jonathan Herrera delivered a pinch-hit double down the line in the seventh inning Saturday.

The Cubs have provided just one run of support total for Lester over his last four starts and for the second straight outing, Kris Bryant made a costly error that opened the door for a big inning from the other team against Lester.

But the veteran southpaw refused to play the blame game.

"I think there's an overall team frustration," Lester said. "I don't think you can point fingers at anybody. We all accept blame at different times. I don't like to single out anybody or single out a side of the baseball.

"Guys are up there grinding, they're prepared and that's all you can ask. The effort's there, the preparation's there, that's all you can ask.

"It's just a funny game — you square a ball up, a guy catches it. You hit a bleeder and it goes through a hole. It goes the same way pitching. We gotta continue to do the little things and the ball will fall our way eventually."

The Cubs have scored two runs or less in 13 of their last 18 games, though they have found a way to win four of those 13 games thanks to some record-setting starting pitching.

The Cubs — minus Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — will get four full days off during next week's All-Star break, giving those young hitters a chance to hit the reset button and get some rest before the "grind" restarts Friday in Atlanta.

"You have to relax the mind a little bit," Joe Maddon said. "The break is definitely coming at the appropriate time for us."

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The Cubs offense has floundered of late, but they've also gone up against some tough pitching, facing the likes of Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Chris Sale...even after finding a way to beat Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

"We've seen a lot of good pitching," Maddon said. "We've hit some balls well that have found leather as opposed to grass. We've seen good pitching. That's it. We have young hitters that are seeing good pitching.

"We are a swing-and-miss team. That's part of our DNA right now. They've gotten the better of us, but I am not discouraged in the least."

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.”