Cubs

Jon Lester’s playoff message for Cubs after seeing how fragile Mets are now

Jon Lester’s playoff message for Cubs after seeing how fragile Mets are now

The Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey matchup from Game 1 of the 2015 National League Championship Series feels like ancient history now that the Cubs and New York Mets have gone in completely different directions.

Where Lester cemented his reputation as a three-time World Series champion and a borderline Hall of Famer, Harvey has dealt with too many surgeries, gossip items and clubhouse issues to be more than a one-year lottery ticket next season.

The Mets are so down and decimated by injuries that it’s impossible to draw many conclusions from Wednesday night’s 17-5 blowout at Wrigley Field. Except for looking at the out-of-town scores and remembering the one big idea about how fragile all this can be.

“This game’s fickle, man,” Lester said after beating Harvey and grinding through his third start since coming off the disabled list. “You got to take advantage while you can, while you have the players. We all see it. We all see guys that get called up that are supposed to be the next coming of whatever and two or three years they’re out of the game.

“With that being said now, you got to take each individual season for what it’s worth. You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have injuries. You’re going to have things not necessarily go your way.

“I think we led the league in walk-off wins last year. We obviously led the league in defense. We led the league in pitching. We won 100-and-however many games. Years like that don’t happen that often.”

From one moment to the next, Lester can go from seemingly brooding and sarcastic to extremely chatty and thoughtful, the way he did in the interview room when a reporter mentioned Anthony Rizzo reminding the media that the Cubs were still in first place after getting swept by the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend.

“How bout that, right?” Lester said. “You wouldn’t think it. God dang, it’s unbelievable.”

To stay there, the Cubs need Lester, who hasn’t shown the same sharpness since left shoulder fatigue/lat muscle tightness sidelined him from the middle of August until Labor Day weekend. Lester watched Jose Reyes drive an 89-mph pitch into the left-center field bleachers for a leadoff homer to begin the game, needed 78 pitches to make it through three innings and walked four batters for the second straight start.

Instead of David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto looming in the middle of their lineup, the Mets featured a guy who got released in late August in the No. 2 spot (Norichika Aoki), Kevin Plawecki and Juan Lagares hitting fourth/fifth, followed by two guys who made their big-league debuts last month (Amed Rosario and Travis Taijeron).

Will Lester be ready in time to match up with Max Scherzer and a loaded Washington Nationals lineup on Oct. 6? The $155 million ace stretched out to 114 pitches, lasted six innings and allowed two runs while the Cubs knocked out Harvey (5-5, 6.14 ERA) early and put up another football score against an overmatched team.

The Brewers winning kept them 2.5 games out of first place while the St. Louis Cardinals losing dropped them back to third place, three games out in the NL Central. The magic number for the Cubs to clinch the division is now 15.

“All you got to do is get in,” Lester said. “It doesn’t matter how the season looks, what everybody’s stats are. Whether you limp in or you sprint in, it doesn’t matter. You get in, anybody has a chance. I’ve always been a big believer in that. And there’s been a lot of teams over the years that have proven that.”

Lester brought up the Los Angeles Dodgers – going from a “Best. Team. Ever?” Sports Illustrated cover to losing 11 games in a row and 16 of 17 – and how everything will be wiped away in October.

“They’ve been the best team all year – from Day 1 – and look at the skid they’re going through right now,” Lester said. “This game will humble you. It will bring you back down. But at the end of the day, all you got to do is get in. And we’ll figure it out from there.”

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.”