Cubs

Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

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Jorge Soler's perfect throw home saves day for Cubs

Miguel Montero caught a quick glimpse as Tony Cruz chugged toward home plate and suspected the Cubs had a shot to make a play. From their vantage points, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Cahill were far more confident about Jorge Soler’s chances.

Meanwhile, Clayton Richard missed most of it from the bullpen.

But what occurred in a 57-second span in the sixth inning on Tuesday night and again several minutes later wildly altered the Cubs’ fortunes. 

Soler first saved the day when he squashed a game-tying St. Louis Cardinals rally with an outfield assist and Anthony Rizzo capitalized on the momentum swing with a solo homer three batters later. The Cubs rode the two plays and a Kyle Schwarber homer to a 6-4 victory in Game 4 to complete an upset of the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series. The victory advanced the Cubs to the NL Championship Series, which begins Saturday in either Los Angeles or New York.

“I saw (Cruz) was still out there, so I’m like ‘All right, let me go back and see if I can make this play,’” Montero said. “But it was actually a good throw. Probably didn’t have too much on it. But it was a good throw.

“We killed the rally right there and Rizzo was able to hit another homer so it was huge.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta on Cubs: ‘Nobody wants to play us right now’]

The Cardinals’ sixth-inning recovery against Cahill had the ability to dash the Cubs’ postseason hopes in an instant. While there wasn’t a critical error to extend it like in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS or the seventh inning of Game 5 in 1984, St. Louis was on the verge of a comeback that could have sunk the Cubs. Instead of completing the upset in four games, the Cubs could have had to head back to St. Louis for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday.

Down 4-2, Jason Heyward led off the sixth with a single against Travis Wood. Jhonny Peralta then greeted Cahill with another single to silence the sellout crowd of 42,411. 

Cahill responded with strikeouts of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to bring the crowd back to life. He also jumped ahead of Cruz— a late addition to the lineup after Yadier Molina was scratched because of a thumb injury — 1-2 in the count only for the backup catcher to cue a 95-mph sinker into right field for a two-out RBI single. Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss then looked as if he may bring the Wrigley crowd to its knees when he ripped a 0-1 changeup to right for a single. Not only did Peralta score the tying run, the slow-footed Cruz headed for home to try and put the Cardinals ahead. 

“I was like ‘Uh oh,’ ” Cahill said.

But as the play developed, Cahill realized the Cubs might be headed for the dugout as Soler quickly collected it on a hop. 

“Soler has a cannon,” Cahill said.

Without hesitation, Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo waved Cruz home, a call manager Mike Matheny agreed with.

“We needed to test the outfield,” Matheny said.

[RELATED: At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story]

Fowler wouldn’t have made the same choice as Soler has what Baseball America described as “an easy plus arm.” He figured Soler had a great shot to nab Cruz.

“With his arm, I don’t think you can go right there,” Fowler said. “But they had to make a choice.”

So did Montero. 

Catchers always have to evaluate whether or not there is a chance to make a play on a throw home or if they should run up to cut off the throw and avoid any chance of the ball skipping past.

Bench coach Dave Martinez said it was a no-brainer for Montero because of where Cruz was and because it was Soler. His voice hoarse from yelling and jersey soaked with champagne, Martinez said he had confidence in Soler because they work on similar plays on a daily basis.

“You pretty much know you’ve gotta let the ball go and we’ve gotta take a shot,” Martinez said. “I knew if (Soler) came up with it we’d have a good chance.

“It was a perfect throw.”

Once Montero peeked down the line, he decided to back up. Soler’s throw perfectly one-hopped and in one motion Montero caught it and tagged Cruz with plate ump Mark Carlson immediately calling Cruz out.

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The Cubs were optimistic they escaped a potential landmine but had to wait to see if Matheny would challenge the call. The momentary pause caused Richard, who stopped warming up to watch the throw, to rapidly start throwing again because left-hander Matt Carpenter stood in the on-deck circle.

“We didn’t know if it was going to get reviewed or not so I had to keep on throwing,” Richard said. “Unfortunately, I missed everything.”

Once the replay showed, Matheny knew he couldn’t win a replay challenge and backed down. The crowd roared to life and the Cubs headed off the field with Cahill both upset and relieved.

“(Soler) absolutely saved my ass,” Cahill said. “I was really upset I gave up the lead, they tied it up on me.”

Three batters later, Rizzo made it moot with a solo homer off Kevin Siegrist to put the Cubs ahead for good. While Montero called the play huge, he’s not sure the Cubs would have reached that point had it not been for the base runner. Moss’s single took a late, high hop on Soler, which slightly slowed down the right fielder’s momentum and affected the throw.

“Probably didn’t have too much on it,” Montero said. “But it was a good throw.

“Good thing it was Cruz running, another catcher. Catchers, we are really slow.”

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

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.