Cubs

Justin Grimm finding a new level in Cubs bullpen

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Justin Grimm finding a new level in Cubs bullpen

Justin Grimm throws his curveball about the same speed as Dan Haren's fastball.

As he carved through the heart of the Detroit Tigers order last week (striking out all three batters he faced, including Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez), Grimm was spinning his "offspeed" pitch around 85 mph while Haren has his self-deprecating @ithrow88 Twitter handle.

That illustrates the video-game-type stuff and numbers coming out of the bullpen, where Cubs manager Joe Maddon has used Grimm in almost any role imaginable.

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As the Cubs have gotten hot and made a serious push for the playoffs, Grimm and his 1.24 ERA has been leading the way out of the bullpen and he will be counted on even more now that Jason Motte has landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.

Grimm hasn't allowed a run in his last 15 games dating back to July 21, striking out 16 batters in 13 innings and picking up seven holds, two saves and a win in the process.

"What level is he pitching at right now?" Maddon said. "The kid's been good all year, but this is a little bit different.

"I'm happy for him. He's pitching outstanding baseball."

Maddon is careful not to attach any sort of labels onto each member of a successful bullpen, which ranks 12th in Major League Baseball with a 3.43 ERA. But Maddon did mention how important the fifth and sixth innings are and that he loves "middle-inning closers" like Grimm and lefty Travis Wood.

Grimm said he's gotten used to pitching without a defined role, knowing the bullpen phone can ring at any time and he needs to be ready to roll.

Grimm's 1.1 WAR ranks him 30th among MLB relievers on FanGraphs, even though he's pitched just 36.1 innings this season after missing the first month with a forearm injury.

He also ranks seventh in the big leagues with 13.13 strikeouts per nine innings, finding his name among dominant closers and setup men like Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen and ahead of Craig Kimbrel, arguably the game's best reliever the last five seasons.

Grimm - who recently turned 27 - has always had the stuff, but he wasn't able to put it all together until last season.

For him, it always came down to one thing.

"Turning the corner at this level was all confidence," he said. "I was questioning if I belong at this level at first. I kinda took my own route in that aspect."

Grimm came up as a starter in the Texas Rangers minor-league system and made 19 starts for the organization in 2012-13 before he was moved to the bullpen.

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No matter how much success he's having as a reliever, Grimm hasn't given up hope on starting.

"I do like the bullpen. It's good, but I still believe I can start," he said. "I do. When I came up in the big leagues, I wasn't necessarily ready. So maybe moving to the bullpen, honestly, helped me adjust to the big leagues more than anything.

"The only thing I was missing when I was starting - it wasn't stuff. I wasn't making different pitches. It was just a confidence thing. When you're not throwing with confidence, you give up the big hits. You walk people.

"But now, I think I could be a quality starter for this team and in this league."

That being said, Grimm reiterated that he enjoys being a part of this bullpen right now, and starting is just something he hasn't shut the door on down the road.

Grimm knows if the Cubs are going to keep having success into October, they're going to need him to get some big outs, no matter the inning.

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.”