Cubs

Measuring stick: Cubs showing Giants what they're made of

8-8-bryant-rizzo-cubs.png

Measuring stick: Cubs showing Giants what they're made of

It doesn't matter if the Cubs arrived a year early in the rebuild or not.

All that matters right now is that the Cubs (61-48) are for real, which they proved again Saturday with an 8-6 victory over the San Francisco Giants (59-51) in front of 41,305 fans at Wrigley Field.

It was the Cubs' third straight win over the defending World Series Champs and the ninth win in the last 10 games for Joe Maddon's bunch.

"I'm seeing a much more consistent level of play," Maddon said. "We're really starting to believe in ourselves. I'm still looking for that late-inning, swagger kind of thing.

"I think it's almost there where things get a little freaky and we're still OK. That's the next step. But overall, man, you can't complain with the effort, the intensity, tenacity, whatever you want to call it. Our guys show up to play every day. I love it."

[MORE CUBS: What does the future hold for Starlin Castro with Cubs?]

Maddon and the Cubs brushed this week off as just another set of games, but no matter what happens Sunday, the Cubs will come away with a winning record from a tough six-game stretch against the Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates.

"I don't know if I look at it as a measuring stick," Chris Coghlan said. "I just look at it as we're trying to win. I'm not really looking for a moral victory to say that we just played good.

"I think we're coming into our own. Hopefully we can just stay consistent like we are right now."

The Cubs did it all Saturday, collecting 11 hits and eight free passes (six walks, two hit-by-pitches) off Matt Cain and four Giants relievers.

They tallied three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth and they wound up needing them all as James Russell and Jason Motte allowed the Giants to get back into it with three runs in the ninth before Justin Grimm - the third pitcher of the inning - finally shut the door.

Maddon calls insurance runs "jugulars" or "jugs" as he likens it to going for the kill.

"Those three runs were huge for us," Maddon said. "They matched it. We were able to hang on without the full bullpen today, which was great."

Rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell led the charge for the Cubs on offense, combining for four hits, three runs and four RBI, including Bryant's two-run homer in the third inning. Russell doubled twice and singled home one of the "jugs" in the eighth inning.

Miguel Montero came off the disabled list to record an RBI single and also walked twice and tallied a run scored. Kyle Schwarber collected two more hits, a run and an RBI and was also hit with a pitch.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Kyle Hendricks picked up his sixth win of the season with a gutsy performance, working around five hits and two walks in 5.2 innings, allowing the Giants only three runs.

With the win, the Cubs extended their lead to 2.5 games over the Giants in the battle for the second wild card and will go for the four-game sweep Sunday afternoon with Jake Arrieta on the mound.

"That's the thing we've been talking about - We cannot be satsified," Maddon said. "Our goal is always to win series. We got it. But when you have a chance to go to the next level, you don't just show up. Especially right now.

"I really anticipate us being ready to play [Sunday]. I do. We have Jake pitching. That's kind of a nice setup for us. And they have [Jake] Peavy, who's one of the best competitors I've ever seen.

"It's going to be an interesting Sunday, but you've gotta go out there not being satisfied with what you've just done."

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.”