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Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs

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Unsung hero Jonathan Herrera impressing Maddon, Cubs

If you asked Cubs fans who Jonathan Herrera was at the start of spring training, you'd get a lot of puzzled looks and shoulder shrugs.

Herrera was an unknown when he signed as a minor-league free agent with the Cubs last December, earning a nonroster invite to spring training. He hit .300 in Cactus League play and suddenly found himself on the Opening Day roster as the Cubs hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Three weeks later, Herrera is flying high after a few good games in a row, capped off with the game-winning hit in the 11th inning Friday against the Reds.

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Herrera entered Friday's game in the late innings, taking over at third base as Kris Bryant moved to left field. In his first at-bat in the 11th, Herrera lined a sharp single to right field to bring home Anthony Rizzo in an eventual 7-3 victory.

"You have to prepare yourself for the situation," Herrera said. "I'm here to face those situations and be ready for them.

"I try to do the little things every day, take my swings in the cage before and throughout the game, just in case I get an opportunity in the game and then try to do my best."

It's that mindset that has helped Herrera carve out a utilty role with the Cubs, where he now has four RBI in the last four games, including a two-run triple in Pittsburgh Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, 30, signed with the Colorado Rockies as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2002 and appeared in 375 games for the Rockies from 2008-13, making appearances at second base, third base, shortstop and even left field.

After a minor role in Boston last season, Herrera inked a deal with the Cubs and impressed manager Joe Maddon right off the bat.

"During spring training, the thing I really appreciated about him, even when he wasn't playing or he was on the bench, he was always upbeat," Maddon said. "He didn't know his status, he didn't ask about his status. He just kept coming out and doing his job.

"I thought, 'This guy is a real professional.' He has totally exhibited that over the course of the two-three weeks of the season. An ability to play a variety of positions, he's gotten some big hits for us, works good at-bats.

"He's a pro, man. When he's one of the guys on that bench, you feel good about it. Because you know if you put him out there, he's going to be ready."

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Herrera credited Maddon's managing style for putting him in a position to succeed and making him comfortable, even when his name isn't on the lineup card to start a game.

With Addison Russell and Kris Bryant now up in the big leagues and starting every day at second base and third base, respectively, Herrera has been relegated to more of a bench role, but he's content with that, especially while the team is winning.

"I'm very happy to be a part of this really good group we have," Herrera said. "I prepare myself every day for an opportunity to come.

"We're playing really hard games every single day. We're fighting, we're playing 27 outs. Good things happen when you play like that."

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.”