Cubs

Clinch squad? Here's the Cubs' starting lineup for Game 4 of the NLDS

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USA TODAY

Clinch squad? Here's the Cubs' starting lineup for Game 4 of the NLDS

Will this be the group that fuels a Game 4 clincher and kicks off a clubhouse celebration Tuesday night at Wrigley Field?

The Cubs announced Joe Maddon's starting lineup for Game 4 of the NLDS, where a win would advance the North Siders to their third straight NLCS and bring an end to the Washington Nationals' season.

Here's how it stacks up:

1. Jon Jay, CF
2. Kris Bryant, 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Willson Contreras, C
5. Ben Zobrist, RF
6. Kyle Schwarber, LF
7. Addison Russell, SS
8. Javy Baez, 2B
9. Jake Arrieta, P

The lineup looks much like it did for Game 3, with the exception of Baez's reinsertion. Baez is 0-for-6 with a walk in this series.

Jason Heyward, who is a startling 0-for-18 in his career against Nationals starter Tanner Roark, does not start. Schwarber is back in left field after his defensive disaster in Game 3, but his .497 slugging percentage against right-handed pitching during the regular season means his bat is too valuable to sit. Zobrist also remains firmly planted in the No. 5 spot in the batting order, where he was Monday. Despite plenty of calls for his postseason benching, Zobrist came up with a huge hit to end Max Scherzer's no-hit bid in Game 3.

The Cubs haven't had too much success against Roark in the past. Only two Cubs have more than one career hit against Roark: Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Rizzo has four hits in 18 plate appearances, two of those being home runs. Bryant has been great against Roark, 5-for-11 with a homer.

Unsurprisingly, there will be a big focus on Arrieta, who will make his first start since a brief three-inning outing against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 26. Arrieta, like Nationals ace and Game 3 starter Max Scherzer, is battling a hamstring issue. He logged just 10.1 innings of work during the month of September while bothered by the injury.

Arrieta's lone start against the Nationals this season was the now-infamous 6-1 loss in which the Nationals stole seven bases — four alone from Trea Turner — prompting the postgame comments from Miguel Montero, who was off the team the following day.

Arrieta is looking to take the baton and continue what has been a trend of fantastic starting pitching for the Cubs in this series. The Cubs are the first team ever to have three consecutive starts of five-plus innings with one or zero runs allowed and two or fewer hits allowed in the same postseason series. Kyle Hendricks allowed no runs and two hits in Game 1, Jon Lester allowed one earned run and two hits in Game 2, and Jose Quintana allowed zero earned runs and two hits in Game 3.

Former Cubs skipper Dusty Baker will send this starting lineup out against Arrieta:

1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Jayson Werth, LF
3. Bryce Harper, RF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Daniel Murphy, 2B
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Michael Taylor, CF
9. Tanner Roark, P

While the starting eight position players are the same as Games 1, 2 and 3, Baker has moved around where those guys are batting. Werth gets moved up to the No. 2 spot, while Harper, Zimmerman, Murphy and Rendon get bumped down, Rendon is moved down from third to sixth.

The Nationals have had a ton of trouble hitting Cubs pitching, as chronicled above. They're just 11-for-91 in the series, and three players — Zimmerman, Harper and Taylor — account for seven of those hits. Zimmerman and Taylor are the only players with NLDS batting averages above .200.

Harper, Murphy and Rendon have had success against Arrieta during their careers, with a combined 14 hits in 53 plate appearances. Murphy, Werth and Adam Lind are the three Nationals with home runs against Arrieta.

Obviously, it's worth keeping an eye on Turner, who stole four of the seven bases in that game against Arrieta back in June. He's 0-for-12 in the series so far, but should he get on base, he could change things immediately with his speed.

Roark is an Illinois native, from Wilmington, and a University of Illinois alum. A former Cubs fan, he's had success pitching at Wrigley Field: 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA in five games (four starts).

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.