Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

Albert Almora Jr. delivers for Cubs in win over Nationals

WASHINGTON – The Cubs are not the team where rookies are supposed to be seen – and not heard – and veteran players rule the clubhouse with an iron fist. It’s a next-man-up philosophy inside Theo Epstein’s scouting-and-player-development machine, and a simple dress code for anti-rules manager Joe Maddon: “If you think you look hot, you wear it.” 

Albert Almora Jr. believes that he belongs here at the age of 22, playing in this prime-time series against the Washington Nationals. It’s only been one week in The Show, but he’s already demonstrated how he could help the Cubs win a tight, low-scoring game in October.

Almora delivered in the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory at Nationals Park, lining the first pitch he saw from Washington lefty Sammy Solis past Washington shortstop Danny Espinosa and into left-center field for the go-ahead RBI double.

It didn’t matter that Almora had been a defensive replacement in the eighth inning, and only got 54 games of experience at the Triple-A level, and was supposed to be an offensive project while looking like a potential Gold Glove outfielder. This is what the Cubs do.

“He’s feeling (comfortable) because we’re a free team,” reliever Pedro Strop said. “We’re not the old-school style where rookies can’t do anything. Just be yourself.

“That’s because of the way Joe handles the situation, and we got really good veterans here, too. They don’t care about old-school (hazing). Just be who you are – and then help us win. We want to win the World Series. That’s what it’s all about.”

Maddon managed this like a playoff game, the way he went for the jugular against the San Francisco Giants during that four-game sweep of the defending World Series champs last August at Wrigley Field.

After John Lackey walked off the mound with runners on second and third and no outs in the seventh inning, Strop bailed him out and notched his 13th hold. Maddon also felt enough urgency that he called for Hector Rondon to try to get a five-out save in a one-run game.

Where Rondon allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth inning – before needing only seven pitches to slam the door in the ninth – the Nationals (40-25) now have endgame uncertainty with closer Jonathan Papelbon (intercostal strain) on the disabled list.

“The Giants at that time really were a team that we had to earn our stripes against,” Maddon said. “The Nationals are the same kind of team. They got a bunch of gamers out there, man. They’re just like us. We’re just like them. Every pitch matters. Nobody takes a pitch off. None of their pitchers take a pitch off, none of their defenders do, none of their hitters do, and I love it.” 

That’s where Almora fits in as someone who grew up playing against elite competition in South Florida and performing for Team USA, a precocious nature that drove the Cubs to draft him No. 6 overall in 2012. Almora actually played with Solis – who will turn 28 this summer – in the Arizona Fall League in 2013.

“We looked at each other,” Almora said. “I gave him a little nod of the helmet and it was time to go to work.”

“How about Almora?” Maddon said. “Come on, the guy’s been up here for five minutes and is not passive. He went out there and he jumped on the first pitch and I loved it.

“The guy’s going to be playing in the big leagues for a long time.”

It took another Jorge Soler hamstring injury for the Cubs (44-19) to promote Almora, but this is how you force the issue and make sure you never go back to Iowa.

“This is the way I think: I’m just trying to do anything to help this team win,” Almora said. “I feel like if I do that, then it makes my job easier, because I can sleep well at night saying: ‘Hey, I left it all on the table.’ Whatever they choose to do – it’s their decision – I don’t care. I’m here to win.”

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. gave another example of his all-around game

Albert Almora Jr. might be in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old outfielder continues to show his impressive range in center field and is having his best year at the plate.

In Sunday's 8-3 win against the Giants, Almora had three hits and showed off his wheels in center to rob Evan Longoria of extra bases. The catch is visible in the video above.

"Defensively, right now he's playing as well as he possibly can," Maddon said.

On top of the defense he has become known for, he is hitting .326. That's good for fifth in the National League in batting.

"He's playing absolutely great," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's working good at-bats. His at-bats have gotten better vs. righties.

"The thing about it, is there's power there. The home runs are gonna start showing up, too."

There's also this stat, which implies Almora is having a growing significance on the Cubs as a whole:

There may be some correlation, but not causality in that. However, with Almora's center field play and growing accolades at the plate, the argument is becoming easier and easier that he is one of the most important players on the Cubs. That also goes for Almora's regular spot in the lineup, which has been up in the air with Maddon continuing to juggle the lineup.

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."