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.”