Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: A Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs

Behind the scenes at Wrigley: A Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs

The Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto in an elimination game, with Madison Bumgarner lurking in the bullpen and all that anxiety creeping into Wrigley Field.

The San Francisco Giants seemingly had all the elements to turn a dream season into a nightmare – dominant pitchers, steady defenders, a lineup stacked with disciplined hitters and the deep reservoir of confidence from winning three World Series titles since 2010.

“We did not want to see Game 5,” manager Joe Maddon admitted at the winter meetings. “I thought facing Cueto in Game 5 would be the most difficult thing we had to do. I thought it was necessary that we won Game 4 in San Francisco to progress as well as we did. I was more focused on that win than anything else.”

More than 2,000 miles away from AT&T Park, Alex Suarez was a little distracted that night, sitting with his wife, Abby, at Prentice Women’s Hospital on Northwestern’s downtown medical campus, awaiting the birth of their first child.

The two first met while working for the Cubs. Suarez played at the University of Tennessee with future major-league players like Chase Headley, Luke Hochevar, Julio Borbon and J.P. Arencibia, starting out as an intern in baseball operations in 2008 and rising to be the assistant director of player development and international scouting.

Abby, who’s now the executive director of the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, had worked on the multilayered presentation to Jon Lester during his recruiting visit before Thanksgiving 2014, when Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer sold their vision of what the free agent could be on the field, in the clubhouse and in the community.

Lester, who beat lymphoma as a young pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, uses his platform to fundraise for pediatric cancer research. Even with that $155 million contract, he still had an antenna for negative feedback and how the team would be portrayed in the media, using it all as motivation.

“We got 103 wins,” Lester said, “but the Giants were supposed to beat us.”

That first-round series appeared headed toward a Lester vs. Cueto rematch as San Francisco lefty Matt Moore shut down the Cubs, allowing one earned run through eight innings and handing a 5-2 lead to a shaky bullpen that led the majors with 30 blown saves.

“We were watching the game,” Suarez recalled this week. “When things got serious in about the seventh inning, that’s when we realized: ‘Oh, wow, this baby is going to come quick.’ And then my focus shifted.

“At that point, in my head, I’m thinking: ‘OK, we got a game tomorrow. We’ll face Cueto.’ And my son probably would have been born sooner had my wife not wanted to wait in between outs to push.”

Suarez laughed over the phone: “She’ll probably kill me for saying that. But, yeah, I was focused on her. And she was watching the game.”

With his bilingual background and hybrid roles in international operations and the farm system, maybe Suarez should have seen this coming from the relentless lineup that mounted an epic comeback against five different San Francisco relievers.

Suarez helped expand the pipeline former Cubs executive Oneri Fleita started to build in Latin America. It produced the elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) surrendered in the Aroldis Chapman trade and the chest-pounding rookie catcher (Willson Contreras) who delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single in the ninth inning.

Suarez’s father, Alex, owned the indoor hitting facility in Miami that the Cubs used as an offseason staging ground for some of their young hitters like Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora Jr. An under-control Baez knocked Hunter Strickland’s 99-mph fastball back up the middle for a 6-5 lead over the Giants.

When the Cubs needed a translator for the sensitive conference call in late July as a precondition for closing that blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees – to address a 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy – Suarez became a point man for chairman Tom Ricketts, Epstein, Hoyer, Chapman and agent Barry Praver.

Chapman unleashed 13 ninth-inning fastballs – all 99 mph or faster – to end the even-year myths about a Giants team that couldn’t land the superstar closer at the trade deadline. Future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy told CSN Bay Area at the winter meetings: “I’m not going to lie. In all my years, that’s the toughest game I’ve ever had to bounce back (from).”

While a Giant comeback launched a new generation of Cubs, fueling optimism that ending 1908 would only be the beginning for the team that finally won the World Series.

“It had a lot to do with the fact that they had grown up in this organization,” Suarez said. “So from the day that they got here, they were exposed to the fact that: ‘Hey, it’s going to happen. And you’re going to be a part of this.’

“When Theo and Jed and Tom took over the team, as an employee, you got that sense: ‘Hey, these guys are pretty serious about winning.’ And even as an employee, you start believing it. You start saying ‘When It Happens’ and some of the mantras that we’ve used over the last five years.

“These guys mentally were (so) prepared, I think, by implementing certain things, such as a mental-skills department, and having these guys being able to visualize that moment and seeing themselves in that moment. It was almost like second nature to them.

“They were probably way less experienced (than those) ’07 and ’08 teams. (But) it was like a perfect mixture of veteran guys that knew how to handle our young guys and bring them back on track when they needed to.

“And the young guys that were confident – not arrogant, not cocky – confident in their abilities and the fact that they wanted to be a part of something special.

“Once we (got to the playoffs in 2015), you just saw a different focus. Like we’ve been there, we know what we have to do now. And I think Joe had a lot to do with that, in terms of harnessing that emotion and coming up with his own little ways of getting these guys to compete while having fun.

“(But) it all starts with the culture that was created at the top.”

Cub fans will reflect at Christmas time, remember this team and treasure their memories from the playoff whirlwind. Maybe they will think about the people who didn’t get to see it happen, or how they will someday explain to their children what it used to be like to be a Cub fan.

Daniel Jacob Suarez was born on the night of Oct. 11, 2016.

“It was crazy,” Suarez said. “We were in the labor-and-delivery room watching the game. And he was literally born while we were celebrating on the mound or (on the field).

“Obviously, this is probably the most amazing year I’ve ever been a part of professionally and personally. But if there was one word to describe it emotionally, it would be rollercoaster. No doubt.”

Beginning Thursday night, CSN Chicago will replay all 11 playoff wins, part of a programming block that will run through the day after Christmas, featuring sit-down interviews with Cubs personnel, a look back at the championship parade and Grant Park rally and fresh content on CSNChicago.com.

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Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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