Cubs: Albert Almora Jr. is a big believer in defense wins championships

Cubs: Albert Almora Jr. is a big believer in defense wins championships

Albert Almora Jr. walked into the Wrigley Field clubhouse on Thursday morning wearing a gray hoodie, sweatpants and a championship ring made from 14-karat white gold. The first player the Theo Epstein regime drafted here grew up in the "When It Happens" farm system and built up enough trust as a rookie to be out there in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7.   

"It's hard to put into words what something so special like that means to you," Almora said. "It's hard work. It's family. It's team. It's a whole bunch of things all mixed together. It's curse-breaker. You can put a bunch of different words into that – special (doesn't sum it up). I don't think the word's invented yet." 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon made up a word: "D-Peat." Nothing could create the same tidal wave of emotions for generations of fans. But defense is one reason why the 2017 Cubs could become an even better team than the one that ended the 108-year drought.

"If we made a T-shirt for it, it's pretty big," Almora said after flashing his Gold Glove potential during a 4-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers

Almora twice robbed Corey Seager – last season's National League Rookie of the Year and third-place finisher in the MVP voting – with spectacular plays in center field. That bailed out Brett Anderson on an afternoon where the groundball lefty didn't have his best stuff, giving up three hits and four walks in five scoreless innings.

"I think I owe Almora my paycheck for the day," Anderson said.

"Sick, I'll take it," Almora said. "No, I'm just happy when I go in and they recognize and they give me a pound or a high-five or whatever. That's all I want."

Almora made a jumping catch at the wall in the first inning, his back crashing into the bricks and brown ivy. Almora then made an over-the-shoulder, on-the-run catch in the third inning, showing why Maddon has already compared the young defender to eight-time Gold Glove winner Jim Edmonds.  

"He's not afraid of the big moment," said outfielder Jason Heyward. "He wants to be in the big moment. That's kind of what this team is based around – you want to be in the moment. He's got the right mindset already. He just has to come out and play. Repetition is the best teacher. That's what he has left to do."

Heyward – who has already won four Gold Gloves – noticed it immediately last year while playing next to Almora in spring training.

"I saw him go out there and be fearless," Heyward said. "He runs into the wall to catch the baseball, and things like that tell me that he's not thinking – in a good way. He's not overthinking it. He's just going out there, trusting his ability and trying to get a jump. And there are things he's going to get more comfortable with, playing stadiums, (reading) certain hitters."

That's the scary thought for the rest of Major League Baseball. On a team already loaded with young stars, Almora will turn 23 this weekend and be in position to make highlight-reel plays for years to come.
"It totally deflates the other side," Maddon said. "That's almost like hitting a home run or getting a bases-loaded double regarding the energy that's created in your dugout. We feed off of our defense, we absolutely do. When we make a good play, the whole bench goes nuts. 

"We're noted to have a really good offensive ballclub. I'm really more enamored with our defensive side."

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Cubs camp observations: Wrigley's home-field advantage without fans

Four days into the Cubs’ training camp restart, we’ve only begun to get acquainted with the new normal of baseball rhythms and routines that we can only hope will result in a 2020 season of 60 games.

If the league can fix some of its early testing issues and keep enough players on enough teams healthy enough to start the season, what might come into play for the Cubs and the actual baseball.

Early observations after about a dozen Zoom sessions with team personnel and two intrasquad scrimmages:

NUTS: Home cooked?

The Cubs, who draw so reliably in one of the unique ballparks in the majors, might have more to lose than most teams without fans allowed to attend games when the season starts July 24.

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Just how much of the Confines’ home-field advantage is lost will be a matter of “wait-and-see,” manager David Ross said.

“There’s always an advantage to playing in your own park,” he said Sunday. “You feel more comfortable you woke up in your own bed. You’re not staying in a hotel room, which especially now, where you feel like outside spaces just aren’t comfortable as they used to be, probably [gives] a slight advantage in your city.

“There’s no substitute for fans,” he added. “There’s probably a slight advantage, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it used to be.”

What Ross didn’t mention were the rooftops across Waveland and Sheffield, which are planning to operate at 25-percent capacity when games start, suggesting at least a few hundred fans within cheering and booing distance.

“You’re going to hear them loud and clear, too,” pitcher Tyler Chatwood said. “I promise you that.”

BOLTS: Taking the fifth

All you need to know about Alec Mills’ ability to adjust and immediately step into an important role is what he did in an emergency start against the first-place Cardinals at Wrigley last year with the Cubs a half-game out and barely a week left in the season.

He hadn’t started anywhere in a month — and that was in the minors. But the guy who pitched out of the bullpen just three times in the four intervening weeks, pitched two outs deep into the fifth inning that day and didn’t allow a run (the bullpen took care of that, in a loss).

No wonder when Ross talks about Mills replacing the injured Jose Quintana (thumb) in the rotation, he says, “I’ve got a ton of confidence.”

He’s not the only one. “I’ve always had the mindset of doing whatever I can to stay ready and help in any way,” said Mills after pitching a strong three innings in a simulated game Sunday. “Obviously, with an unfortunate injury like this, I think it’s just even more heightened.

“I’m ready to do whatever, whether it needs to be maybe a start here or there, a couple more starts, long guy out of the pen — just whatever I need to do I pride myself on being ready to do that.”

CHATTER: The mask at hand

“It’s a little different. You leave the house with a phone, your keys, your wallet and your mask.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on his and his teammates’ new daily normal.

“Everybody is thinking about it, but we try to get here and understand this is our safe zone and we’re trying to create that [within] the things that we’re going to do on and off the field.”

—Ross on players weighing the risk of playing during the pandemic against the safety precautions and protocols the team has built in and around its Wrigley Field bubble.


2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

2020 Cubs schedule features six games against White Sox: 'It’s exciting, right?'

Imagine it’s late September. The Cubs have already hosted the White Sox for three unforgettable games at Wrigley Field — fans packed the rooftops (at 25 percent capacity) around the ballpark. Now, it’s time to head to the South Side for the final series of the season, rife with playoff implications.

If the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t derail the 2020 MLB season, that scene very well could become a reality.

The Cubs regular season schedule, which MLB released Monday, features six Crosstown Classic games. The first of two series between the Chicago teams runs Aug. 21-23 at Wrigley Field. The second is penciled in for Sept. 25-27 at Guaranteed Rate Field. Both three-game series include Friday and Saturday evening games, and end with a Sunday afternoon game.

The Crosstown rivalry consumes 1/10 of the Cubs schedule this shortened season.

“It’s exciting, right?” Cubs manager David Ross said.

And quite convenient. That’s the point of a regionally-based schedule, which has the Cubs facing only NL Central and AL Central teams. While trying to limit the spread of COVID-19, that convenience becomes especially important.

“We get to sleep in our own beds at night,” Ross said of the Crosstown Classic. “We can set up things where if we need to we can work out here and drive over like you would in an Arizona spring training. There’s a lot of options that we have for us that we can do with an in-town team. I feel like that’s definitely a luxury.”

Some of those same advantages apply to the Cubs’ games at Milwaukee as well. As is the case with all their division rivals, the Cubs are scheduled to play the Brewers 10 times, including opening day at Wrigley Field on July 24.

As for their mid-September series at Milwaukee: “Players have the ability to drive up day of the game, drive back afterwards or get a car back,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom and comfort in sleeping in your own bed, especially in the scenarios we’re in this year.”

The Cubs’ setup with the White Sox is mirrored over in Missouri between the Cardinals and Royals; they will also play each other six times. The Cubs will play three or four games against each of the four other teams in the AL Central. The White Sox are expected to be a stauncher opponent than the Royals, automatically giving the Cubs a tougher route through their interleague schedule.

But that’s a small price to pay for six rivalry games in Chicago.