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."

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start." 

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs fans had plenty to cheer about late in Friday's game against the Cardinals, but not in the way they expected.

With St. Louis absolutely wearing out the Cubs pitching staff in an 18-5 blowout, Joe Maddon turned to a trio of position players to pitch.

In front of 41,077 people at Wrigley Field for the second game of the official second half of the season, Tommy La Stella came on to pitch for the Cubs with 2 outs in the top of the sixth inning. After La Stella got 4 outs, it was Victor Caratini's turn for the eighth inning.

The Cubs have actually used multiple position players as a pitcher before, but it was back on June 16, 1884 in a 20-9 loss, according to historian Ed Hartig. Obviously, the game of baseball was quite different back then.

But just using two position players on the mound wasn't enough for this wacky day at the ballpark.

Ian Happ got the nod for the ninth inning on the mound, serving as the third different position player on the mound. He joked he was using his sinker effectively and that he's now the Cubs clubhouse leader in ERA after not giving up a run in his inning of work.

Was there a friendly competition between Happ, Caratini and La Stella?

"Yes," Happ said. "I won." 

How did Maddon determine who would get the opportunity to make history?

Well, for starters, the process began with getting a certain player OUT of the lineup.

"I had to take Rizzo out of the game because he would've been badgering me the whole time," Maddon laughed. "So it started by getting Rizzo out, and that made my decision-making process a lot easier. Otherwise just imagine him harping in your ear constantly that he wants to pitch and every time I go out to the mound and the game may be lopsided as I'm maybe bringing somebody else in, he reminds me.

"At some point, hopefully in a good situation where we're leading [he can get in and pitch]."

Seeing a position player pitch has actually been a pretty common occurence under Maddon as he's done everything he can to limit the stress on the bullpen:

"I think the fans kinda started to enjoy it, too, which is always fun when you're getting blown out," said Kris Bryant, who connected on his 11th homer of the season in the blowout loss. "Those guys stepped up for us to save the bullpen. So there ya go. We're making history."

Meanwhile, on the other side, Matt Carpenter had a record-setting game.

Before being removed from the game in the sixth inning, Carpenter smashed 3 homers and 2 doubles and drove in 7 runs. It tied a Cardinals record for total bases (16) while tying the MLB record for most extra-base hits in a game (5):

It also was only the second recorded game in MLB history where a player had 3 doubles and 2 homers. The other? Bryant, of course — in Cincinnati in 2016.

Of course, the fact he did it all before the game reached the seventh inning is remarkable:

Offensively, the Cubs left 12 men on base, which would normally be the focal point of ire for the fanbase if not for the rest of the day's events...