Cubs

Cubs catcher Miguel Montero is going to do it his way

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Cubs catcher Miguel Montero is going to do it his way

DENVER — Miguel Montero is eventually going to rub some Cubs people the wrong way and say something to the Chicago media that he should probably just keep to himself.

But this is going to be fun to watch, a very opinionated catcher who absolutely loves to talk working with this pitching staff inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

“I’m a winner, man,” Montero said. “I hate to lose. And I hate to give up a hit. Even though it’s the pitcher’s ERA, it hurts me when they give up a run, because I take it personally.”

Montero sort of wore out his welcome with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had been in that organization since 2001, signing as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela and developing into a two-time All-Star. He also needed a change of scenery, the chance to play for a contender, not a team just beginning the rebuild.

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Montero is not going to be shy here. He stood in front of his locker on Sunday morning inside Coors Field’s visiting clubhouse and used Randy Johnson as an example. He remembered one game in particular while catching the future Hall of Famer in 2008.

“It was one batter,” Montero recalled. “First at-bat, he gave up a double, hanging slider, (right) down the line. Second at-bat, the same slider, and it’s a line drive off his foot.

“So the manager and the trainer go out to the mound and he’s looking at me: ‘We got to quit throwing sliders to that guy.’ And I look at him and I say: ‘No, you got to quit hanging it.’”

Montero also probably dropped an F-bomb on The Big Unit.

“I turn around and I walk back to the plate and I’m like: ‘What did I do?’” Montero said. “Well, two things can happen: Either I get sent down (to the minors) or I don’t catch anymore, because I was his personal guy.

“(But) he appreciated it. The next year, he was with the Giants, and I faced him in spring training. He threw me a fastball in and broke my bat. The media asked him: ‘Hey, did you say hi to Miggy?’ (Johnson goes): ‘No, he was too busy picking up his broken bat.’”

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The Cubs took on the three years and $40 million left on Montero’s contract because they thought he could get through to their pitchers and bring an edge to the clubhouse.

“Some guys need a pat on the back, some guys need to be yelled at,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “And I’m one of the guys that likes to be yelled at. He recognizes things in situations that I need to do differently, and it’s great to have a voice like that behind the plate.”

Pitcher Jason Hammel made a fist while describing Montero’s personality.

“When he wants you to throw a certain pitch,” Hammel said, “he’s like really emphatic about (it): ‘No, this is what you want to throw.’ Even if you shake, he wouldn’t take no (for an answer).

“It almost gives you that confidence to throw that pitch, even if you don’t want to. He has a good way of almost getting a little extra out of you when you want to kind of go in a different direction.”

Manager Joe Maddon compared Montero to another quote machine: Yogi Berra.

“Look at some photographs, man,” Maddon said. “Left-handed hitter with surprising power, not very tall. He’s probably more animated verbally than even Yogi was, in a sense. Yogi had his own Yogi-isms, and I guess there’s Miggy-isms. He’s got his own method of communication. (But) he absolutely loves to play baseball. He comes to play every day. His agenda is to win.”

'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

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USA Today

'He belongs here': What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.” 

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”