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Matt Szczur's perspective as Cubs shed 'Lovable Losers' label

Matt Szczur's perspective as Cubs shed 'Lovable Losers' label

No current player understands what it means to be a Cub more than Matt Szczur.

The 2010 fifth-round pick has been here longer than Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, Anthony Rizzo and Joe Maddon, just to name a few. 

And entering his eighth year with the organization, Szczur is already in Cubs history forever as one of thd guys who helped end the 108-year championship drought.

So how did the Cubs finally shed that "Lovable Losers" label and win it all? The key may be in Szczur's perspective.

"Winning the World Series is a dream come true, obviously," Szczur said. "If you ask a lot of these guys, it wouldn't matter what team. But being the Cubs, it's really special, just because of the drought for 108 years. As far as wrapping [my head] around it, I don't think we think like that. We just go out there and we're just trying to win every day. It's just hard to explain how I feel as a baseball player.

"It's awesome to win the World Series and to win with the Cubs, but as far as putting it in perspective, just winning the World Series is awesome. But that's what we're here to do. We're here to win; we're here to accomplish those feats.

"It's like the first time you get called up to the big leagues. People are like, 'Wow, what is it like?' But you've been playing [baseball] for so long, it's just another day. So winning the World Series with the Cubs — it's awesome, but that's what we're here to do.

"For me, that's the best way I can describe it. To put it in perspective as far as the Cubs not winning in 108 years, we don't think like that. As baseball players, we're here to win, every day."

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Szczur said he doesn't think the 2016 Cubs had any issues with "Cubbie Occurrences" or curses or anything even remotely in that category mainly because they didn't feel any added pressure. They didn't let any outside noise seep into the clubhouse and disrupt the mojo that was formed from the most talented roster in Major League Baseball and the confidence that came with the league's best regular season record.

As a two-sport star at Villanova, the former wide receiver has been in his fair share of locker rooms and called the Cubs World Series-winning clubhouse one of the best he's ever been a part of.

Szczur played only a small role in the Cubs' championship in terms of on-field stats, but his impact loomed large behind the scenes.

The 27-year-old outfielder was one of the top pinch hitters in baseball in the 2016 regular season and was not on the active roster in any of the three postseason series, replaced by Albert Almora Jr.

But as Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell broke out of their prolonged slumps at the turn of the tide in the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles, there was Szczur in a supporting role: lending Rizzo his bat and Russell his leggings.

"He's such a good teammate," manager Joe Maddon said. "You saw that last year; you saw how the guys gravitated toward him. He's not on the playoff rosters but he's with us and he's on the top step constantly.

"It's just who he is. It is the football mentality, but it's also him. This is a pretty good human being."

As the roster crunch starts to heat up with spring training coming to a close, will Szczur have a spot on these Cubs? He's out of options so he cannot be sent down to the minor leagues without passing through waivers and as a proven bench/role player, his value at the big-legaue level is apparent. 

But Szczur didn't come to Cubs camp with any sort of chip on his shoulder.

"I don't think like that," he said. "I just want to win. I feel like guys that want to win takes care of itself.

"I'll do anything to win. I won't cheat, but as far as on the field and what they ask me to do, that's just how I play."

Maddon sees that, too.

"Totally. He's been that guy his whole life," Maddon said. "Wherever he's played — I would imagine you talk to the Villanova football coaches and they'd tell you the same thing. You could go back to his high school days.

"He's just a different cat. The way he approaches life in general; he's just so sincere about everything and everybody he comes in contact with. No doubt.

"Here's a guy that's still trying to establish himself as an everyday player in the big leagues, but he's there for everybody else all the time. Just a different animal, man."

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

The Cubs woke up Thursday morning 11 games over .500, 2 games up on the Brewers in the division and sporting the best run differential (+63) in the National League.

But they wouldn't be in that position without some strong comeback seasons from a host of players. 

In the series finale of Game of Thrones this week, Tyrion Lannister made an impassioned speech about how stories bind people and "there's nothing more powerful than a good story."

We already know who had the best redemption arc in Game of Thrones (*cough* Theon Greyjoy *cough*), but who has the best comeback on the 2019 Cubs roster?

There are plenty of worthy candidates — all of whom have been on display in this week's series with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Tyler Chatwood

The impetus behind this idea, Chatwood has a very strong case as the Cubs' Comeback Player of the Year. 

After leading Major League Baseball in walks allowed and finding his way out of the rotation by Aug. 1 last season, Chatwood has bounced back in a huge way in 2019. He posted another clutch performance out of the bullpen Wednesday night, throwing 4 innings in relief and allowing only 1 run on a solo shot by Andrew McCutchen.

Chatwood picked up the win in the process and is now 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 28.1 innings. He's been even better of late, posting a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings since April 7.

"If he's throwing strikes, he can do anything, absolutely," Joe Maddon said. "But he's been valuable with the length, like he showed today. We needed to have a length guy today. He came through. 

"As we rectify [the bullpen] maybe you get other people that can provide those jobs, maybe you can spot him up a little bit. It's all about him, man. If he wants to go out there and do that, you can put him in anywhere, anytime."

Chatwood has been clutch for the Cubs in so many different roles, including tossing 6 shutout innings in a spot start on April 21, 4 shutout frames in extra innings against the Brewers on May 11 and then Wednesday night's performance to help pick up some of the slack after starter Cole Hamels was forced out of the game by the fifth inning.

"It was awesome," Hamels said. " ... You have him and he's got electric stuff and he's been able to come in after me a few times and just absolutely dominate. That's just great to see. To have that type of caliber guy coming out of the bullpen, it's a big sigh of relief because he can go multiple innings. 

"It definitely alleviates the amount of innings that the relievers are getting and the up-downs because myself not being able to go deep into 2 ballgames within a week is not helpful. So to see what Tyler was able to do, that was outstanding."

Kris Bryant

It took a while for the former MVP to really state his #ComebackSZN case, but he's certainly done that over the last month. 

Bryant has re-emerged as a viable candidate to take the crown as the Cubs' best player and has left no doubt that he's fully over his shoulder injury. 

After another multi-hit game Wednesday night, Bryant is now slashing .280/.404/.560 on the season (.964 OPS) and is on pace for 38 homers, 110 RBI and 138 runs scored.

Of all the guys on this list, Bryant's return to form might be the most important to the Cubs' overall success. 

It's not unheard of for teams to turn in successful seasons without their stars performing up to par or staying healthy, but it's so much easier to have a special season when your studs put up studly numbers.

Albert Almora Jr.

Almora smacked his first career grand slam Wednesday night and was rewarded with a chill-inducing curtain call by nearly 40,000 Cubs fans after the game-winning blast.

"Those are the things you dream about as a kid," Almora said. "That curtain call, all of that went by so quick. I wish I could've enjoyed it a little bit more, but it's something I'll never forget."

But what's even more impressive about the grand slam is that it was Almora's fifth homer of 2019 — the same total he had in all of 2018 when his power cratered in the second half. And we still have more than 2/3 of the season remaining.

Almora has always been a streaky hitter and he got off to a wicked cold stretch to begin this year, but he's been one of the most productive hitters in this Cubs lineup for the last month. 

He's also taken some major steps forward against right-handed pitchers, sporting a .312 average and .827 OPS in an area that was his biggest weakness coming into the season.

Willson Contreras

Speaking of last year's homer total, Contreras has already blown by his 2018 mark, drilling his 11th dinger in Washington D.C. last weekend. 

He once again looks like arguably the best offensive catcher in the game and leads the Cubs in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.024) and is second in slugging percentage (.603).

Contreras is on pace for 38 homers and 103 RBI out of the catcher's spot and has helped solidify the lineup by lending protection for Javy Baez in the middle of the order.

Brandon Kintzler

The 34-year-old reliever has struggled a bit of late, but it's still safe to say Kintzler has been the MVP of the Cubs bullpen all season. 

After coming over to the Cubs in a midseason trade from the Nationals, Kintzler never found his form last year, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 25 appearances. The Cubs declined their team option on the veteran, but he exercised his $5 million player option, much to the chagrin of a large contingent of the fanbase.

But where would the 2019 Cubs be without Kintzler? The bullpen has been a big point of contention for much of the season and the Cubs have been missing closer Brandon Morrow all season, interim closer Pedro Strop for the last few weeks and are still waiting on former top setup man Carl Edwards Jr. to get right.

Meanwhile, Kintzler has a 3.18 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 8 holds. He's walked just 4 batters in 22.2 innings and is squarely in Maddon's circle of trust.

Jose Quintana

Quintana didn't have a horrible 2018 season, but he underwhelmed pretty much from start to finish. 

So far this season, he's shown exactly why the Cubs gave up so much to acquire him in July 2017. 

The veteran southpaw is tied for the team lead in wins (4), second in innings pitched (57.1), third in strikeouts (54) and third among starters in ERA (3.30) after quietly tossing 6 shutout innings Tuesday night.

Quintana has also given the Cubs some much-needed consistency in the rotation in a season in which Jon Lester has already spent time on the injured list, Kyle Hendricks got off to a shaky start, Hamels has scuffled a bit lately and Yu Darvish is just now starting to turn a corner. 

Over his last 8 starts, Quintana has turned in 6 quality starts and he's allowed more than 3 runs in just one outing so far.

So who has the best redemption arc on the 2019 Cubs?

Maybe it's none of the above. 

One fan brought up a great point — maybe it's Theo Epstein who should get some credit for sticking with the guys the Cubs already had:

Of course, Epstein's hand was pretty much forced this winter due to the budget constraints and guys like Kintzler and Chatwood were both under contract for a pretty hefty guaranteed price tag with essentially no trade value...but you get the point. 

The Cubs could've blown this thing up as an overreaction to the way 2018 ended and they didn't and now they're in first place with the season nearly 1/3 of the way completed. 

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The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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