Cubs

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

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AP

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

Super-agent Scott Boras – who made a fortune and built an empire by identifying and nurturing baseball prodigies – watched in amazement as Albert Almora Jr. grabbed the rope and started climbing in his family’s backyard in South Florida.    

“I’m going like: ‘Who does that?’” Boras recalled. “I told his dad: ‘How long has he been doing that?’ He said: ‘He’s always had that forearm strength.’”

Almora was around 15 years old at that point, the baseball gym rat who faced elite competition year-round in Miami and with Team USA, the kid who would grow up to be the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime and later score the winning run in last year’s World Series Game 7.

Almora – who won’t celebrate his 24th birthday until after Opening Day 2018 – has already appeared in 18 postseason games and earned the championship ring coveted by generations of Cubs players.

What’s next for someone so clearly driven to be more than a matchup hitter against left-handed pitching and a late-game defensive replacement?

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Almora said last week at his locker in the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers knocked the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series. “I’m here to win. I’m here for whenever they call my name.

“Obviously, the competitor in me wants to be there to help the team out every day, but it’s not in my control.”     

This October, Almora made Dusty Baker pay for pulling Max Scherzer immediately after losing a no-hitter, delivering a pinch-hit RBI single off lefty reliever Sammy Solis as the Washington Nationals again collapsed in the first round and again fired their manager.

Almora also generated all the offense in a Game 1 NLCS loss, hammering a Clayton Kershaw slider that flew like a missile into the left-field seats at Dodger Stadium for a two-run homer.

How would those huge playoff moments translate across a 162-game season? Almora says he just waits for the text to see if he will be in the next day’s lineup. But a Cubs team that sounds open to changes after an inconsistent regular season – and a disappointing playoff flop – will have to find out.

The Detroit Tigers made it known how much they liked Almora as a potential Gold Glove center fielder, though from the start the Houston Astros had the superior package of prospects to offer and the Cubs never got that far down the road in the Justin Verlander trade talks.

While Verlander will start Wednesday night’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs are trying to figure out how to get back there, who can lead their pitching staff and where all their young hitters will fit together.   

“The real key for Albert,” Epstein said, “and his future development and what will dictate whether he reaches his very high ceiling or not is his ability to have really good, consistent at-bats against right-handed pitching (.711 OPS this year).

“He’s proven that he destroys left-handed pitching (.898 OPS) and is a real weapon that way – and any team would love to have him certainly against left-handed pitching. He made really nice strides against right-handed pitching as the year went on. This kid worked so hard using the slider machine, just seeing slider after slider after slider in the cage.

“Training his eyes to recognize – not so much to hit it, although it helps hitting mistake breaking balls – but just really training his eyes on what lanes to expect the slider to come out of, say, with runners in scoring position or two-strike counts and really learning which one to lay off, to put himself in position to get favorable counts to get fastballs or get mistake pitches that he can drive.”

Using that hand speed and forearm strength he developed through those homemade exercises and backyard workouts, Almora hit .326 with five homers, 31 RBI and an .850 OPS in 135 tailor-made plate appearances after the All-Star break.

“He just got better and better as the year went on,” Epstein said. “I told him in our (exit) meeting: ‘Look, I'm sure you want me to sit here and say you're an everyday player, hands down, next year. You might be. I can’t promise you that yet. We have to see how everything evolves in the offseason. But I can promise you more. You will have more responsibility. You will have more of a role than you had this year. We’ll see how much more that is, and what you can grow into.’

“He’s excited. He’s moving closer to our spring-training facility in Arizona and ready to get to work.”

Almora’s time is coming, whether or not he’s the 2018 Opening Day center fielder, whether or not it ultimately happens at Wrigley Field. Cubs executives saw that same backyard setup before taking Almora with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and know how he’s wired and what that could mean for the future.

“The Cubs are such a good team is the (only) reason he’s not playing every day,” Boras said. “I remember we had the conversation when he came to the big leagues. He wasn’t playing, and I said: ‘Albert, the goal here is not learning how to play every day in the big leagues. The goal is learning how to win in the big leagues. You get to learn that at a young age. Take advantage of it, because it’s going to be so valuable. You’re going to be able to share this when you are an everyday player.’”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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