Cubs

The Cubs are seeing the real Albert Almora Jr. right now

The Cubs are seeing the real Albert Almora Jr. right now

This is who Albert Almora Jr. is as a player right now.

He's the guy with video game instincts who defies gravity to take away runs from the other team, as he did Wednesday night in Atlanta:

He's also the guy who expanded the zone and struck out in the 5th and 7th innings of the Cubs' 4-1 loss, the latter whiff coming on two nasty sliders low and away — the Achilles' heel for the young outfielder.

Those two at-bats — particularly the last one — are why Almora still won't play every single day and why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are going to continue to pick their spots with him against right-handed pitchers.

But the Cubs can live with those strikeouts when Almora is flashing Gold Glove caliber plays on what seems like an everyday basis.

Almora entered the day with a sizeable lead in Major League Baseball in "Good Fielding" catches, per Sports Info Solutions and only added to that total with yet another jaw-dropping play:

We've come to expect excellent defense from Almora, but it's safe to say he's taken things to another level this year. 

Why?

Because he's playing with a chip on his shoulder and a swagger only bested by Javy Baez (who is the King of Swag on the Cubs, of course).

After he made that ridiculous catch Wednesday night in Atlanta, Almora did a little hat-tip and was sure to catch his own replay on the video board.

You might also have noticed he seems to yell at the wall when he tracks a ball down in the gap — a guttural release to let out his adrenaline and to remind that pesky wall that he's not afraid of it.

After a particularly thrilling catch near the wall at Wrigley earlier this season, Almora screamed at the ivy-covered brick and said, "Not today."

"You can tell he's been himself when he's being aggressive on defense," Theo Epstein said at the beginning of the month about his first draft pick in the Cubs front office. "His first couple years, he was a good defender but he didn't play with quite the same conviction and aggressiveness in center field as he did in the minor leagues.

"So you can tell he's feeling really comfortable with his role and his spot in the big leagues by how he's going to get the ball, how he's finishing the plays at the end of his range.

"That's always who he was, way back to high school. He's always the guy who would make plays on balls you wouldn't think he could get to. He would find ways to stay involved defensively — throwing behind runners, leaving his feet, making the play.

"He did that in spurts the first couple years and now you've seen it really consistently. And that's him, he's a guy who does a lot like that night and night out."

But why was Almora tentative?

"I think it's natural for young players," Epstein said. "He's played a position — outfield — where we've had a lot of talented players, so sometimes you can be afraid to make a mistake and then not play for a few days. It's just natural for a young player breaking in with a good team."

When asked about Epstein's comments, a little smile crept across Almora's face.

"That's a great statement," he said. "Yeah, absolutely. I felt like last year, I played a little conservative. It wasn't me out there. This is what I've been doing all my life and we had a conversation in spring and they challenged me to be myself and be the Albert that they know and saw growing up in high school.

"And I said, 'consider it done.' If you're giving me that leeway of letting me be myself, then I'm gonna do that."

Almora has always had an extreme confidence in his own abilities and in his Cubs team, but this year, he seems different.

He's become a go-to guy in the clubhouse for the media, always ready with an upbeat, fiery statement — a la the aforementioned "consider it done" he told the front office.

In his own way, he's become a leader in just his second full year in the big leagues, though that shouldn't be a shock to anybody given Almora idolized "The Captain" Derek Jeter growing up and was always seen as a leader at every stage throughout the Cubs farm system.

Offensively, he still has some strides to make, but he's already shown a great leap in development this season by bumping his walk rate up to a very respectable 8.5 percent.

He still mashes lefties and struggles with some righties, but if he can keep making plays in the outfield, it will get easier and easier for Maddon to pencil his name in the lineup on a daily basis.

Because remember, Almora is unchained now.

"It's tough to explain," Almora said. "I just went out there and said, 'Hey, be you.' I can't put into detail what I'm doing now.

"I'm just having a lot more fun playing — and I had a lot of fun last year, so I dunno. I'm just trying to [catch] everything."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 49th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 49th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 49th homer of the season came with a runner on 1st and one out, when Oriel Hershiser served up a high fastball that Sammy belted 415 feet into the last few rows in left-center field. 

Sosa would later start the game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth, scoring the game-tying run on a Henry Rodriguez single through the right side of the infield. Jose Hernandez would step in the next at-bat and walk it off with a base hit that scored Mark Grace, as Sammy and the Cubs bested the Giants 6-5. 

Fun Fact: A 33-year-old Barry Bonds would hit home run No. 25, finishing the season with 37 homers. He would finish the next season with 34 dingers but would string five consecutive seasons with at least 45 home runs, of course hitting a record 73 home runs in 2001. 

Yu Darvish suffering another setback puts his 2018 season in jeopardy

Yu Darvish suffering another setback puts his 2018 season in jeopardy

Yu have to be kidding me (Sorry, couldn't resist). 

The Cubs were expecting Sunday's rehab start to be the beginning to an end of what has been an extremely disappointing 2018 season for their $126 million man Yu Darvish. Darvish was scheduled to start Sunday for the Cubs single-A affiliate in South Bend, IN, but after just one inning Darvish was checked on by the trainers and eventually pulled before the 2nd inning started. 

According to Steve Greenberg, Darvish asked for an MRI on Monday which likely closes the door on him returning to the Cubs in 2018.

The frustrating thing about Darvish's rehab is that in his two rehab starts, the 32-year-old pitcher has had excellent stuff, touching 95 mph in Sunday afternoon's game before being pulled. 

At this point in the season, it seems unlikely Darvish will be able to return to the Cubs rotation for the regular season. And it would be incredibly risky to roll with Darvish in the playoffs, who even when healthy hasn't shown he's deserving of a postseason roster spot. The Cubs do have options at starter in the minors like Duane Underwood or James Norwood, and despite his shortcomings, Tyler Chatwood is an option out of necessity now.  

Drew Smyly, who looked like a possibility as a late-season addition, is still not quite ready to come back and be an effective rotation piece at the moment. And with Mike Montgomery heading to the disabled list earlier this week, the Cubs were hopeful Darvish would be healthy by the time rosters expand in September. 

Luckily, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, and Kyle Hendricks have all looked stellar recently and hopefully can continue their success on the mound as the Cubs continue to fight past injuries to maintain their grasp on the NL Central. 

But Theo Epstein said himself last week that if Darvish didn't perform well during his rehab stint, that was essentially his 2018 season. Don't expect to see Darvish returning to the mound until 2019, Cubs fans.