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 12th + 13th homers in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers 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.

An off-day did nothing to slow down the 1998 National League MVP as Sosa collected his second straight 2-homer game May 27 of that season.

He went deep in the eighth and ninth innings of a Cubs' 10-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, driving in 3 runs. 

The first homer - off Darrin Winston - was an absolute blast, traveling an estimated 460 feet. The second shot was tame in comparison with only 400 feet as a recorded distance.

In a matter of two games, Sosa raised his season OPS from .930 to .988 and his slugging percentage from .521 to .577 thanks to a pair of 2-homer contests.

Fun fact: Doug Glanville - former Cubs outfielder and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst - was the Phillies leadoff hitter that day in 1998, collecting three hits and scoring a pair of runs.

Yu Darvish back on the DL for Cubs with triceps tendinitis

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USA TODAY

Yu Darvish back on the DL for Cubs with triceps tendinitis

Yu Darvish now has more trips to the disabled list in a Cubs uniform than wins.

The Cubs place their 31-year-old right-handed pitcher on the DL Saturday evening with right triceps tendinitis. The move is retroactive to May 23, so he may only have to miss one turn through the rotation.

In a corresponding move, Randy Rosario was recalled from Triple-A Iowa to provide Joe Maddon with another arm in the bullpen. Tyler Chatwood will start Sunday in Darvish's place.

Thanks to two off-days on the schedule last week, the Cubs should be fine with their rotation for a little while. Jon Lester could go on regular rest Monday, but the Cubs would need to make a decision for Tuesday given Kyle Hendricks just threw Friday afternoon.

That decision could mean Mike Montgomery moving from the bullpen to the rotation for a spot start, or it could be the promotion of top prospect Adbert Alzolay from Triple-A Iowa.

Either way, this is more bad news for Darvish, who has had a rough go of it since he signed a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs in February.

Between issues with the weather, the concern of arm cramps in his debut in Miami, leg cramps in Atlanta, a trip to the disabled list for the flu, trouble making it out of the fifth inning and now triceps tendinitis, it's been a forgettable two months for Darvish.

He is 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 40 innings with the Cubs.

Over the course of 139 career starts, Darvish is 57-45 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings.