Gold Glove

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

Anthony Rizzo knows how Cubs have to respond now: ‘This isn’t my first rodeo’

SAN FRANCISCO – Anthony Rizzo isn’t so much the leader of the Cubs as he’s a good dude who came along with the right attitude for this team at the right time. A franchise burdened by history needed guys to play loose, without constantly feeling that weight of 1908 on their shoulders. A young team responded to someone who had been there during the lost years, reminding them to have fun and stay relaxed.

Most of all – in a bottom-line business – this is a Silver Slugger/Gold Glove first baseman in position for his third straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Rizzo attacked his weaknesses, overhauling his swing, making adjustments against left-handed pitchers and choking up with two strikes. The kind of growth the Cubs are still waiting to see from some of their other 20-something hitters.

Rizzo has shown the ability to carry a team, that when he gets hot, it seems like the rest of the lineup can feel it. Willson Contreras had become that guy – until he felt something in his right hamstring during Wednesday’s painful loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Whatever comes out of Thursday’s MRI in the Phoenix area, you know Rizzo will be the same guy on Friday when he goes back to work.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” Rizzo said. “I’ve had guys go down around me. Guys get traded. It’s part of the game. I’m not going to change who I am, my approach. I’m going to stay within myself. That’s the only thing you can do. You start pressing, you’re going to find yourself in a bad spot.”

Contreras emerging as a legitimate cleanup hitter – combined with the Jose Quintana trade, a roster getting closer to full strength and the refreshed feeling from a mini-vacation – explains the Cubs winning 13 of their first 16 games after the All-Star break leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

But the defending World Series champs have since lost three consecutive series to two likely playoff teams – the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals – and an organization that might wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

The National League Central opened on Thursday with four teams separated by less than four games, with the Cubs getting a day off in the desert before this weekend’s three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

“We’re losing games we got to win,” Rizzo said. “That’s it. There’s really nothing more to it. You just got to win baseball games.”

Doing that consistently becomes so much harder without Contreras, the young catcher who had put up 10 of his 21 homers and a 1.080 OPS since the All-Star break.

But there was nothing easy about how the Cubs avoided an elimination game against Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner last October, survived a 21-inning scoreless drought against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and beat the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7.

“What can you do?” Rizzo said. “It’s part of the game. Guys get hurt. You got to be ready for it. Obviously, you don’t want someone in the middle of your order – especially the year he’s having – to go down. It’s upsetting for him, and for us, too. But we got to keep playing baseball.”

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Theory and reality collided for the Cubs in the 10th inning, when Kris Bryant drove Bryan Shaw's 94.8 mph fastball out to Progressive Field's warning track. Pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. alertly hustled from first base as soon as Cleveland Indians center fielder Rajai Davis caught it in front of the KeyBank sign.   
 
Almora had already launched his body into a textbook slide — his left arm raised in the air and his right hand scraping the dirt — before Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor even caught the ball several feet off second base.
 
"Tagging is Almora with great baserunning," Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck told 40 million World Series viewers, making this epic Game 7 Major League Baseball's most-watched TV event in 25 years.   
 
That moment of clarity — after the fog of a 17-minute rain delay and potentially the most devastating collapse in franchise history — illustrated why Almora became the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration in 2012. The Cubs projected the baseball IQ and self-confidence sharpened by a strong Cuban-American family and from playing on Team USA and year-round in South Florida.   
 
"Just those intangibles," new Cubs outfielder Jon Jay said. "Maybe he picked that up growing up in Miami, where baseball is serious. We were taught the fundamentals of the game — do the little things right — and everything was so competitive. 
 
"That's what I saw out of that play. I said: Man, he probably did that in high school or when he was 13 years old, because that's what we were taught when we were younger."
 
Almora scored the go-ahead run from second base when World Series MVP Ben Zobrist smashed a double past diving Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez. Four days before his 23rd birthday, Almora will receive the championship ring marking the end of the 108-year drought. 
 
"Why I was so confident had a lot to do with my teammates, what they allowed me to be when I first got to the big leagues," Almora said. "They allowed me to be myself. It was really awesome to feel that way. I knew nothing would really change in the playoffs. 
 
"Just go out there and be yourself. Go out there and have fun. Obviously, I was such a small piece of the puzzle for the World Series. But when they called my name there, I was just happy I could get the job done." 

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The Cubs didn't hand Almora an everyday job, signing Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract and expecting him to be a left-handed complement and a veteran mentor. Jay played at the University of Miami — while Almora committed to the Hurricanes before agreeing to a $3.9 million bonus with the Cubs — and the two had already paired up as offseason workout partners back home. 
 
"I can learn from such a great person and a great player as well," Almora said. "My goal doesn't change from last year to this year — it's to win a World Series. He brings a lot to the table. He brings experience in the playoffs.
 
"This isn't about me. This isn't about him. It's about us and whatever makes the team better."
 
The Cubs opened their Cactus League schedule on Saturday with split-squad games against the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants, Jay starting in center field in Mesa while Almora did the same in Scottsdale. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park, another reminder of the instincts that might someday help Almora become a Gold Glove defender.
 
"He has a really good awareness of what's going on out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "This kid loves to play. He loves to be part of this. He's always looking for growth. He's always looking to get better at different things.
 
"Coming from Miami and his background, he's just kind of a baseball junkie."
 
To put Almora's focus in context, he married Krystal at a Chicago courthouse in late July last year, got sent back down to Iowa the next day and together they welcomed their newborn son, Ayden John, in August. By early November, Almora's father, Albert Sr., felt good enough after his battle with prostate cancer to ride in the bus in the championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. 
 
At this time last year, Almora envisioned himself in the World Series, even though he hadn't yet played above the Triple-A level and wouldn't make his big-league debut until early June. That didn't stop him from making 2016 the most unforgettable year of his life. 
 
"Yeah, I can honestly say that I had confidence in myself that I was going to be there," Almora said. "I didn't know what role I was going to have — that's something you can't control — but I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had worked hard enough, that I was going to get the chance to be on a playoff team.
 
"You have to (look at it that way). My goal was to be on that team to help win a World Series. And that's what happened."

Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

Cubs: Why Jon Lester thinks Year 2 will be different for Jason Heyward

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester has already noticed a difference in Jason Heyward. It’s not some magical swing adjustment or best-shape-of-his-life hype or simply the bounce from the Cubs finally winning the World Series.

Lester already experienced this, signing the biggest contract in franchise history and reporting to Arizona for Year 2 in a different state of mind. The Cubs hope that helps Heyward recover from the worst offensive season of his career and round out his Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and clubhouse intangibles. 

“He’s a little bit more comfortable,” Lester said before Friday’s workout at the Sloan Park complex. “That’s just human nature. You come into a situation with everything else that you’re bringing along. You’re coming into a place where you don’t know a lot of guys. You’re trying to prove that you’re worth something.

“You’re trying to prove (it) to the city, to your teammates, to your family, to everybody else, all this stuff. So I think now it’s a matter of: He can just go out and play.”

A dead arm slowed down Lester during his first spring training in a Cubs uniform. The $155 million ace then got diagnosed with the yips in front of a national TV audience on Opening Day 2015. That April, the lefty went 0-2 with a 6.23 ERA in four starts before closing with double-digit wins, a 3.34 ERA and another 200-inning season for a playoff team.

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Lester had perhaps the greatest season of his life in 2016, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, earning his fourth All-Star selection, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting and becoming the National League Championship Series co-MVP.  

“That’s kind of how I felt coming into my second year,” Lester said. “OK, we got that one over with. We did some things that we weren’t expected to do. Now it’s time to take that next step.

“You just feel more comfortable. You feel like you can come in and kind of let your shoulders down and let your guard down and just worry about playing baseball and getting your work done.”

Like Lester, Heyward wanted to play at Wrigley Field and live in Chicago and didn’t necessarily grab the biggest offer when he signed his $184 million megadeal. Heyward had also grown up around winning teams and understood that number would follow him for the rest of his career. Both players got the benefit of the doubt by being good teammates, holding themselves accountable and not hiding from the media.

The Cubs will run through their first full-squad workout in Mesa on Saturday, but Heyward has been hitting at the facility throughout the offseason, trying to rediscover what once made him a 27-homer threat for the 2012 Atlanta Braves.

“It seems like he’s a little more relaxed,” Lester said. “People told me the same thing two years ago. But when you’re going through it, the 3-for-4 days or the days you pitch seven innings and give up two runs still aren’t good enough. You feel like you have to do more. That second year just feels like you get back to kind of being yourself.”