Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

Cubs young core delivers a World Series and a blindingly bright future

CLEVELAND — Albert Almora scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of Game 7 of a World Series, but wasn’t quite ready to celebrate immediately after he touched home plate. That’s because he wanted to be 100 percent sure he, indeed, touched home. 

“You never know with this whole replay, the last thing you want to do is go back in history and be remembered as that guy, you know,” Almora said. “I went back, tagged home plate and then I started celebrating. 

“… I’m bleeding somewhere. I don’t even know what happened. I almost had a heart attack. But it was awesome.”

Consider the ages of some of the biggest contributors to the Cubs’ 8-7 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday: Almora and shortstop Addison Russell (who had an early go-ahead sacrifice fly) are 22; designated hitter Kyle Schwarber (who went three for five and started that 10th inning rally with a single) and second baseman Javier Baez (who homered off Corey Kluber) are 23; catcher Willson Contreras (who delivered an RBI double) and third baseman Kris Bryant (who scored twice thanks to some aggressive, instinctual baserunning) are both 24. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo is 27 years old, while Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks is 26. 

“They’re so young, and I really don’t think they understand what they just accomplished,” left-hander Jon Lester said. “I don’t think they’ll understand it until they get a little bit older.”

Catcher David Ross said that youth may have actually paid off for this team in their fight to erase a 3-1 series deficit and win the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. 

"I think that's why they did it,” Ross said. “They don't know. They know to go out there and play baseball. They're really, really good. You have a lot of successful, young, talented players that have been successful their whole careers that are on the field and they expected to succeed and I think that's what you saw. There's not a whole lot of guys talking about what's happened in the past. They're looking to the future and the future is bright with that group."

Eight years ago, Joe Maddon managed a young Tampa Bay Rays care to the World Series — which they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies — but never made it back to to the World Series after that. The average age of the Rays' position players that year was 27; the average age of the Cubs' position players in 2016 was 27.4.

Reinforcements were out of the question for the small-market Rays, though. Tampa Bay made it back to the playoffs three more times under Maddon after reaching the World Series but never advanced past the American League Division Series, slowly unloading parts who commanded high-priced contracts until, after Maddon left following the 2014 season, only third baseman Evan Longoria remained from that original core. 

The Cubs, though, have the resources to augment and bolster their roster — as they did with the acquisitions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey after the 2015 season — while keeping that young core that was so critical in the World Series intact. 

“There is a better chance of keeping them together just based on finances, whereas back down there (with Tampa Bay) we didn't have the same opportunity to keep that group together, which I've often lamented,” Maddon said. “Had you been able to keep that group together, what it would eventually look like — I thought it could have rivaled the Yankees' run with that kind of group that had come up in the mid-90's or late 90’s.”

For some of the veteran members of the Cubs, seeing how all that youth coalesced into a World Series title without any of them having been on this stage before was incredible, but it was also just the tip of the iceberg. 

“I think for all the young guys to get their first taste of the World Series and to perform as well as they did in this moment, I gotta believe their confidence is sky-high,” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “It’s going to be more than ever next year, and I look for even better things from this team next year with all the ability and now the experience that you have with all the young players.”

It’s a scary thought for the rest of baseball that the Cubs feel like they have nowhere to go but up after putting themselves atop baseball on Wednesday. But with a World Series of experience under their belts, in which on the whole the moment wasn’t too big for any of the 20somethings on this team, that’s where the Cubs stand as the best and most powerful franchise in baseball. 

“This is it,” Bryant said, smiling and shaking his head. “This is what you dream for. I mean, I made the last out of the World Series.” 

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.