Jason Heyward

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

Why doesn't Albert Almora Jr. play more?

It's a common refrain from Cubs fans lately, especially with the 23-year-old outfielder in a middle of a hot stretch that saw him collect eight RBI in three at-bats this week.

Almora came in as a reserve in all three games against the New York Mets earlier in the homestand and went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, a homer, eight RBI and three runs. 

Joe Maddon wrote Almora's name in Saturday's lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals, just his fourth start out of 15 games in September. He immediately made an impact, driving home the Cubs' first run in the fourth inning and igniting a two-run rally. He came through again in the fifth with a two-out RBI double and doubled again in the seventh as the Cubs cruised to a 4-1 victory.

The hot stretch helped push his overall season slash line to .299/.341/.442 (.784 OPS) in his first full year in the big leagues. Those numbers represent a bit of a jump from his minor-league line (.290/.322/.416 — .738 OPS).

Maddon has seen Almora's development in terms of using the whole field, being selectively aggressive and not missing his pitch. Almora swung at the first pitch each time up Saturday and had two hits to show for it.

"That was a really good matchup for Albert today and that's why we played him," Maddon said after the game.

So could Almora see more playing time over guys like Ian Happ, Jon Jay or Kyle Schwarber given his recent tear?

"Well, maybe he's doing so well because we're putting him in the right spots," Maddon explained. "There's always that thing, too. Happ had another big hit today; Happ's done really well. Jon Jay continues to do a lot of great things. Schwarber has gotta play also.

"Nice problem, trying to figure out the lineup every day. We'll try to make our best guesses on a daily basis and keep them all looking good and keeping them all fresh hopefully for the remainder of the season into the postseason. I love what he's doing."

All the talk about matchups is exactly why Almora isn't getting more playing time. Saturday marked the 10th straight right-handed starting pitcher the Cubs faced, dating back to Sep. 5 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Almora isn't strictly a platoon player, but there is a pretty wide gap in his splits — .346 average, .919 OPS vs. southpaws and only a .270 AVG and .700 OPS vs. righties in 2017. And that's including the last week, where many of Almora's big hits have come against right-handers.

Saturday's start against the right-handed Michael Wacha came by virtue of Wacha's splits — the Cardinals right-hander is better vs. lefties (.645 OPS against) than righties (.754 OPS against).

"My confidence is always at an all-time high," Almora said. "It has to be in this game because this is a game of failure. Even on days you fail, I try to take the positive out of things. I try to learn every single at-bat.

"Joe has his reasons and I'm not complaining. I'm putting my head down and I'm going to work. Whenever I get a chance, just try to do my job."

Almora obviously would like to play more (he's on pace for just over 300 at-bats over the course of a full year in the big leagues), but his mentality is team first.

"Absolutely. I've always said, it's not about me, it's about the Chciago Cubs," Almora said. "And obviously we trust Joe to do whatever he's gotta do to put the best nine out there every day to win games. When I'm just given my opportunity, I'm just trying to go out there and help the team win.

"It's not in my control. I could go to bed killing myself thinking about what's going on, but nah, man, it's not about me. It's about the team winning games and we're doing it right now. We just gotta keep it going."

Almora also hasn't jumped off the page defensively the way many thought he would. In 584 innings in center this season, he's at -1 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs, which is slightly below average. By comparison, Ian Happ has accrued +2 DRS in 330.1 innings in center and Jon Jay is at -4 in 302.1 innings. By Baseball Reference's metric, Almora has 0.0 defensive WAR this season, meaning he's been exactly average. 

Defensive metrics aren't end-all, be-all and there's still no truly perfect way to measure a player's value on defense, but the peripheral numbers don't point to a huge impact from Almora defensively.

The Cubs entered the 2017 season with a plan on platooning Jay and Almora in center field, with the occasional game for Jason Heyward there, moving over from right. But Maddon admitted Happ's emergence has changed things quite a bit and Almora's been the one who has seen more of a negative impact in playing time.

The Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race and Maddon has already said it's time for performance, not development, so the guys that are having success — like Tommy La Stella, for example — will see more playing time down the stretch.

That being said, the Cubs don't plan on carving out more playing time for Almora than he's had to this point. Happ and Jay will still see time in center field and the Cubs will still pick spots and play matchups to maximize Almora's talents.

"His confidence level's up right now," Maddon said. "He's been doing a great job. ... We've been able to match him up even more and right now, his success is very high. So when you look at it, I'm certain from his perspective, as a young player, he'd like to play more.

"But his time's coming to play more. What he's doing right now is really obviously benefitting himself. He's naking a nice name or mark for himself."

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

The Cubs have enough high-end talent, layers of depth and big-game experience to hang on and win the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are also flawed teams that didn’t really expect to be here, either, only two games behind the defending World Series champs on Sept. 11.

But it’s harder to believe this offense will be ready for prime time and able to beat Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals three times in a five-game series — or wear down Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers again — much less generate the sustained pressure to win three playoff rounds.

Just listen to manager Joe Maddon, who sounded like he was running out of ideas after watching his team score three runs total while the Brewers pulled off a three-game sweep over the weekend: “All of a sudden this series, we chose not to hit.”

After getting shut out in the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history, the Cubs got two garbage-time runs on Saturday after the Brewers built 15-0 lead, and then needed Hernan Perez to misjudge a flyball to right field on Sunday to score their only run.

Look at this offensive snapshot against Milwaukee: The Cubs struck out 32 times while drawing only six walks; went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 21 men on base; and hit .196 overall with only three doubles and a solo home run.

“We’re definitely in the hunt,” Maddon said. “It’s up to us to mentally rise to that moment. It’s a mental challenge as much as anything. Yes, this time of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good arms every night. You have to beat the better pitching to be the team you want to be. I love the challenge. I think our guys do also.

“It’s up to us now to respond properly.”

This isn’t overreacting to a small sample size or overlooking a franchise that’s made so many big investments in hitters or underselling a Brewers team that shrewdly uses defensive shifts and advance scouting reports and hired a pitching coach (Derek Johnson) who used to work for the Cubs.

The Nationals (748), Colorado Rockies (733) and Arizona Diamondbacks (710) are the only NL teams that have scored more runs than the Cubs (707) so far this season. And the Cubs have averaged 5.7 runs per game since Aug. 1. But that stat is skewed by the stretch where the Cubs played 13 games in a row against last-place teams, and six wins where they put up football scores: 16, 15, 13, 17, 17 and 14.

“Every day, (Joe) sends us the lineup in the morning and he’s kind of tried every combination to find that consistency, and we really haven’t found it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have scored a lot of runs, but it seems like we’re blowing a team out once a week and scoring more than a dozen, but then having plenty of nights where it’s not there.

“It has been inconsistent, and I think Joe has been as frustrated as anyone trying to find that right combination. Hopefully, we’ll find it.”

Without Dexter Fowler’s name to put at the top of his iPad, Maddon has used 10 different leadoff hitters this season and gone through 129 lineup combinations (including pitchers) in 143 games.

Ben Zobrist — the other switch-hitter who saw so many pitches and made this feel like an American League lineup last year — has gone from being the World Series MVP to a part-time player. It’s impossible to know how much of that is Zobrist’s age (36) or injuries or fatigue after back-to-back championship runs with the Cubs and Kansas City Royals — or a new reality with two more seasons left on his $56 million contract.

After becoming a Chicago legend, Kyle Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer and has also morphed into a kind of platoon hitter, though his numbers have spiked since that minor-league reboot (13 homers and an .876 OPS).

Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder, a clubhouse leader and a more productive offensive player, but his .702 OPS is still 47 points below the league average.

Remember when Maddon protected Addison Russell during his 2015 rookie season by batting him ninth in 117 games? Switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ — two years removed from his draft class and with only 26 Triple-A games on his resume — has gotten more than 90 percent of his plate appearances between the leadoff and sixth spots in the lineup and delivered 21 homers.

Russell didn’t make the leap to superstardom he hoped for after a 21-homer, 95-RBI season, and the Cubs have to be prepared for the possibility that he might not come back this year as he deals with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Javier Baez has proven that he can be an excellent big-league shortstop who can hit for power (21 homers) and average (.282 since the All-Star break). But a scout tracking the Cubs also made this observation: “He’s going back to that Hail Mary swing now.”

“It’s just working the good at-bat, going up there and getting into the count if you can,” Maddon said. “It’s about squaring up more baseballs. It’s about hitting the ball hard more consistently.

“Beyond that, when you get chances to score runs with outs — when the runner needs to be moved — move him. When you have a chance to score a run with a runner on third and less than two outs, score that run somehow. (Against) good pitchers, you have to take advantage of all those different moments. And on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to beat them.”

The good news for the Cubs is that the New York Mets look nothing like the team that swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series with their power pitching and precise game plans. Instead of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Cubs will face Robert Gsellman, a decimated Matt Harvey and Seth Lugo in a three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Maybe Anthony Rizzo — who now has three straight seasons with more than 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs — is right when he says: “It’s kind of the flow of the season, the ups and downs.”

But no one would have predicted Jon Jay having to be such an important part of this offense, or Tommy La Stella starting this often in a pennant race after taking his New Jersey sabbatical last year and going 1-for-3 in playoff rosters, or the Cubs being this inconsistent when Kris Bryant’s OPS (.924) is not far from where he finished his MVP campaign (.939).

“I’ve always said with each player here: ‘You are who you are,’” Bryant said. “And I think at the end of the year, that’s how things will turn up. I believe that as a team, too. I think we’re a winning team. We’re a playoff team. And I think at the end of the year, that’s where we’ll be.”

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

“What’s happened?” Jason Heyward said, repeating back part of a reporter’s question. “Nothing happened. Baseball happened.”

It was only fitting that “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk threw out the first pitch and led the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Maybe the Cubs aren’t quite that desperate – and would never admit it even if they were in crisis mode – but the Milwaukee Brewers had only one realistic way to stay relevant in the National League Central race: Sweep the defending World Series champs.

Mission accomplished for the upstart Brewers team the Cubs allowed to hang around into September and gain more and more confidence. The flip-flopping St. Louis Cardinals – sellers one day, buyers in another deal, holding auditions for the future while trying to compete now – have also closed to within two games of first place.

The Bears losing their opener to the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Soldier Field – and all the Monday morning quarterbacking – will give the Cubs some cover during their day off. But what could have been a four-game lead over the Brewers disappeared with a 3-1 loss in front of 40,113.

“If you go over there and ask that clubhouse what happened to them when they got swept by Cincinnati (last week), it’s the way the game goes,” said Heyward, the $184 million Gold Glove outfielder with a .259 batting average who is always available at his locker to answer questions.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, OK, so what,’ but that’s just a part of the game. Teams are going to pitch well sometimes. Sometimes, you’re not going to hit well. Sometimes, balls are going to go at people. Sometimes, (that’s) going to be what it is.”

The Cubs are getting what they deserve for all their inconsistencies – a stressful finish where 11 of their last 19 games are against either Milwaukee or St. Louis. The Cubs also have enough of an off-the-field reputation when it comes to rainouts and game times that the Brewers could make themselves feel slighted and turn those petty behind-the-scenes disputes into part of the narrative.

“We’ve been in a tight race all year,” rookie Ian Happ said. “Just keep playing good baseball and see where it shakes out at the end.”

The Brewers lined up their top three starters – Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies – and limited the Cubs to three runs total in 27 innings. The first point the Cubs led all weekend came during Sunday’s second inning, when No. 8 hitter/backup catcher Rene Rivera lifted what looked like a routine flyball to right field. It carried over the head of Hernan Perez, who stuck out his glove and watched the ball bounce away for a questionable RBI double.   

“They got us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We were just unable to string together any kind of hits, and then our power’s been negated a bit.

“If you look around baseball, it happens to every team at some point. It’s contagious to hit as well as it is contagious to not hit. You got to just keep working your way through it. It’s going to come back to us. We’re going to start hitting again.”

After pinch-hitter Alex Avila struck out swinging at All-Star closer Corey Knebel’s 97-mph fastball to leave Heyward stranded at second base and secure the sweep, the Cubs played reggae music in their clubhouse and looked forward to a day off after playing 20 games in 20 days – and ahead to what will ultimately define their season.

“You say ‘gave up three games,’ whatever,” Heyward said. “They had a great series. That’s that.

“That’s the name of the game right now – find a way to get it done. Nobody’s going to care at the end of the year. It’s just: ‘Are you in or are you not?’ And no doubt that all the teams right now in our division that still have a chance are doing the best we can to get in.

“These games are big, of course, but they’re over with.”