Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

MESA, Ariz. – The Cactus League crowds are different than the ones packed into Wrigley Field. It was only a meaningless split-squad game on a Saturday afternoon in the Arizona sunshine. Finally winning the World Series must have somewhat dulled the edge.

But Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward still thought Rajai Davis would hear it from the sellout crowd of 14,929 at Sloan Park, the what-could-have-been anxiety bubbling up when seeing the Oakland A's leadoff guy who nearly changed the course of baseball history.

"I was surprised he didn't get booed more, but that's just how our fans are," Heyward said. "They're fun like that. They have fun with the game. They acknowledge it. That's pretty cool for Cubs fans to boo you. If anybody boos you from last year, that's kind of an honor, I would say. To be on that side of things, it means you did something great."

As Alfonso Soriano liked to say, they don't boo nobodies. With one big swing, Davis almost unleashed a miserable winter for the Cubs and ended the Cleveland Indians' 68-year drought.

Manager Joe Maddon kept pushing closer Aroldis Chapman, who fired 97 pitches in Games 5, 6, and 7 combined. Davis timed seven straight fastballs in the eighth inning – the last one at 97.1 mph – and drove a Game 7-tying two-run homer just inside the foul pole and onto the left-field patio. In a now-famous rain-delay speech, Heyward gathered his teammates in a Progressive Field weight room as the Cubs regained their composure.

"They booed him, but only the first at-bat," Heyward said. "The second at-bat and the third, I was like: ‘Eh, they kind of just let him off the hook.' They let him be."

The fans who stuck around until the end got to hear "Go Cubs Go" after a 4-3 win. Davis parlayed that big moment into a one-year, $6 million contract with the A's. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon in Mesa.

"As players, we're all onto the season and enjoying this ride and a new journey," said Heyward, who went 0-for-3 with an RBI as he worked on his new swing. "All the teams that we played in the playoffs are obviously out here in spring training, so it's just really fun and it's good for the makeup of your team when you compete that way.

"You're thrown right back into the fire when you talk about the competition and remembering things that happened in the postseason. But we don't dwell on it too much."

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs believe Mike Montgomery will be so much more than just the answer to a trivia question or a cameo appearance in the highlight film.

The symmetry became impossible to miss on Saturday at Sloan Park, where the Cubs put the World Series trophy on display behind home plate and set off fireworks at 1:06 p.m. Three minutes later, the guy who threw the last pitch of 2016 threw the first pitch 2017 pitch in Mesa.

That it came against Rajai Davis added to the moment. Scattered boos greeted Davis when the Oakland A's leadoff guy walked toward the batter's box, a reminder of how he almost turned a dream season into a nightmare when he slammed Aroldis Chapman's 97.1 mph fastball onto Progressive Field's left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a Game 7-tying two-run homer for the Cleveland Indians.

A year that began with Montgomery thinking he might be playing in Japan ended in that mosh pit. A lefty who had been viewed as a low-leverage swingman for the Seattle Mariners notched the final out of the World Series for a franchise that hadn't won one since 1908.

"Be ready for anything," Montgomery said when asked about the "hybrid" job description manager Joe Maddon laid out for him and Brett Anderson, the other lefty in the mix for the fifth-starter job.

"The big thing with both of them (is) neither one has really been stretched out anywhere close to 200 innings over the last couple years," Maddon said before a 4-3 split-squad win over Oakland. "So we're thinking it's almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early.

"It's in theory right now. We haven't actually laid it down on paper. We feel pretty fortunate. If everybody stays healthy, you got six guys that you like right there. It's hard for anybody to say that. That's the point. These guys have not been really satisfactorily stretched out over the last couple years.

"How do we keep them both active and helping us? That's going to be our challenge early and through the beginning part of the season."

Anderson (29) is older and more experienced and working on a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could max out at $10 million if he rips off the injury-prone label and makes 29 starts. Montgomery (27) is the more raw talent (23 career big-league starts) the Cubs now control through the 2021 season.

"There's a lot of different possibilities that they could go with," Montgomery said. "For me, it's just continuing to build up my arm strength and getting my timing down, my mechanics down and that way I'm ready to go and do whatever it is that they need me to."

Pitching in front of 14,929 and an All-Star infield, Montgomery walked Davis and Matt Joyce and notched two strikeouts in a scoreless first inning. Montgomery felt the adrenaline rush, but nothing in Arizona can compare to the 10th inning of a Game 7.

"The sky's the limit," Maddon said. "He's like a 10-plus game winner on an annual basis as a starter. I think he definitely has that within his abilities. I've told him that (winning) 10 to 15 games is within his abilities, no doubt. That comes with fastball command and then knowing what to do with his breaking pitches. He's got really high-quality stuff.

"I'd like to think that moment will increase his confidence. But then again, it's a new year. And you have to go out there and pitch."

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." 

[MORE: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]
 
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."