WASHINGTON — Is it really possible the Chicago Cubs have yet another mature and talented rookie on their hands? After watching Albert Almora Jr.’s first week in the big leagues, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with any other conclusion.
Almora capped his first seven days in the majors with a ninth-inning, game-winning RBI double that broke a 3-3 tie in the Cubs’ 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals on Tuesday. The evening had that midseason playoff atmosphere, and the 22-year-old came up big.
“You try to stay calm for that,” Almora said after the game. “That’s the biggest thing. Knowing I belong and wanting to come through for the guys right there. Just trying to stay calm and do my job.”
Almora had already made diving catches in left field. Now he has won a game with his bat after entering for defense late Tuesday. He joins a young but mature group led by Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, and the line of talented players for the Cubs just keeps growing. Two of the above names are hurt, but the cupboard is not bare.
“That’s what’s fun about this team,” catcher David Ross said. “The talent that comes up is helping and can produce. They’re excited to be here. They bring energy to our team.”
Ross said the moment Almora got to second base in the ninth inning and hollered with joy will be “ingrained his head.” Think about it: Grandpa Ross bunted over the youthful Russell before an even younger Almora performed his heroics simply because the manager trusted him. Two 22-year-olds got the job done with a 39-year-old sandwiched between them.
“You have a bunch of freshmen and sophomores out there,” Maddon said. “They’re doing a wonderful job. I’m really proud of our youngsters.”
Who wouldn’t be? They might not come through every night, but every night sees one of them contributing. Almora fits right in and might have the best instincts of the group. That’s saying something, considering the Cubs employ the Rookie of the Year and the all-purpose Baez.
“He’s not up there in a hurry,” Maddon said of Almora. “Can you talk to him? Is he focused on what you’re saying? Can he process what you’re saying? Easily can. Just like we’re talking right now. That’s what he’s like in the heat of the moment.”
Almora slowed it down in the batter’s box against pitcher Sammy Solis, a player he knew from the Arizona Fall League, then jumped on his first pitch. He wasn’t tentative or afraid of the big moment, and coming through in that kind of atmosphere can do wonders for a player and team.
“The guy has been up here for five minutes, and he’s not passive,” Maddon said. “A really interesting game of baseball. The Giants were a team we had to earn our stripes against. The Nationals are the same kind of team.”
With attitudes like the one Almora possesses, the Cubs can keep counting on their young players. Reliever Pedro Strop stressed how the organization isn’t “old-school” when it comes to rookies. They know they’re needed, and they’re treated accordingly. The rookies return the kindness in how they carry themselves.
“I did it for [John] Lackey,” Almora said. “I did it for [Pedro] Strop, I did it for [Hector] Rondon, for [Travis] Wood, for all those guys. I did it for Ross as well. I could go on and on. I’m trying to be a team guy.”
This is what Almora has been like since the day the Cubs drafted him in 2012. “Mature” is a word often used to describe the youth on the team, and it’s accurate. The Cubs’ newest player is no different. He’s already being asked if he thinks he’ll stick around when some of the injured, more experienced players return from injuries. He refuses to think about it.
“I feel like if I [go out and play], it makes my job easier because I can sleep well at night saying I left it all on the table,” he said. “Whatever they choose to do with their decision, I don’t care. I’m here to win.”
He did so on Tuesday, and he reminded everyone just how talented these young Cubs are.