When the Chicago Cubs have Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward both in the outfield, there may not be a better defensive tandem in all of baseball.
In Tuesday night’s win over the St. Louis Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs lived up to the old adage: defense wins championships.
You hear that saying more with basketball or even football, but, as the Cubs showed last season, having a league-best defense can do a lot for you. Several pitchers on last year’s squad, namely Kyle Hendricks, relied heavily upon the men behind him – to a great degree of success.
With the game on the line late Tuesday, Matt Adams drove a pitch from Koji Uehara to deep center field. Almora had it tracked as soon as it left the bat, making a sensational leaping grab at the wall to preserve Chicago’s one-run lead.
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The young outfielder already has a reputation as an elite defender, despite having less than 50 games at the big-league level under his belt. His game-saving catch in the NLDS against San Francisco still looms large in the minds of Cubs fans.
Now, in his first full season, Almora is ready to prove that was no fluke.
“I’m at the point where I’m really confident in whatever I’m doing defensively,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times recently.
Praise from one of the best
Not only is Almora already one of the best all-arond defensive outfielder Chicago has had in recent memory, but he’s flanked by arguably the best right fielder in baseball in Heyward.
Despite a down-year offensively in 2016, Heyward brought home another Gold Glove award.
In what he’s seen of Almora already, the four-time Gold Glover has nothing but good things to say.
"“I saw it right away in spring training in ’16,” Heyward said. “I saw him go out there and be fearless. He runs into the wall to catch the baseball and things like that, and that tells me he’s not thinking — in a good way."
That’s not to take anything away from Heyward, who himself made an outstanding running grab on a ball in the gap off the bat of Matt Carpenter Tuesday. Neither player has been a standout at the dish, although the Cubs are hoping for a bounceback year from J-Hey. But what this pair brings to the team in terms of defense is hard to put into words.
For his part, Heyward was a 1.3 dWAR player for Chicago in 2016. That kept his WAR positive, despite hitting a career-worst .230/.306/.325. As for Almora, his plate approach will determine his long-term outlook. If he carries over his spring success to the regular season, Chicago may enjoy yet-another above-average young talent.
When it is all said and done, the easy-going Joe Maddon attitude is evident. Both Heyward and Almora love what they do – and they’re enjoying every minute of the ride.
"“We just have fun doing it,” Heyward said. “We understand it’s a big part of the game — and we don’t take it for granted.”"