Emma: With Instincts, Aggressiveness, Almora Comes Through For Cubs

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Full steam ahead, Albert Almora Jr. saw opportunity and went running with it.

Almora dropped a ball in front of Phillies left fielder Ty Kelly to open the 13th inning Thursday, but he wasn’t pulling up at first base. Instead, Almora was churning toward second for a risky play. Kelly briefly bobbled the ball, then his throw short-hopped the covering Cesar Hernandez at second base. Almora dove in head-first barely ahead of the throw.

Because of his hustle, Almora was in position to take advantage as a throwing error allowed him to score the winning run shortly after. The Cubs would walk off 5-4 in 13 innings, with Almora’s efforts to thank.

“I got to get to second base there,” Almora said. “I don’t want to stay on first.”

Respect 90? How about 180, instead? Cubs manager Joe Maddon loved what he saw from the 23-year-old outfielder. The aggressiveness is encouraged.

In the ninth inning, with the game tied 4-4, veteran Ben Zobrist was picked off second base. It was a mental gaffe, and he would be the first to admit it. But that shouldn’t set the tone for conservative base running in extras, nor did it.

Where some young players would have parked at first base afraid of taking the risk, Almora had his sights set on second base the entire way.

“I love it,” Maddon said of Almora’s push. “I don’t want any of our guys worrying about making a mistake.

“‘Go for it, brother.’ Right there, that’s the perfect time to do what he did, and it played out well.”

In the deciding 13th inning, Zobrist was on first base after Almora’s double, intentionally walked to reach Javier Baez, who was retired on one pitch. Matt Szczur then hit what would’ve been a 4-6-3 double play to bring a 14th inning, but Zobrist disrupted the throw of shortstop Freddy Galvis, and he threw wide. Ultimately, Almora’s efforts to reach second base made a big difference.

These young Cubs, for all their natural talent, have tremendous instincts, too. The first-round pick in 2012, Almora is a prime example. He could become a five-tool player down the road, but the ability for a precise thought rounding first base — go, go, go! — is something that can’t be developed. It’s natural.

Thursday at frigid Wrigley Field, his instincts revealed themselves. Of course, that shouldn’t serve as a surprise. Almora will be hard-pressed to top his tag-up to second base during the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series last November, a move that positioned him to score the go-ahead run in the Cubs’ deciding victory. This game in early May against the Phillies presented a much different scenario and the same result.

Maddon didn’t hold his breath one bit. He was smiling later after the victory.

“Our players know that making a mistake is fine,” Maddon said. “Go ahead, make as many as you need to, as long as it’s a hard, physical, aggressive mistake.”

What shows up in the box score as a double and run scored was much more for the Cubs on a Thursday afternoon that led into the evening. The fans were cold and restless, waiting for the moment.

Almora made the winning play, and the Cubs walked off.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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