CHICAGO -- The only thing Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. says he wants is some love from his teammates for his stellar play on defense. But after nine games, including Thursday's 4-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Almora might be in line for something a little shinier -- in the same vein as his World Series ring, just more gold.
“He’s the real deal,” a longtime National League scout said before the game. “He’ll win a Gold Glove soon enough.”
If he keeps making plays like the ones he made in the first and third innings, this could be the year he wins his first one. Dodgers star Corey Seager sent Almora to the center-field wall not once but twice early Thursday. The 22-year-old made a leaping grab "leaning back," as Cubs manager Joe Maddon described it, near the brick in the first. Then in the third, Almora made a running, over-the-shoulder grab of another Seager drive.
Fortunately, the two are friends from playing on Team USA together. Seager had to say something to him.
“‘You can take the first one, but let the second one drop,’” Almora recalled Seager yelling.
Almora simply explained it this way: “My instinct is just to go get it.”
This is becoming the norm for Almora, who’s already made a half-dozen big plays this season in center field, even though he isn’t starting every day. This brings us to the Gold Glove discussion. It’s not easy for a platoon player to take home the gold. Torii Hunter did in 2005 with just 416 plate appearances. Ten years earlier, a guy named Ken Griffey Jr. won the award with just 314 plate appearances. If it’s an every-10-year thing, then maybe Almora can win it without playing every day.
“We’re talking personal awards -- that’s pretty cool -- but at the same time, seeing my teammates' reactions is what I play for,” Almora said. “I’m just happy when I come in and they recognize and give me a high-five. That’s all I want.”
Almora has said similar things since being drafted in the first round in 2012. It was back then -- at 18 or 19 years old -- that scouts were saying he was ready defensively for the big leagues and only needed his bat to catch up. Considering he’s hitting .500 with a 1.154 OPS so far, his offense hasn't been a problem this season.
“It’s crazy,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “I’ve seen it since I was in the minor leagues. I’ve seen all the crazy plays he’s done. He’s just a really good baseball player.”
Schwarber tried his own hand at an acrobatic catch Thursday, but came up just short as the ball touched the ivy before he corralled it. It turned out to be OK; the Cubs stranded the runner because Almora made one of his two dynamic catches to end the inning and save a run. "Defensive runs saved" is a stat that will be popular with the second-year player, as he’s becoming a human highlight reel in part because of hard work and instinct.
“There’s that innate sixth sense of movement,” Maddon said. “They watch the swing so well. They understand swings. It has something to do with focus.”
Closer Wade Davis added: “We were on the road somewhere in spring training, and I was warming up in the bullpen, and he did a diving, leaping jump into the chain-link fence in front of us. I was all pumped up. I was sold after that.”
It took Davis one play to know, just as it did for those scouts back in 2012 and 2013 after Almora turned pro. Almora has that "it" factor on defense. Full-time or platoon, it’s hard to imagine a Gold Glove discussion without him in it.
“I owe him my paycheck,” Thursday’s winning pitcher Brett Anderson said.
Almora smiled upon hearing that. For once, he jokingly displayed the less selfless side of him, at least for a moment.
“Sick,” he responded. “I’ll take it.”