Why Albert Almora Jr. could become this October’s Javy Baez for Cubs

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — He’s hitting better than he ever has in the majors. His fielding is the stuff of Gold Gloves and 1-0 wins. And his confidence is at an all-time high.

That was infielder Javy Baez a year ago, just before he broke out with a huge postseason that led to international celebrity, a World Series ring and a street in Chicago named after him.

It’s also center fielder Albert Almora Jr. right now.

Whether another street-naming ceremony is in play, could Almora be this year’s Baez for the Cubs in October — the indispensable fielder who makes an impact at the plate and spurs another deep playoff run?

Almora about to catch postseason fire?

“He’s got the baseball IQ. He’s obviously got the talent,” said Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. “And the way he’s been playing lately, as hot as he is, he’s definitely one of our best options for that.”

No doubt Almora has strong support among Cubs pitchers for a regular spot in the playoff outfield.

Finding his way around his manager and into the lineup every day is another matter — especially after a year of playing time suppressed by the emergence of rookie Ian Happ and a job share with Jon Jay.

But Almora’s timing could work in his favor.

Already proving his big-stage mettle in last year’s playoffs with a huge catch in extra innings against the Giants in the first round and his heady base-running in Game 7 of the World Series, Almora could be an ideal fit for a team that could use a run-prevention boost to balance an up-and-down lineup without so much as a set leadoff man.

“A guy who looks like he could come up big down the stretch is Almora,” said one longtime major-league talent evaluator this week, unsolicited. “He seems to like the big games, and he’s hitting with confidence.”

Almora played every game during the Cubs’ season-high, seven-game winning streak that ended Wednesday night, coming off the bench in all but two of them.

He went 3-for-4 in one of the starts, including a pair of run-scoring hits in a 4-1 victory over the Cardinals. And he came off the bench in a game against the Mets to drive in six runs with a triple and homer.

He went 8-for-12 with five extra-base hits and 10 RBIs during the streak, then started Wednesday night.

“His confidence is up right now. He’s been doing a great job,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Right now Albert’s not missing his pitch. There’s something to be said for that.”

He’s also not an everyday lineup fixture. Yet.

“I’m sure from his perspective as a young player he’d like to play more,” Maddon said, “but his time is coming.”

Almora, who has been one of the more mature players in the clubhouse since his arrival, is the last to complain.

“I’ve always said it’s not about me; it’s about the Chicago Cubs,” said the 2012 sixth-overall draft pick. “I’m ready for whatever. I’m a competitor. But the role doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters to me is winning another World Series, because I was spoiled to come into the league last year and see what it takes to win.”

But what about a chance to be this year’s Baez?

“It that’s in the plans for me — I can just promise you that I’m going to play as hard as I can day in and day out,” he said.

“I love watching him play,” Hendricks said. “He’s going to be a hell of a ballplayer once he gets his chance to play every day. And it might start right in the playoffs, you never know.

“Seems like unlikely heroes are always born somewhere in the playoffs. I hope it’s him.”

Contributing: David Just

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Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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