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Almora-Baez combo producing atop Cubs' order

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- Manager Joe Maddon said on Monday he'll stick with Albert Almora Jr. and Javier Baez at the top of the Cubs' lineup as long as the combo works.

"Stability equals productivity," Maddon said. "The fact they've been productive, they've created that stability there."

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CHICAGO -- Manager Joe Maddon said on Monday he'll stick with Albert Almora Jr. and Javier Baez at the top of the Cubs' lineup as long as the combo works.

"Stability equals productivity," Maddon said. "The fact they've been productive, they've created that stability there."

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Almora was projected as a potential leadoff option in Spring Training, but it wasn't until April 19 that Baez was inserted into the No. 2 spot to provide some "energy," Maddon said. The pair had matching 11-game hitting streaks, which ended on Sunday. Almora was batting .289 and Baez .280 after Monday night's 3-2 win over the Rockies at Wrigley Field.

"Javy was doing so well at the bottom to drive in runs, I thought, 'Let's try this,'" Maddon said. "Knowing Javy, he likes the challenge. When you show that kind of confidence, I think he'll respond, and I think Albert did the same thing. It's an energy that we've been running with."

Video: MIL@CHC: Baez shows off with bat, glove, legs

The Cubs are 9-2 with that 1-2 combo, although Maddon reserves the right to make a change. Ben Zobrist, for example, has the best at-bats, Maddon said, and could bat leadoff as well. Maddon also expects Ian Happ to return to the No. 1 spot in the lineup at some point. A switch-hitter, Happ was batting .316 against left-handed pitching and .213 against right-handers.

"I think this is the kind of group where you ride the wave a little bit," Maddon said. "We're just riding the wave right now. I hope it stays. They want to keep that, they have to continually work the kind of at-bat that gets them on base with high-percentage time. Most of the time, you've got [Kris Bryant] and [Anthony Rizzo] and [Willson] Contreras -- we need baserunners. If they do that, [Almora and Baez] can stay there as long as they want."

What has helped Almora is a meeting he had in Spring Training with Maddon and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, which may be why he's making so many highlight-reel catches.

"I felt last year, I played a little conservative," Almora said. "This is what I've been doing all my life. We had a conversation this spring, and they challenged me to be myself and be the Albert they saw growing up and in high school. I said, 'Consider it done.'"

Added left-hander Jon Lester: "It kind of locks down that middle of the field when you have a guy in center who can go get it like that. It takes pressure off the two corner guys, and when you have a guy like [Jason Heyward] in right, it kind of shrinks the outfield. It's just an added bonus for us as pitchers that we know we don't have to be perfect all the time to get outs."

Video: COL@CHC: Almora leaps for stellar catch on the track

State of the Cubs
Epstein was pleased with the team's performance in the first month of the season.

"The biggest thing I like is how many guys seem to be really growing and getting better, and as a team, too," Epstein said on Monday. "I said the other day, too, when we were close to .500, I said I'd rather have the record we had but with the growth and certain guys facing some difficult stretches and coming out of it and making adjustments that I think will serve them well for the rest of the season. ... I'm proud of what our guys have done in April and how it sets us up going forward."

Almora and Baez are two examples of players who have shown "growth," as well as Kyle Schwarber, who was batting .276 with seven homers and 17 RBIs. A year ago, Schwarber was hitting .204 on April 30 with three homers and nine RBIs. All three have been using the whole field more, had better at-bats and a better approach at the plate.

"Look, the whole progress-isn't-linear thing still stands," Epstein said. "There's going to be a lot of ups and downs, and we know that. This has been a really important month. Some guys who have been exploited in certain ways, you want to make sure that doesn't become a year-to-year thing because that sort of defines you as a player. But they haven't let that happen. They've made key adjustments, and now they're taking their games to another level. That's what you want to see. That's really important for their careers, and it's really important for our growth as a franchise."

Video: MIL@CHC: Schwarber rips a solo homer in the 6th

Home-field advantage
Nine of the Cubs' first 11 games at Wrigley Field have been played with game-time temperatures under 50 degrees. It felt like spring on Monday, and the wind was blowing out for the first time, with the game-time temperature at 80 degrees.

"Did you bring your suntan lotion today?" Maddon quipped.

Tweet from @Cubs: Signs of summer 😍 pic.twitter.com/OlqA8fu8Aq

Maddon has learned about the wind and Wrigley Field's quirks.

"The series I was here with the Rays [in 2014], I remember talking to [pitching coach Jim] Hickey about it, and he remembered it, too, but Rizzo hit a ball to right-center and I thought it was over everything, and Zobrist caught it at the wall," Maddon said. "The last game [of that series], we thought we were going to win, Sean Rodriguez hit a ball that we thought was over everything, and it landed at the front of the wall.

"Even though the weather has been horrible [so far], it's played in our favor."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs, Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr.