Cubs

Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

The Cubs were due for a close game and they almost got it Thursday evening. 

After steamrolling the second-place Pirates over the three-game series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs looked ticketed for a nail-biting victory over the Washington Nationals in the series opener at Wrigley Field.

Instead, Ben Zobrist channeled his "Zorilla" alter-ego and smashed a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers with two outs in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 5-2 Cubs victory in front of 37,564 fans.

The Cubs were leading 5-0 with two outs in the ninth before Travis Wood served up a two-run shot to Jayson Werth, making those "jug runs" (Cubs manager Joe Maddon likens late inning insurance runs to stepping on the jugular of their opponent) all the more important.

"That's big right there," Maddon said of Zobrist's home run. "The jug runs in the eighth - they're always big when you have a lead. Two outs, to go from two to four kinda hurt [the Nationals] a little bit. Then we get another run, the extra tack on.

"Now, of course we would've worked the ninth inning differently had we not scored those runs, so you never know the outcome if Werth would've hit the home run."

Zobrist drove in the first four runs in the game - he also had a two-run single through the right side in the fourth inning to plate Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant) - and is now second on the Cubs with 20 RBI on the season.

Two batters after Zobrist's blast, Addison Russell drove home Ryan Kalish with a double to left field, pushing the Cubs' run differential to a ridiculous +96 on the season.

"We're off to a good start," Cubs catcher David Ross said, "but we don't sit on the bench and talk about run differential or on-base percentage. We try to have good at-bats. 

"Guys are going up there and doing their thing pitching. Everybody's out to do their best on a daily basis and I think that's the sign of a good team."

Despite the Nationals' late comeback attempt, Zobrist still provided all the offense Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs bullpen needed.

Hendricks spun six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a pair of walks, striking out four.

"Outstanding," Maddon said. "He was really good. I complimented him on it as I was taking him out of the game. ... Really sharp with everything."

It was the first start for Hendricks in 10 days as the Cubs essentially skipped his turn in the rotation when they were handed two rainouts last week.

"It felt good, honestly," Hendricks said. "It didn't really feel like I missed anything. I threw a lot in between those 10 days. I [threw] off the mound every other day, almost. I think that helped just keeping up with the reps to keep sharp, but I felt good. Really good."

The Cubs are now 33-17 in Hendricks' first 50 career starts, the best record in a pitcher's first 50 starts since 1945-47 (Hank Borowy).

Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop combined for two shutout innings and Hector Rondon recorded the final out as the Cubs kicked off this crucial four-game series by flying the "W" flag at Wrigley.

The Cubs now lead the majors with 21 victories, but because they've been winning by such lopsided scores, they only have four saves. 

Zobrist said he's never been on a team that was 15 games over .500 this early in the season.

"This is a really good team," he said shortly after Thursday's victory. "We've played good baseball. Tonight was another good example of that. But we're focused on winning tomorrow now. It's over. We're gonna celebrate for a half hour, and that half hour is about up, so it's time to focus on tomorrow and try and win a day game tomorrow."

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: