Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

CLEVELAND — The Cubs signed Ben Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal last December for exactly what he delivered on baseball’s biggest stage: A go-ahead RBI double in the 10th inning that helped push this franchise to an 8-7 Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians and its first World Series title since 1908. 

It was a moment that’ll go down as one of the biggest hits in Cubs history, but it’s one that was predicted by at least two players in the visitor’s dugout at Progressive Field. 

“I was sitting next to (catching coach) Mike Borzello, I said, He’s going to hit one down the left-field line right here,” designated hitter Kyle Schwarber said. “I’m not kidding you. What’s he do, he hits it down the left-field line. I’m going crazy.”

“I told the boys, hey, I got this ball, he’s hitting it right down the line,” outfielder Dexter Fowler said. “I saw them playing him over and I told them he’s going to take a cutter down there.”

Zobrist’s smash down the left-field line came on a 96 mph 1-2 cutter on the outer third from Cleveland Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. That was the hardest pitch Zobrist saw in the five-pitch sequence, too. But Shaw had worked him on the outer third all at-bat, and finally threw one belt high that Zobrist didn’t miss. 

While manager Joe Maddon didn’t predict Zobrist’s heroics before the game, a comment he made turned out to be prescient after the Indians intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo with first base open to get to the 35-year-old left fielder. 

“You don't want to just give up on Rizzo to get to Zobrist in a pertinent moment,” Maddon said. “Doubles are nice. Doubles are nice, too. It doesn't have to go over the wall. We dig on doubles.”

Zobrist was named World Series MVP after collecting 10 hits and three walks in 31 plate appearances with a .919 OPS over seven games, with his presence in the middle of the Cubs’ order — he hit fourth or fifth all series — a critical one. 

“There’s so many guys on this team that could’ve been MVP, and I think they probably just gave it to me because I got that hit, the go-ahead hit,” Zobrist said. 

While Fowler was the Cubs’ “you go, we go” guy in 2016, the consistently competitive at-bats Zobrist had set an example for the horde of inexperienced players peppering Maddon’s lineup. After the New York Mets fireballed their way to a National League Championship Series sweep of the Cubs last year, Theo Epstein & Co. jettisoned Starlin Castro and brought in Zobrist to bring a veteran presence to a lineup that was lacking one. 

That Zobrist was coming off winning the 2015 World Series with the Kansas City Royals only sweetened the deal for a team trying to end a 108-year title drought. 

“Being a veteran and bringing his experience into this lineup, we didn’t have anything like that,” Fowler said. “He won a championship last year, and coming in and doing it again was really special.”

"I'm very, very lucky to be on a team with Ben Zobrist and have played with him,” catcher David Ross said. “That guy is a winner. He's a champion. He's a two-time champion, back-to-back years. What a special individual he is and a leader and one of the guys that continues to spark our team.”

Consider the circumstances facing the Cubs when Zobrist stepped into the batter’s box in the 10th inning: They had just blown a three-run lead with four outs left, they would’ve took the lead in the top of the ninth if not for Francisco Lindor’s spectacular play, they sat through a rain delay and were trying to muster the will to re-take the lead. Zobrist fell behind in the count 1-2 and ripped Shaw’s best pitch down the line for a go-ahead double. 

But again, that’s why the Cubs signed Zobrist — to deliver in a pressure-packed moment like he faced in the 10th inning. Things don’t always work out that way, but on Wednesday night, the Cubs’ vision for how Zobrist would impact the 2016 season played out to perfection. 

“I feel like I’m in a dream right now,” Zobrist said. “This organization, 108 years in the making, being able to be here my first year I’m really spoiled, obviously. To be here at the right time to be here with all these great young players, to join in the mix here, that’s — this was the dream, coming here. We were able to do it the first year. I got no words for it right now.”

More on the World Series victory

--Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

--Finally: The Cubs are World Series champs

--The wait –and the weight- is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

--Barack Obama congratulates Cubs World Series championship

--Famous Cubs fans celebrate World Series title on Twitter

--Ben Zobrist becomes first Cub ever to win World Series MVP

--Numbers game: statistical oddities of the Cubs World Series title

--Jed Hoyer: Rain delay was ‘divine intervention’ for Cubs

​--Fans give Cubs a taste of home in Cleveland

--Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

--‘Dreams come true’: Bill Murray reacts to Cubs winning the World Series

--Big surprise: Kyle Schwarber plays hero again for Cubs in World Series Game 7

- Ryne Sandberg: World Series ‘made it able for me to live in the present’

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.