Cubs

Bring it on: Cubs embracing the playoff pressure

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Bring it on: Cubs embracing the playoff pressure

SAN FRANCISCO – Every moment from here through October, the Cubs will be under the microscope.

“Absolutely love it,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday night’s 8-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants. “I love the fact that the games are meaningful. I love the fact that people are going to use the word ‘pressure’ a lot and ‘scrutiny.’

“It’s good for our guys. We anticipate being here this year and years to come.”

Reporters surrounded Maddon inside the visiting dugout at AT&T Park, which would host its 387th consecutive regular-season sellout crowd. Barry Bonds hung around the cage during batting practice. The temperature dropped to 64 degrees by first pitch at this beautiful waterfront stadium, adding another layer of playoff feel to a place that has celebrated three World Series titles within the last five seasons.

Sports Illustrated had just put the Cubs on a regional cover – “WRIGLEYVILLE IS WINNERVILLE” – with a shot looking down the third-base line. Kris Bryant approached the mosh pit at home plate – with Pedro Strop strutting alongside him – during Monday’s walk-off victory over the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field.

[MORE: Kyle Schwarber’s whirlwind year pushes Cubs to another level]

ESPN is already here for Wednesday’s game against the Giants and will feature the Cubs nationally on “Sunday Night Baseball” at Dodger Stadium. Maddon doesn’t believe in jinxes or overexposure.

“You got to get used to it at some point,” Maddon said. “It’s a good thing. I talk about it constantly. If you want to run away from the word ‘pressure,’ then you’re really never going to be in a significant moment in your life.

“To this point, our players have really processed it well. And I really believe they’re going to continue to do so. It’s the best moment. It’s what you play for. It’s what you work toward.”

In embracing the spotlight and top-of-the-rotation expectations, Jake Arrieta has transformed himself into one of the game’s most dominant pitchers and a Cy Young Award candidate.

Arrieta retired the first 10 batters he faced and now leads the majors with 16 wins, lowering his ERA to 2.22 after giving up only one unearned run in six innings against a Giants team (66-59) that appears to be fading from the wild-card picture.

The Cubs (73-51) have won six in a row and 21 of their last 25 games, gaining control of the second wild card and moving to 7.5 games ahead of the Giants. The Cubs trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by only two games for the right to host a wild-card game at Wrigley Field. Within the division, the Cubs are 6.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the first team to 80 wins this year.

“We can only control the teams that we’re playing right now,” Arrieta said. “We’ve played well against the Giants. We’ve played well against the Cardinals and the Pirates.

“The Cardinals continue to win, and I think everybody kind of expects that. All we can do is just put pressure on (them) and play sound and fundamental baseball.

“If we do that, we’re going to continue to win a lot of games. How everything works out in the end, a lot has to do with the teams ahead of us and what they do, because we’re going to continue to take care of business. It’s just going to require some good fortune ahead of us.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Ideally, with an eight-run lead, the Cubs wouldn’t have burned through five relievers and forced Hector Rondon to notch his 24th save. But the chanting, yelling and clapping during the postgame celebration could still be heard on the other side of the clubhouse walls.

The Cubs are enjoying the ride and checking their egos at the door, even if Rondon isn’t the official closer and even after Starlin Castro got benched. With Addison Russell arriving late to San Francisco after the birth of his son, Castro moved back to shortstop and fell a triple short of hitting for the cycle.

“I want to be part of this team,” Castro said.

Who wouldn’t? Kyle Schwarber definitely didn’t look nervous, setting the tone with a three-run bomb off Matt Cain in the third inning and becoming the first Cub since at least 1900 to hit 12 homers within his first 42 career games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“We’re so young, we really don’t know what we’re doing,” Schwarber said. “Right now, it just feels like we’re in a playoff game every game.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

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

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.”