Cubs

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

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AP

Cliff Floyd and Jeff Samardzija on what made Stan Zielinski a great scout and why Cubs will miss him

Cliff Floyd landed in Fort Lauderdale – the night before a gunman opened fire in a South Florida airport terminal – and could immediately sense something already went wrong by the way his phone started buzzing.

The news rippled throughout the baseball community last week: Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, 64, had died suddenly overnight at his home in Chicago's western suburbs. The sense of loss hit Floyd hard, because he placed so much trust in Zielinski as a Thornwood High School senior, believing what this guy from the Montreal Expos kept telling his family before the 1991 draft. 

"Not one lie ever came out of this man’s mouth," Floyd said. "Stan was so genuine, man, and just so real with everything that a young kid needed."

The Cubs will miss that presence in the Wrigley Field clubhouse this week when team officials hold their kickoff meetings for the 2017 draft – and remember Zielinski's invaluable contributions to a World Series champion before Wednesday's funeral service at St. John the Baptist in Winfield.

Zielinski spoke with conviction and authority, scouting for the last 38 years and working for the Cubs since 2001, fitting into front offices run by Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein.

Zielinski could shift between the pro game and amateur scouting, recommending Hendry acquire Chris Archer from the Cleveland Indians in the Mark DeRosa trade and reinforcing what Epstein saw in Kyle Schwarber at Indiana University.

Zielinski, who went to Loyola Academy on the North Shore, could also make connections in South Holland with Floyd’s mother, Olivia, and father, Cornelius, convincing them that the Expos would take their son with the 14th overall pick, launching what became a 17-year career in the big leagues and a second act as a broadcaster with MLB Network and SiriusXM Radio.

"It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm," Floyd said, "in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households. You can’t just be one-dimensional.

"That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it.

"I'm a mama's boy. Stan realized he had to put the full-court press on her, or it's not going to work.

"The rest is pretty much history."

It became a two-man operation. Floyd, the Chicago Tribune's 1991 Athlete of the Year, had committed to play for Hendry at Creighton University. Standing in the family's driveway, Hendry asked Floyd what he wanted to do – turn pro – and told him he would go inside and try to influence Olivia.  

Hendry explained how he couldn't promise that he would be at Creighton forever. That candid admission eventually caught the attention of Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski, who would later help Hendry make the jump to pro baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins and make Floyd a part of the 1997 World Series team.

Zielinski arranged for the Expos to deliver a $290,000 bonus and a clause in the contract that included money for college, allowing Floyd to take some offseason business classes at DePaul University and please his mother.

"She was such a big advocate of education that she was like: 'You're going to college,'" Floyd said. "She was just so big on who was going to take care of her baby when I was finally out of her eyesight after 18 years.

"These two guys were literally godsend, bro. They were literally everything you could possibly want your kid to be involved with. Without one, maybe you couldn't have the other.

"But I think when you look at how it all transpired for me, it was crazy, because my mom was so strong-willed at getting you to see it her way or the highway.

"When he finally said, 'Your mom is on board,' I thought he was crazy. I go: 'Stan, get your ass out of here. There ain’t no way. She just told me last night she wouldn’t do it.'"

Fifteen years later, Zielinski helped Hendry put together a $10 million deal that infuriated Bud Selig – the Major League Baseball commissioner at the time – and priced a Notre Dame All-American out of the NFL draft.   

"I'm in debt to him big-time," Jeff Samardzija said. "The more I talked to (Stan), and the more I saw that he was watching me, (and) the more they really explained to me why they felt (it would work), it just started to make the option a little bit more realistic for me. Whereas before it was maybe just a long shot or a pipe dream to involve baseball in my professional life.

"Sometimes, it takes other people believing in you for you to really start believing in yourself. I know he saw me play more in college probably than any other scout or GM or crosschecker or whatever. I knew his opinion of me was pretty solid – and it wasn’t wavering."

Where the St. Louis Cardinals asked Samardzija "mind-game questions on if I remembered the scout’s name," Zielinski used the same direct approach that worked on the Floyd family, explaining how he would need to improve his off-speed pitches and really sharpen his slider to become the frontline starter the Cubs envisioned.

"(It's talking) to you with that tone that you’re not a kid – you’re a grown man," Samardzija said. "He was one of the few guys that talked to me about baseball, and not about trying to convince me to play baseball, if that makes sense.

"When I met with scouts, a lot of them were just trying to feel me out if I was serious about playing baseball, why I wanted to try and play two sports, things like that, trying to get in my head.

"That was never the case with Stan. It was more about baseball itself – the games I've pitched, my repertoire on the mound – which I found very refreshing. And that was a big reason why I was open to committing my future to the Cubs."

Before Samardzija got traded to the Oakland A's for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, Epstein had asked him to watch video of a college hitter who intrigued the Cubs with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft.

Zielinski – an area scout covering Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – recognized Schwarber's vicious left-handed swing and intangibles in the same way that he projected Samardzija’s 6-foot-5 frame and natural athleticism could translate into 200 innings a year and a $90 million investment from the San Francisco Giants. 

"There was nowhere to play him," Samardzija said, repeating the conventional wisdom that framed Schwarber with the Hoosiers. "This kind of describes Stan: 99 percent of the people look at the negatives. 'Ah, he can’t play here. He can’t play there.' Whereas a guy like Stan says: 'Well, timeout here. There’s something special that I like about this guy that we need to fit into the system, regardless.'

"In all sports, but especially baseball, it’s easy to get caught up in looking at the negatives and what a guy can’t do, instead of maybe possibly looking at what he can bring to the organization in a positive light.

"You've seen what Schwarber’s done for momentum for that team, with big hits and just a personality that fits. A guy like Stan, there's not too many of them out there that can see that side of things (and) not necessarily just nitpick at things kids can't do."

That’s what made Zielinski such an important voice inside the Cubs, even if you never really saw his name quoted in the newspaper or his face on TV. 

"Certain people have the knack," Floyd said. "He was never awkward. It was always fluid with our conversations. It was never where we sat down and it felt like: 'God, I can’t wait for this s--- to be over.' It was always cool, calm and collected. I loved it. That’s why I hurt so bad when I (found out and) got off the plane.

"I had to sit there for a second and just reflect on how wonderful this dude was."

Record-setting futility and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers Game 3

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USA TODAY

Record-setting futility and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Dodgers Game 3

The Los Angeles Dodgers are looking more and more like the 2016 Cubs.

But even the team that will live forever in baseball history didn't go up 3-0 on any opponent last fall.

The Dodgers continued to outplay the Cubs in every single facet of the game Tuesday night, stunning the Wrigley Field faithful and defending champs with a 6-1 victory.

In other words:

Deja vu?

At this point, it would be impossible to ignore the parallels to 2015.

The Cubs are now one game away from getting swept out of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Just like when they ran into the New York Mets' power pitching two years ago.

The Dodgers have run out Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Yu Darvish to mystify the Cubs while Alex Wood — who led baseball in winning percentage with a 16-3 record in the regular season — awaits for Game 4 Wednesday.

The Cubs offense has disappeared and they're getting upstaged by a team that led MLB with 104 wins.

What is it with these Taylors?

Dude, guys named Taylor absolutely kill the Cubs now, apparently.

After Michael A. Taylor nearly singlehandedly willed the Nationals past the Cubs in the NLDS, Chris Taylor is doing much the same thing with these Dodgers.

Chris Taylor wasn't a part of this series last fall and is making up for lost time this week. He has a run in every game of the series to go along with five hits, including a solo homer in Game 1 and a homer and an RBI triple in Game 3 Tuesday night.

Taylor came out of nowhere this year, bursting onto the scene with an .850 OPS, 21 homers, 17 stolen bases and 85 runs and he's been a difference-maker in this series.

All the right moves

Dave Roberts has pushed all the right buttons so far in this series.

After utilizing his bullpen in a perfect fashion the first two games in LA, Roberts then inserted veteran Andre Ethier and young centerfielder Joc Pederson into the lineup against right-handed Kyle Hendricks.

Ethier homered on the first pitch he saw Tuesday night, silencing the 41,871 fans at Wrigley Field after they just watched Kyle Schwarber stake their team to a 1-0 lead just a few minutes before.

Pederson led the fifth inning off with a double and came around to score the Dodgers' third run on Taylor's triple. Pederson's presence also pushed Taylor to shortstop, and we already know how that one worked out for Roberts and Co.

Roberts even, inexplicably, pulled back pinch-hitter Curtis Granderson and let Yu Darvish hit with the bases loaded and two outs in a tight ballgame in the top of the sixth and then watched as the pitcher with four career hits and one career walk stared at four straight balls from Carl Edwards Jr. to force in a run.

It's been quite a long time since something like that happened:

Walking the walk

To piggy-back off that Darvish base on balls, Cubs relievers have set a new record for postseason futility:

The number 23 holds a special place in the hearts of Chicagoans, but that is not the number they want to see here.

The Cubs bullpen that was among the game's best in the first half has flipped the script the last few months, unable to find any stability.

Remember, the Cubs were already looking pretty solid before they went out and added Justin Wilson at the trade deadline. To that point, Wilson had been one of the top relievers in baseball and there was a lot of talk about how great he'd look in the team's October 'pen.

Wilson isn't even active for this NLCS, though it's not like it mattered much.

(Not) talking the talk

The Cubs absolutely needed Bryzzo to step up if they were going to get back to the World Series for the second straight year.

But Bryant had just two harmless singles in Game 3 while Rizzo added a single in four trips to the plate. That hit broke an 0-for-16 stretch from Rizzo since he had that epic "Respect Me!" rant in Game 3 of the NLDS. 

But, it's not like anybody else is hitting much either.

Kyle Schwarber's home run in the first inning was the Cubs' only offense and they are now 0-4 this postseason when hitting a homer in a game. That's also the third straight game in which the Cubs jumped the Dodgers with an early homer and yet find themselves one game away from starting their winter earlier than desired.

Part of the Cubs' inability to add on is their complete befuddlement by the LA bullpen, setting a new record by going 0-for-26 against Dodger relievers to start the series:

All told, the Cubs are in a "sub-optimal" position right now, to borrow a phrase from Maddon.

But hey, there was always last year.

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

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USA TODAY

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

Is Cubs manager Joe Maddon taking the heat and covering for Wade Davis while the All-Star closer deals with atypical soreness in his right arm?

“No, no,” Maddon said Tuesday when asked if Davis felt anything unusual that lingered into the National League Championship Series after last week’s all-out effort eliminated the Washington Nationals from the divisional round.

The Los Angeles Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven bullpen battle without Davis throwing a single pitch, the backlash from Cubs fans, Twitter and the national media again putting Maddon on the defensive, the year after he got second-guessed for pushing Aroldis Chapman so hard during the World Series.

This NLCS truly is a bizarro world, with Maddon comparing the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, getting so little benefit of the doubt – the Cubs really did beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 – and working the baseball term “dry-hump” into one answer during Monday’s Wrigley Field press conference.

Maddon said he would have to check first with Davis – who would have almost five full days in between relief appearances – if the Cubs need a four- or five-out save in Game 3.

“Nevertheless, I always check,” Maddon said. “I can’t just assume that.”

Maddon’s Game 2 calculus on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium – sticking with lefty reliever Brian Duensing in a 1-1 game to start the ninth inning and then bringing in John Lackey to serve up the walk-off, three-run homer to Justin Turner – made you wonder if Davis was still dragging after ending Washington’s season and traveling on the overnight cross-country flight that got diverted to New Mexico for about five hours when Jose Quintana’s wife experienced a panic attack.

“I think he just got mentally exhausted,” Maddon said. “Physically, 44 pitches, he hasn’t done that in a while. But also the seven outs and what it meant and the plane ride itself, sitting on the tarmac, there was a lot of non-rest going on right there, so it was harder to recover.

“So, no, he was fine for the last game, but we set up the parameters before the game.”

Maddon is sticking with his story, that he would only deploy Davis in a save situation and not use him for one out against Turner (1.115 career postseason OPS) or have him totally warm up without the guarantee of getting him into the game.

“To put Wade in that position would be wrong on my part,” Maddon said. “We had already talked about the circumstances, so my loyalty there lies with Wade, or my decision-making lies with Wade, nobody else.

“That was a heavy day for him (in Washington). Going into the last game in L.A., like I talked about, we talked about one inning only, and not to get up and not put him in the game.

“If you get him up and sit him down, then you have no idea what it’s going to look like. My responsibility is to him, also, and to the players, so I told him that before the game, so I had to stick with our decision.”

Before finalizing the Jorge Soler trade at the winter meetings, the Kansas City Royals took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to meet with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley and go through a physical exam. The Cubs wanted reassurances after Davis spent parts of last season on the disabled list with a forearm strain and a flexor strain.

The Cubs wondered if “dry-humping” had contributed to those injuries, and tried to stay conservative with Davis during his free-agent year, watching him convert his first 32 save chances and using him for three-plus outs only three times during the regular season, all in mid-to-late September.

“If you look at the numbers this year, I thought going into the playoffs his usage has been really good,” Maddon said. “Minimal, in a sense. We didn’t get him up hardly at all where we didn’t utilize him.

“He just wasn’t set up for it the other day. So honestly, I think he’s in really good shape right now, actually. I don’t think he could have gone those seven outs the other day if he had been overly dried up during the course of the season. He felt good. But that was above and beyond, and that wasn’t part of the game plan the other night.”