Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”
The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.
“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”
Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.
But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup.
Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.
Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.
“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.
“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”
After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.
Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.
“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.
“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”
At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.
“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’
“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.
“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.
“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”
Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.