Ben Zobrist felt like he had been playing catch-up all year, from the back-to-back World Series runs with the Kansas City Royals and the legendary 2016 Cubs, to the series of injuries that broke his kinetic chain as a switch-hitter, to the natural slowdown for a professional athlete at the age of 36.
But this has been Zobrist’s time of the year, as the cutting-edge super-utility guy for the Tampa Bay Rays, the trade-deadline rental who changed Kansas City’s lineup and the marquee free agent setting a Cubs Way example for the organization’s young sluggers.
The Washington Nationals will have to account for Zobrist, a variable within Joe Maddon’s lineup matrix and the kind of clutch hitter who could change a best-of-five National League Division Series with one swing.
“He’s really trending in the right direction,” said Maddon, who first managed Zobrist with the 2006 Devil Rays. “He wanted to play nine innings the other day in a game that nobody else wanted to. He’s bouncing around. He feels really good. He’s riding his bike to Little League games.”
That was Zobrist cruising down Damen Avenue in full uniform on Saturday and stopping by Hamlin Park to take pictures and sign autographs before going to work at Wrigley Field. That is better than getting treatment in the training room for a player who dealt with a stiff neck in spring training and sat out with a stiff back early in the season. A sore left wrist – which could be traced back to an awkward swing at Dodger Stadium on Memorial Day weekend – sapped his hand speed, cut his time to work on mechanics in the batting cage and diminished his innate ability to crush fastballs.
“I actually feel the best I’ve felt all year right now,” Zobrist said. “About Game 156, I felt like I finally got my legs under me. Hopefully, it’s good timing, but I wish it would’ve happened a little bit earlier.”
Zobrist basically had two good months in May (.849 OPS) and August (.792 OPS), finishing with 12 homers and 50 RBI overall while getting on base almost 32 percent of the time. But it would still be difficult to keep him out of Friday night’s Game 1 lineup at Nationals Park, because he has guts, dependable defensive skills and the capability to handle elite velocity and different styles of pitching.
Think of Zobrist’s four-year, $56 million contract as the offensive equivalent to investing $155 million in Jon Lester to stabilize the rotation.
“He absolutely delivered in a best-case-scenario-type-way for us,” team president Theo Epstein said. “He was really brought in to be someone who would deliver consistent, professional at-bats and work the strike zone, work the count, stay disciplined, get pitches he could drive. (He would) walk and get on base and hit good pitching and compete, day in, day out, (every) at-bat.
“We needed that to complement some of our strikeout tendencies. We wanted it as a model for our younger hitters as they to continue to grow.
“He was the right player at the right time.”
Zobrist believes he can be that money player again, knowing that the Nationals are now the team feeling the pressure to finally deliver in October.
“We have the well of experience,” Zobrist said, “to know that in those moments there’s nothing that we’re going to back down from or cower at.”