Cubs

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues so well after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

“I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep this up, to be honest,” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It just helps when you feel like things are going well up and down the lineup and we’re going to score a lot of runs. It kind of frees your mind up to be able to just try to see the ball and hit it.” 

That’s what Zobrist did in the third inning against Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his 2016 resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

Zobrist launched a three-run homer that flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

“He did have it when he was a baby – he always had a good eye at the plate,” Maddon said. “The difference is when guys get a little bit older, a lot of times they have to commit to pitches sooner. That’s when it goes away, and that’s when they start chasing a little bit more. He’s still quick and short to the ball, so he doesn’t have to commit early.

“He’s covering a greater variety of pitches more consistently. Off-speed, fastball, he’s covering everything probably better than he did when he was younger.” 

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” Zobrist said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick. And you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“Man, he’s raking,” pitcher John Lackey said. “When he gets up at the plate right now, we’re just kind of wondering which direction the hit’s going to go. When he gets out, it’s more of a surprise."

Zobrist probably won’t win a batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base 45 percent of the time. He pointed out that he didn’t have great at-bats on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

Maddon keeps thinking about how to manage the workload, to make sure Zobrist stays healthy throughout the season and fresh for October, and thinks focusing on one position (second base) should help. But right now, Zobrist is in the zone.  

“Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding napkins down in the wind,” Zobrist said. “I got to do this and this and this and this. And then you got the ball coming at you. But lately I haven’t even had to do that. That’s the crazy thing about it. After I do my pregame work, I feel pretty locked.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”