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.”