The Cubs saw Ben Zobrist as a missing piece to their World Series puzzle, a clutch switch-hitter to diversify their lineup, a versatile defender who could move all over Wrigley Field and a steady clubhouse presence for their young players.
Zobrist could have signed with the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets or Washington Nationals, all playoff teams with sturdy talent bases in cosmopolitan cities. The Cubs didn’t even put the biggest offer on the table at four years and $56 million.
But no one else could match the built-in trust factor with manager Joe Maddon after their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays. Or the proximity to his family’s roots in downstate Illinois and offseason home in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Plus, 1908 and the lure of being part of the Cubs team that finally ends more than a century of heartbreak.
The Cubs return to the National League Championship Series as a stronger, deeper, more experienced team than the one the Mets swept out last year. Zobrist’s performance for the Kansas City Royals during that World Series run (.880 OPS in 16 playoff games) didn’t change the evaluation for Theo Epstein’s front office. It only reinforced the belief in a player the Cubs had already tried to acquire from the Rays and Oakland A’s.
“I told them on the phone last year that I want to help them get those last eight wins,” Zobrist said after Thursday’s workout at Wrigley Field. “They had the Division Series last year, but they couldn’t get it done in the NLCS.
“This is exactly where I envisioned our team being when I was deciding who to sign with and what that might look like. So far, all that’s come to pass.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Beyond setting an example for their young position players, the Cubs understood Zobrist could handle elite velocity, different styles of pitching, situational hitting and the pressure-packed moments. Remember, the Cubs didn’t lead at any point during last year’s NLCS, completely shut down by New York’s power arms.
That grinding approach paid off during that Game 4 ninth-inning flurry against the Giants on Tuesday night at AT&T Park. Zobrist drove an RBI double into the right-field corner off Sergio Romo as the Cubs wiped out a 5-2 deficit and eliminated the franchise that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
“We know that we’re good,” Zobrist said. “We believe that we’re the best team. But you still have to execute – and you got to make it happen in those big situations. To be able to do that (there) with a hostile crowd and all the things that went into it – I think it definitely took our confidence to the next level.”
As a sign of respect and gratitude, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore drove to St. Louis in April to personally deliver a World Series ring to Zobrist, who showed off the bling as a reminder to his teammates before a game against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
“We still have our work cut out for us,” Zobrist said. “My ultimate goal in signing here is to win a championship. And that’s (why) everybody’s here. We’re close to that. We have a chance to do that now.”