How Cubs see Ben Zobrist as a missing piece for NLCS breakthrough

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist as a missing piece for NLCS breakthrough

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.”

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."