CINCINNATI – Flooded with offers, Ben Zobrist turned down the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals – three teams the Cubs could potentially face in the playoffs – because he believed in The Plan, closing a four-year, $56 million deal by the winter meetings for the chance to make history in Chicago.
Zobrist has been exactly what the Cubs wanted, a patient switch-hitter to set an example for a young lineup, a versatile defender who can play all over the field and an insightful clubhouse presence. But that contract should really pay off in October, the way the Kansas City Royals added dimensions to last year’s World Series winner with a trade-deadline deal for Zobrist.
“Talent really doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Zobrist said. “Every team that’s going to be there is talented. But that talent makes less of a difference when you’re playing against those caliber teams. It really comes down to execution.
“The teams that execute – the teams that make the pitch, make the play, have the good at-bat when they need it – are the teams that win. Regular season is what it is. We’ve had a great season. We know that we’re probably the best team that’s out there regular season. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything for the postseason.”
One week out from the roar at Wrigley Field and the playoffs Cubs fans have been waiting for since the Mets swept last year’s National League Championship Series, Camp Joe Maddon crossed another day off the bizarro spring-training calendar with Friday night’s 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from a 102-win machine rolling over a last-place team, especially when the winning pitcher (Jake Buchanan) throws five scoreless innings in his first appearance in 25 days. But Maddon has seen enough of Zobrist to know when he’s looking “very frisky and ready to roll.”
Zobrist ended Josh Smith’s perfect game by leading off the fifth inning and drilling a ball into the right-field seats. Zobrist nailed another ball in the eighth inning, a two-run homer off Abel De Los Santos that landed in the same general area, the crowd chanting “Let’s go, Cubbies!” as Reds manager Bryan Price walked out toward the mound for a pitching change.
“He thrives at this time of the year,” Maddon said. “It means a lot. Because when you get guys who have been there, done that – especially (someone) pretty solid regarding his daily approach – it will definitely rub off in a positive way on the other guys.”
It’s one thing to have a strong relationship with Maddon and believe the recruiting pitch from team president Theo Epstein. It’s another to see the vision come to life across 160 games, in an industry where the teams that win the offseason typically buckle under the pressure.
Zobrist – who played in six postseason series with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays and put up an .880 OPS in 16 games during Kansas City’s World Series run – believes the Cubs have what it takes to become that special team.
“For sure,” Zobrist said. “Just based on the mix of personalities and character and players that we have in this room individually.
“You know that when you put them together, it’s a ‘super-team’ of sorts. We really have to prove our record right, prove people right that we can do it when it counts. And that’s going to be the most important thing going into the postseason.”
Zobrist has lived up to his end of the bargain, with this 3-for-4 night boosting his numbers to 17 homers and 75 RBI and pushing his OPS to .830. He has more walks (95) than strikeouts (80), getting on base almost 39 percent of the time in the middle of what could be an all-or-nothing lineup last year.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Zobrist said. “Everybody’s going to be hyped up and excited and a little bit anxious to play that first game in the postseason.
“Just simplify it. It’s an individual thing to not allow the other stuff to get in your way of doing your job and just trying to focus. And even when you focus, sometimes the other team just executes a little bit better. There’s just a level of consistency and calmness that as a player you have to find to be able to perform at that level.
“We have a lot of guys that have already done it. We got a lot of guys that already have that in their makeup. They need to feel that and experience that come postseason.”