Cubs

How do you like Ben Zobrist now?

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USA TODAY

How do you like Ben Zobrist now?

Too old, too slow, not Javy enough, living off the past: How do you like Ben Zobrist now?

Zobrist is too polite to put those two World Series rings on his middle fingers before answering any questions about how creaky his body feels at the age of 36, or why Cubs manager Joe Maddon would dare to put Javier Baez on the bench for a playoff game.

Zobrist is an easy target now on Twitter or talk radio. Even he recognizes Baez’s unbelievable talents and admits the injuries dragged him into an offensive spiral where he felt off for almost the entire regular season. But he also has guts, absolutely no fear of facing the best pitchers on the planet on the game’s biggest stages.

So there was Zobrist on Monday at Wrigley Field, waving at the home dugout from second base after ending Max Scherzer’s no-hitter with one out in the seventh inning, finally knocking the Washington Nationals ace out of Game 3 in this National League Division Series.

Dusty Baker walked out to the mound to take the ball away from his $210 million pitcher with a bad hamstring in a one-run game – and maybe wave goodbye to Washington’s 2017 season.

“I wouldn’t have taken him the way he was pitching,” Zobrist said after a pulsating 2-1 win that shoved the Nationals to the brink of elimination.

Slowly absorbing the information from each at-bat, Zobrist had been 1-for-10 against Washington until he slammed Scherzer’s 95-mph fastball into the left-center field gap, the crowd of 42,445 suddenly coming alive again.

This could be another tipping point with the switch-hitter who delivered so many times during last year’s playoff run, from keying the ninth-inning rally that killed the myths about the even-year San Francisco Giants, to dropping the bunt that helped end a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers, to becoming the World Series MVP in Cleveland.

“I’ve been calling him Benjamin Button for a while,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “The guy prepares. He never stops preparing, in game, before the game, after the game. So when you see him do it, you’re like: Of course.”

[MORE CUBS-NATS: Game 3 swung on managers lifting their starting pitchers: Why did Maddon, Baker do what they did?]

Seven pitches later, pinch-hitter Albert Almora Jr. drilled a line-drive single into left-center field off lefty reliever Sammy Solis, Zobrist racing to score the game-tying run as the press box started shaking.

As Maddon said when he looked at Scherzer’s unbelievable numbers against right-handed hitters and explained the Zobrist-over-Baez decision at second base: “You can’t run away from him and his track record at this time of the year.”

“You try to focus on what you can control and block out the rest,” said Zobrist, who is looking for a personal three-peat after putting up an .880 OPS in 16 playoff games with the 2015 Kansas City Royals. “When you know you’ve done it before, it’s a little bit easier to stay calm in those moments.

“The focus comes from a lot of experience and confidence and really just knowing you’re controlling the little things that you can control.

“When your back’s against the wall, you just got to focus on one thing at a time. That’s what this team has done a great job of doing, and we’ll keep doing that.”

Zobrist didn’t make Maddon look like a genius when he botched a routine Bryce Harper groundball, putting runners on the corners for Anthony Rendon before Heyward bailed him out by making a running catch on the warning track in right field to end the third inning.

Zobrist also boosted young reliever Carl Edwards Jr. – who got burned by a bad curveball to Harper in a Game 2 loss – with a diving stop to steal a hit from speedster Trea Turner and change the momentum leading off the eighth inning.

This is what Zobrist does in October.

“We believe in all of our guys,” Zobrist said. “There’s kind of a rotating thing going on where you don’t know who’s going to start on any given day. We’ve accepted that as a club.

“We all stay focused and flexible in that moment, to be ready either to come off the bench or start the game. I didn’t think anything else about it. I just wanted to be prepared. Sometimes, it takes a few at-bats.”

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

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USA TODAY

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

Families gather and people talk about things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, but what are Chicago sports fans happy for now?

Raised expectations on the North Side

Got to be thankful that a “disappointing” season is winning the division and losing in the NLCS. The expectations have skyrocketed, and that’s thanks to a ridiculous nucleus of bats and a steady front office. Not many clubs can say that. Also, though, it’s important to be appreciative of the Wrigley bar stretch. They may charge $8 for a Miller Lite, but it’s always a damn good party.

Javy tags, too. Don't forget Javy tags.

Rebuild sparking hope in White Sox fans

Where to begin? Obviously, be thankful for the plethora of young talent that will soon take over the South Side. Be thankful for Avi Time (while you still can). Be thankful that taking your friends or family to a game won’t cause you to take out a second mortgage. Be thankful for the 2020 World Series and, of course, 2020 MVP Eloy Jimenez. But most importantly, be thankful that Rick Hahn’s phone stays buzzing.

Eddie O back in the booth for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are having a rough start to the season, but at least Eddie Olczyk is back in the booth. The longtime Blackhawks broadcaster returned to the booth on Oct. 18 after missing time while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer.

With some of the key names from the Blackhawks’ title runs either leaving or being unable to play this season (in the case of Marian Hossa), Blackhawks fans are probably thankful to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice during games.

Lauri Markkanen leading the Bulls rebuild

OK, there’s not much to be thankful for about the current Bulls team. At 3-13, the Bulls are tied for the fewest wins in the NBA (maybe in the long-term that’s something to be thankful for as well). However, Zach LaVine’s pending debut after his eventual return from injury should help create some excitement.

The thing Bulls fans really should be thankful for this year is the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The 20-year-old leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounds (8.3 per game) while shooting at a high percentage (34.2 percent on threes and 50.6 percent on twos). It’s only the beginning of the Bulls’ rebuild, but Markkanen is a good start.

Mitchapalooza

If a few things broke the Bears’ way, Chicagoans could have been grateful that the team was finally out of the cellar. Instead, we’ll settle for the fact that there seems to be some building blocks already in place. Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks seem to fit that category. Also, some may be thankful that this is likely John Fox’s last season at the helm.

Fire ending a playoff drought

After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire were one of the most improved teams in the league in 2017. After posting the third best record in the league, the Fire made a first playoff appearance since 2012.

The playoff run didn’t last long with the Fire losing a play-in game at home, but the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s leading goal-scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, helped fill the stadium with six sellouts and gave Fire fans something to cheer for.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Where do Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis?

In the latest CubsTalk Podcast, Kelly Crull and David Kaplan look ahead to Thanksgiving and discuss the official coaching hires for the Cubs.

They also talk about where the Cubs go from here with Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis, whether Alex Cobb could factor into the rotation plans and Kap goes off on the 11:30 a.m. Opening Day start time.

Check out the entire podcast here: