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.”
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.”