Ben Zobrist breaks down the 2017 Cubs so far

Ben Zobrist breaks down the 2017 Cubs so far

Just as the Cubs invested $155 million in Jon Lester to stabilize their pitching staff, Ben Zobrist has absolutely been the right player at the right time on the hitting side, setting an example with his patient approach, taking pressure off the rest of the lineup and driving away with a 50th anniversary edition convertible Camaro for his World Series MVP performance.

Zobrist commands respect in the clubhouse as a self-made player with an unselfish attitude who will turn 36 later this month and hasn’t slowed down yet. It’s hard to find a Cub with better big-picture perspective, given his roots in downstate Illinois, long journey from undrafted to All-Star, history with manager Joe Maddon and collection of World Series rings.

Zobrist doesn’t buy the target-is-bigger theory for the defending champs. It’s the new normal for a marquee team that went into Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field at 16-15 and in third place in the National League Central.

“It was pretty big last year as it was because of the moves in the offseason,” Zobrist said. “Everybody knows across the league how good we are, obviously, after watching last year. We’re kind of ‘the team’ to beat.

“If they’re going to beat any team – or say that they had a good series – they’re going to try to beat us. I think we’re getting everybody’s best. I felt like we were getting that in June last year, though.”

Zobrist has a unique ability to break down the team without overreacting or sugarcoating. He can criticize without making it personal and give context without making excuses.

As the Cubs faded last year – losing 15 of their last 20 games before the All-Star break – Zobrist explained the impact of a brutal schedule and how teams are “gunning for us” and suggested that trying to hit a Max Scherzer fastball 500 feet might not be a good idea.

When players started grumbling and second-guessing Maddon’s spring-training approach after the Cubs clinched the division title, Zobrist acknowledged the clubhouse frustration in a routine-oriented game and then pointed to the overall goal of staying fresh for October. 

Even if the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers have made strides in their rebuilding programs, how much faith do you have in those small-market teams playing .500 through September, much less adding at the trade deadline and winning 85-plus games?  

The Cubs possess the high-end talent and big-game experience to win playoff series, but a big idea behind this roster is having the redundancies and versatility to withstand the 162-game marathon.   

“We were exhausted,” Zobrist said, after playing 24 games in 24 days last summer. “But everybody it seemed like was throwing their best games and we were just kind of getting everybody’s best for that middle of the season. As the year wore on and everybody got tired, it was harder to keep pace with us, because we were just so deep.

“We’ve started this year a little bit – obviously – more tired than we were last year and these other teams are all geared up to play us. And it’s just taken us longer to kind of get it going and really answer the bell, so to speak.”

The pitching is an immediate concern and a long-term issue. Brett Anderson is on the disabled list again with an 8.18 ERA and Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are positioned to become free agents after this season. The Theo Epstein regime is still waiting to produce an impact homegrown pitcher.

But right now it’s hard to find a team more heavily and as successfully invested in offense. All the answers for this lineup will eventually have to come from within.

The Cubs have already played 13 one-run games, four that went into extra innings and five that ended in walk-off fashion. The Cubs have so far played only three games in a stadium with a roof (Miller Park) and zero in a warm-weather city. The first-pitch temperature at Wrigley Field has been 50 degrees or below 11 times through 16 home games.

“It’s tough to get bats going in any of that,” Zobrist said. “I think some of that’s just getting in the flow, kind of getting the feel of a new season.

“We’ll score a lot of runs (as) everybody gets hot. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) now is getting hot. (Anthony) Rizzo is going to get hot. All of us are going to get hot. And when it happens, it’s going to be scary how many runs we score.”

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching


That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.