Cubs

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Cubs

NEW YORK – Ben Zobrist broke down all the issues with this lineup – youth, injuries, fatigue, underperformance – before getting to the “Embrace The Target” reality for the Cubs. 

“Every team we’re playing is gunning for us,” Zobrist said Saturday inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse, near the end of a 10-minute diagnosis of what’s gone wrong with the offense. “They know we got the best record in the league. And they’re showing up to play against us. They’re not showing up like this to play against other teams. Some of these pitchers are pitching their best game against us.”           

That’s why the Cubs made engineering the Zobrist deal such a priority during the offseason, knowing what his switch-hitting presence meant to the Kansas City Royals last year and how he handled the New York Mets and their power pitchers during the World Series. But being the hunted is still different than Zobrist’s experiences with small-market, underdog teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland A’s and even the Royals. 

Zobrist isn’t panicking, but he also isn’t glossing over losing series to the Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins since the middle of June. Or how the Cubs scored only five runs combined – four via homers – while losing the first two games in this National League Championship Series rematch. 

 

“We need to make some strides with this team,” Zobrist said, “in regards to knowing when you’re facing guys that throw 98 (mph), learn how to cut down and have a better two-strike approach.

“We’re going to have to shorten up our swings and take our singles and things that this team is not generally the best at. We still need some growth in regards to that. But that’s part of the reason why they signed me – to be a better example of that and make more contact.

“That was a big reason why that Royals team was successful.”

After never having a lead at any point during New York’s four-game NLCS sweep, the Cubs wanted to upgrade a young lineup by signing Zobrist to a four-year, $56 million deal (the Mets offered $60 million), giving Jason Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history (eight years, $184 million) and reuniting with Dexter Fowler in spring training (one-year, $13 million guarantee). 

“Part of that’s just maturity,” said Zobrist, pointing to how Max Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 hitters he faced and took a perfect game into the sixth inning during Washington’s 4-1 playoff-atmosphere victory on June 13. 

“(It’s knowing) at the start of the at-bat: ‘OK, get him here and just do that with it.’ Don’t like think he’s going to leave one right up over the plate that you can crush and you’re going to hit it 500 feet.’ It’s not going to happen.”

The Cubs are a different team with Fowler (.398 on-base percentage) at the top of the order, but it’s unclear if this hamstring injury will keep their leadoff guy on the disabled list through the All-Star break. Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella are also on the disabled list with hamstring injuries during a 24-games-in-24-days stretch. 

Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras have created energy and exciting moments, but those rookies are still learning on the job. Heyward (.646 OPS) hasn’t shown the offensive upside the Cubs envisioned. Zobrist is having an All-Star-caliber season at the age of 35, yet he also understands he’s been chasing more bad pitches in June (.708 OPS) than May (1.137 OPS). 

“You’re going to expand the zone when you got guys that are throwing heat, because you got to start your swing a little earlier,” Zobrist said. “Some of that is you’re tired. We’re in the time of the summer where there’s no break. We got 24 straight right now, so we got to summon the mental energy to make up for the physical energy that we’re lacking. 

“We’re regularly seeing guys that are throwing 97. It’s like not even a big deal when you face a guy now that’s throwing 97, because we’ve seen it so much. But when that happens, what I’m trying to do right now is get back to my zone, take a heater and just slap it.

 

“Instead of: You see it and your body wants to go, because you just get into these patterns sometimes where when you get tired, your body tries to make up for it (and) you try to do too much. 

“That’s naturally what is happening across the board here. We’ve had injuries that have kind of kept us from being able to have blows regularly like we had in April and May. It’s just been more difficult to manufacture runs and have better at-bats because of it.”

It’s not predicting doom and gloom to point out the Cubs have crushed the Cincinnati Reds and struggled against certain playoff contenders. This also goes in cycles, a best-in-baseball start bought the Cubs time to work through these issues and all those young hitters have so much room to grow. 

“When we face these good teams, their pitchers are not having off nights right now,” Zobrist said. “Granted, we’re not forcing them into that as much, because we’re chasing some of the time. But even when I go back and look at my charts and I look at where the pitchers were, I’m going: ‘Are they that good?’ 

“I look at the box and every pitch is like right on the corner – out here, out there. There’s nothing in the middle of the plate and I’m going: ‘How am I supposed to have a good at-bat when they’re throwing them right there?’ You just can’t. If they’re throwing there and they’re throwing 89, that’s one thing. But they’re throwing there and they’re throwing 97. 

“You’re not going to hit 97 if he puts it on the corner. You just got to tip your cap on those days.”

Like when Jacob deGrom – New York’s homegrown Rookie of the Year/All-Star – doesn’t seem at all bothered by a rain delay and shuts down the Cubs for five innings (one run, three hits, seven strikeouts, one walk) during Friday’s 10-2 blowout in Queens.    

“He was not giving us good pitches to hit,” Zobrist said. “He would go down, down on the corners here. And then all of a sudden, he would throw one that looks like it’s at the belt – and it ends up here (around your chest). But there was nothing in the middle of that. There was nothing right here where you want it. 

 

“Those days are tough, but we got to find a way to get back in that groove.”