Cubs

Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

The Cubs were due for a close game and they almost got it Thursday evening. 

After steamrolling the second-place Pirates over the three-game series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs looked ticketed for a nail-biting victory over the Washington Nationals in the series opener at Wrigley Field.

Instead, Ben Zobrist channeled his "Zorilla" alter-ego and smashed a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers with two outs in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 5-2 Cubs victory in front of 37,564 fans.

The Cubs were leading 5-0 with two outs in the ninth before Travis Wood served up a two-run shot to Jayson Werth, making those "jug runs" (Cubs manager Joe Maddon likens late inning insurance runs to stepping on the jugular of their opponent) all the more important.

"That's big right there," Maddon said of Zobrist's home run. "The jug runs in the eighth - they're always big when you have a lead. Two outs, to go from two to four kinda hurt [the Nationals] a little bit. Then we get another run, the extra tack on.

"Now, of course we would've worked the ninth inning differently had we not scored those runs, so you never know the outcome if Werth would've hit the home run."

Zobrist drove in the first four runs in the game - he also had a two-run single through the right side in the fourth inning to plate Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant) - and is now second on the Cubs with 20 RBI on the season.

Two batters after Zobrist's blast, Addison Russell drove home Ryan Kalish with a double to left field, pushing the Cubs' run differential to a ridiculous +96 on the season.

"We're off to a good start," Cubs catcher David Ross said, "but we don't sit on the bench and talk about run differential or on-base percentage. We try to have good at-bats. 

"Guys are going up there and doing their thing pitching. Everybody's out to do their best on a daily basis and I think that's the sign of a good team."

Despite the Nationals' late comeback attempt, Zobrist still provided all the offense Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs bullpen needed.

Hendricks spun six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a pair of walks, striking out four.

"Outstanding," Maddon said. "He was really good. I complimented him on it as I was taking him out of the game. ... Really sharp with everything."

It was the first start for Hendricks in 10 days as the Cubs essentially skipped his turn in the rotation when they were handed two rainouts last week.

"It felt good, honestly," Hendricks said. "It didn't really feel like I missed anything. I threw a lot in between those 10 days. I [threw] off the mound every other day, almost. I think that helped just keeping up with the reps to keep sharp, but I felt good. Really good."

The Cubs are now 33-17 in Hendricks' first 50 career starts, the best record in a pitcher's first 50 starts since 1945-47 (Hank Borowy).

Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop combined for two shutout innings and Hector Rondon recorded the final out as the Cubs kicked off this crucial four-game series by flying the "W" flag at Wrigley.

The Cubs now lead the majors with 21 victories, but because they've been winning by such lopsided scores, they only have four saves. 

Zobrist said he's never been on a team that was 15 games over .500 this early in the season.

"This is a really good team," he said shortly after Thursday's victory. "We've played good baseball. Tonight was another good example of that. But we're focused on winning tomorrow now. It's over. We're gonna celebrate for a half hour, and that half hour is about up, so it's time to focus on tomorrow and try and win a day game tomorrow."

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Joe Maddon wants Cubs fans to cheer for Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

Why can't a trade be looked at as a win-win? 

There doesn't always have to be a clear winner and loser.

Prior to Jose Quintana taking the ball for Saturday's game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field, Joe Maddon was asked about the players (Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease) the Cubs gave up to acquire Quintana as well as the deal with the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman in July 2016.

Gleyber Torres is absolutely killing it in New York, hitting .323 with a 1.014 OPS, 9 homers and 24 RBI in only 29 games. Six of those homers have come in the last week alone. 

With the White Sox, both Jimenez and Cease have found success in Double-A and Advanced Class-A, respectively.

Jimenez is hitting .331 with a .992 OPS, 9 homers and 35 RBI in 35 games. Cease is 6-2 with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 57 strikeouts in 47.2 innings.

As the Cubs work to get their offense settled into a consistent groove, some Cubs fans have been looking at what might've been with guys like Torres and Jimenez.

"You can't have it both ways, man," Maddon said. "I'm happy for Gleyber. When he left, we talked about it. And we talked about the kids that went to the White Sox. It's good stuff. 

"I'm really disappointed if anybody's disappointed in the fact we won the World Series in 2016 and the fact that the guy we're talking about that we had to give up Gleyber for was so instrumental in that happening. That's bad process if you're gonna get stuck on something like that. Be happy for Gleyber. Be happy for him."

Maddon has been a fan of Torres' since he saw him in spring training in 2015, Maddon's first year in the Cubs organization.

"This kid's 21, with high, high baseball intellect," Maddon said. "He's very similar to Javy on the field. I've had some great conversations with him in the past. 

"The first time I saw him in spring training, I thought this guy's for real. It was like one at-bat, line drive to RF, I said who is this guy? And then you have a conversation with him. He's solid."

Maddon's point is a great one — would Cubs fans prefer to still have Torres and NOT have the 2016 World Series championship? Because that title doesn't happen without Chapman, regardless of how you feel about him as a person or what the Cubs had to give up to acquire him.

"Don't play that game," Maddon said. "Be happy for [Torres]. I'm gonna be happy when Eloy and Dylan make it up here. All these dudes, I want them to get here and be really good. And the guys that we get, I want them to be really good. 

"I don't understand why somebody's gotta lose all the time. This is an absolute classic example of what was good for both teams."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

An off-day did nothing to slow down the 1998 National League MVP as Sosa collected his second straight 2-homer game May 27 of that season.

He went deep in the eighth and ninth innings of a Cubs' 10-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, driving in 3 runs. 

The first homer - off Darrin Winston - was an absolute blast, traveling an estimated 460 feet. The second shot was tame in comparison with only 400 feet as a recorded distance.

In a matter of two games, Sosa raised his season OPS from .930 to .988 and his slugging percentage from .521 to .577 thanks to a pair of 2-homer contests.

Fun fact: Doug Glanville - former Cubs outfielder and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst - was the Phillies leadoff hitter that day in 1998, collecting three hits and scoring a pair of runs.