Cubs

Cardinals ‘irrelevant’ when Cubs need to start playing their game again after third straight loss

Cardinals ‘irrelevant’ when Cubs need to start playing their game again after third straight loss

ST. LOUIS – Fireworks went off at Busch Stadium late Monday night, the St. Louis Cardinals rushing from their dugout and forming a mosh pit at home plate, a familiar scene during those long rebuilding years for the Cubs.   

Eliminating the Cardinals from the playoffs last October changed the feel of the rivalry, and so did stealing John Lackey and Jason Heyward away from a 100-win team, plus all the hype that surrounded Camp Maddon and the best start in baseball.     

But there was Randal Grichuk with two outs in the ninth inning against Cubs reliever Adam Warren, blasting a walk-off homer 382 feet over the right-field fence and into the St. Louis bullpen for a 4-3 victory and a reminder that the Cardinals are still the defending division champs. 

“It’s a long season,” Lackey said. “They’re a good team. They’ll be fine. We got to worry about ourselves, man. They’re kind of irrelevant. If we play our game, we’ll be OK.”  

Grichuk wouldn’t have been in position to get the ice shower during the postgame on-field TV interview if Lackey hadn’t given up a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer to pinch-hitter Matt Adams in the seventh inning, ruining what had been a dominant start to that point. 

But the Cardinals (24-21) are known for pouncing on mistakes here, even as a third-place team that hasn’t been playing up to the franchise’s usual standards. After losing three in a row for the first time this season – and eight of their last 12 – the Cubs now have a six-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central.   

“We need to play better, 100 percent,” said Lackey, who gave up three runs in seven innings. “But ‘worry’ I think is a strong word. We’re doing OK.” 

The Cubs (29-14) had their chance in the ninth inning against St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. With runners on the corners and one out, Anthony Rizzo got jammed on a 97-mph fastball and popped a ball toward third base. Matt Carpenter dove forward and made the catch. With Dexter Fowler already breaking for home plate, Carpenter crawled toward third base and tapped the bag with his glove for the double play.

That symbolized some of the frustration and bad luck for Rizzo, who had pointed to the sky after a broken-bat RBI single off Adam Wainwright in the fifth inning, snapping a 1-for-27 streak and giving the Cubs a 3-1 lead. 

This isn’t the same team when Rizzo’s not producing and Heyward’s sidelined and young hitters like Jorge Soler and Addison Russell are still making adjustments.   

“We just slowed down a little bit offensively,” said Ben Zobrist, speaking for the rest of the group after a 3-for-4 night extended his streak of reaching base safely in each of his last 29 starts. “We’re just having a harder time squaring the ball up and that’s the way it goes sometimes. We just got to work through it and battle.

“It is frustrating a little bit, but it’s still so early, We weren’t thinking too high of ourselves. We know it’s a long season. We just got to get back to the grind again.” 

The Cubs were never going to score eight runs every night and sustain a .700-plus winning percentage for an entire season. If there are signs of frustration, the Cubs kept them hidden inside the visiting clubhouse.

“You try and minimize these spots,” Zobrist said. “We talked about this at the beginning of the season. We knew there was going to be some lulls. We got hot at the beginning and now we’ve gotten cold the last couple weeks. So we have to find the middle ground and get back to playing good baseball.”  

Of course, manager Joe Maddon played it cool inside his office while talking with reporters, projecting calm for the cameras. There are no trades for hitters to be made overnight and Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, either. But the Cardinals are still coming and the Cubs will have to ride this out.   

“As long as they come ready to play every day, I know we’ll get back on another good run,” Maddon said. “And then eventually this will be a thing of the past. It’s inevitable.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.