Cubs

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

Cubs in sink-or-swim mode with Nationals looming: ‘Keep the floaties on’

MIAMI – Jon Jay walked into a quiet clubhouse late Sunday morning, turned right and headed directly toward the sound system in one corner of the room, plugging his phone into the sound system and playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

The Cubs outfielder whistled as he changed into his work clothes at Marlins Park, singing along to the lyrics with Anthony Rizzo a few lockers over: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.” 

That’s what the Cubs keep telling themselves, because most of them have World Series rings and the National League Central is such a bad division.

“The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,” manager Joe Maddon said before a 4-2 loss left the Cubs treading water again at 38-37. “We’re solvent. We’re right there. We’re right next to first place.”

In leaving this relaxed tropical environment after a 4-2 loss, the Cubs will jump into the deep end on Monday night for the start of a four-game showdown at Nationals Park, where Dusty Baker will stack his rotation with Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and hope Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman can outslug a bad bullpen.

Maddon already sounded doubtful about All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, who mishandled the spin on a routine Ichiro Suzuki groundball in the first inning and later exited the game with a “sharp, pinching pain” at the front of his right shoulder.

Miami sunk the Cubs with three unearned runs after Russell’s error, part of a season-long trend where the defending champs can’t seem to put it all together in every phase of the game. Martin Prado drilled Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch, 93-mph fastball off the left-center field wall for a two-out, two-run double and the Cubs will have to play sharper against the first-place Nationals (45-30).

“It could be a great test,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “It will be nice to see where we’re at against them.”

The Cubs had enough trouble against Edinson Volquez and the Miami bullpen, translating eight hits and seven walks into only two runs while leaving 11 runners on base. That wasted a quality start from Montgomery (1-4, 2.03 ERA), who lasted six innings and retired the last 10 batters he faced. More than anything, Maddon sounded disappointed in Willson Contreras missing a hit-and-run sign in the seventh inning and Ian Happ getting thrown out at second base.

“Keep The Floaties On” sounds like an idea for Maddon’s next T-shirt. The 2017 Cubs haven’t been more than four games over .500 or two games under .500 at any point this season. The 2016 Cubs didn’t lose their 37th game until July 19 and spent 180 days in first place.

“That’s what was so special about it,” Rizzo said. “We boat-raced from Game 1 to Game 7 with a couple bumps in the road, but this is baseball. It’s not going to be all smooth-sailing every day. You got to work through things.”

The Cubs might be working without the safety net of a wild card when the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are all on pace for close to 100 victories in the brutal NL West. For all their inconsistencies, the Cubs are still only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a division where the other three teams could become trade-deadline sellers.

“I know that, but I also know that we have not had that run yet, which I believe we have (in us),” Maddon said. “I’m waiting on us to get well. I want our young guys to (use) the whole field, hitting-wise, and see where that can take us. Right now, our starters are pitching like we thought that they could.

“I’ve always wanted to win the division, obviously. We’ll just play that out. It’s too early for me to really be concerned about that yet. We’re pitching better. We’re catching the ball better. And now all of a sudden, they’re starting to use the whole field. So let’s see where this takes us right now.”

Sink or swim, the Cubs are going into the nation’s capital, less than six months after their White House visit. The big idea will be survival more than dynasty in what could still be a playoff preview.

“We’re looking forward to play them,” Montgomery said. “We know where they’re at. We know we could see them down the line.”

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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