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Getting rest and watching scoreboards, Cubs ready for life in playoff race

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Getting rest and watching scoreboards, Cubs ready for life in playoff race

It’s been a while since the Cubs were in the thick of a playoff race, so please pardon reporters covering the team, Joe Maddon, if scoreboard-watching and the effect of September call-ups are topics of interest.

The Cubs manager fielded questions about how late-season regularities will work now that the North Side is embroiled in the chase for a National League wild-card spot.

First up, the pending September call-ups. An annual thing, recently those call-ups have served as an opportunity for the Cubs to get a look at the next big prospect, the guy who would be part of the team’s future. With most of those guys — Javier Baez is a notable exception — now part of the team’s present, September call-ups could serve a different purpose as the Cubs try and run down a slot in the postseason.

“You don’t want to bring too many guys up normally. When you get in the position that we’re getting into right now, a couple things have to be factored in,” Maddon said before Friday’s win over the Braves. “Speed has to be factored in, that’s one thing, bullpen has to be factored in, catching has to be factored in to make sure that you’re covered in all these areas. So you may get a little bit heavy at times based on the fact that you’re in the hunt, and you want to be covered.”

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Resting players will be of the utmost importance down the stretch. And Maddon’s started doing it already. Kris Bryant came out of the game Thursday, sparking injury panic, but the All-Star third baseman was just getting a few innings off. The platoon of Chris Coghlan and Starlin Castro at second base has allowed Maddon to get all his middle infielders, including Addison Russell, off their feet for several-inning chunks.

A lot of these guys have yet to play a full big league season yet, let alone the at least one additional game that comes with a wild-card spot. The Cubs, obviously, are hoping their season goes more games than 163.

“The other point that I’m very much about is that if it’s a bad game to get your regular people off their feet, you’re covered to get guys off their feet,” Maddon said. “Even in a good game, where it’s a blowout in a good way, to get your regular guys off their feet and get somebody else out there to get that break that they need.”

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Then there’s that other aspect of the playoff race: the teams you’re racing.

Maddon stuck with the take-care-of-your-own-business cliche — a cliche that makes complete sense, by the way — but he couldn’t help but admit that he’s got his eye on the scores of games from around the NL. How can he avoid it? That giant hand-operated scoreboard in center field is pretty hard to miss from the third-base dugout.

“Because the board is right in your face, I kind of like that. Just look up,” Maddon said before Saturday’s game. “I don’t stare. I’m not anxious about it at all. But I’m definitely checking in once in a while.

“It’s there. But my mantra has always been you win and don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.”

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Of course, taking care of their own business is the easiest way to get to the playoffs, and that seemingly worn-out answer is a pretty reasonable one. That’s what the Cubs are focused on. And with the confidence they’re playing with, it’s a good attitude to have.

Take it from someone who’s been in this position before. Jason Motte was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals during their playoff chases in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. He won a World Series ring in 2011, pitching in 12 postseason games — including five World Series games — after the Cardinals held off the Braves and Giants to win the wild-card race.

“I feel that the mindset in this clubhouse right now is very similar to the mindset that was in St. Louis. It’s the mindset of we have a good team and we can win these ballgames,” Motte said Saturday. “You go up there, you’ve got to battle every at-bat, you’ve got to battle every pitch. And that’s what guys are doing. The attitude in this clubhouse is great. Even after those two losses to Detroit (on Tuesday and Wednesday), it stunk, but it was like — even after the first one — ‘OK, let’s go out there and get them tomorrow.’”

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.