Cubs

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Ben Zobrist doesn't yell and scream like John Lackey, but the veteran utility player still has a way of cutting right to the chase and not mincing words.

Zobrist — who's about to turn 36 — is refreshingly honest, even when admitting his new role as the Cubs' leadoff hitter comes with his challenges.

On the one hand, Zobrist seems like the perfect fit for the one-spot in the Cubs lineup: He's ultra patient, barely swings at pitches outside the strike zone and even has some pop to start a game off with a bang (as he did Sunday afternoon).

And while he acknowledged he needs to keep the same approach regardless of where he's hitting in the lineup, Zobrist still has a level of discomfort leading off.

"Leading off is not easy because of that first at-bat," he said. "You feel like, 'Well maybe I should be patient,' but then you don't want to let the ball right down the middle go by. There's just that question in your mind. You gotta weigh it based on the pitcher you're facing that day and really try to zone up on the first pitch.

"You don't get to see any of the previous pitches. Sometimes, it's harder to time the pitcher when you haven't seen anybody else batting in front of you in the lineup. That's the only difference. Besides that, I just consider it one of the other spots in the lineup."

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Monday marked Zobrist's 154th start in the leadoff spot in his career, which ranks fifth in frequency behind second (319 starts), third (267), fourth (229) and fifth (185).

Zobrist's numbers at leadoff are the lowest of any of those five lineup positions — .237 average, .328 on-base percentage and .708 OPS.

Hitting second through fifth in the order, Zobrist has career marks of .273 average, .368 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS.

Entering Monday night, Zobrist has made 24 starts at leadoff for the Cubs and carries a .220 average and .322 on-base percentage.

But he set the tone Sunday afternoon with a leadoff homer and came just a few feet shy of two more longballs later in the game.

Monday night, he put together a 12-pitch at-bat before striking out looking to lead off against Giants starter Ty Blach. In four plate appearances Monday, Zobrist saw 23 pitches, including a two-run homer in the eighth inning. His triple in the third inning marked 20 straight games that he's reached base safely.

Even though he admitted there are challenges in the leadoff spot, Zobrist isn't putting any added pressure on himself to set the table for the Cubs' big bats.

"It's just about being consistent," he said. "If I can be consistent and I can get on base, then I'll be doing my job in that spot. Although [Kyle] Schwarber hasn't hit as well as he wants to hit at the start of the year, he still got on base a lot in that spot. 

"We as an offense will continue to play better. It doesn't really matter who's [leading off] as long as we're getting on base."

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Maddon also liked the idea of Zobrist and his career .358 on-base percentage possibly forcing the opposition to shift less against Schwarber.

The thinking goes, if Zobrist reaches base ahead of Schwarber (hitting second), the defense will have to account for a baserunner and thus not be as able to load up the right side of the infield with defenders.

Zobrist is already a Swiss Army Knife for Maddon with his ability to play multiple positions. But the veteran has also been a key cog in the lineup, though mostly as protection to Anthony Rizzo the last two years, hitting cleanup. 

Maddon and the Cubs knew exactly what they were getting with Zobrist's versatility.

But now can he give the Cubs lineup a consistent presence atop the order in the vein of Dexter Fowler the last two years?

"Probably his best asset — two things — are that he knows the strike zone as well as he does and the fact that he's able to play a variety of different positions," Maddon said. "I say switch-hitting's also a part of that, but he's been this guy for a while. 

"He's got this recognition in the latter part of his career, but he's always been this type of player.

"All he wants to do is win. That's who he is."

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

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USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th 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.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.