How Cubs see Ben Zobrist as a missing piece for NLCS breakthrough

How Cubs see Ben Zobrist as a missing piece for NLCS breakthrough

The Cubs saw Ben Zobrist as a missing piece to their World Series puzzle, a clutch switch-hitter to diversify their lineup, a versatile defender who could move all over Wrigley Field and a steady clubhouse presence for their young players.  

Zobrist could have signed with the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets or Washington Nationals, all playoff teams with sturdy talent bases in cosmopolitan cities. The Cubs didn’t even put the biggest offer on the table at four years and $56 million. 

But no one else could match the built-in trust factor with manager Joe Maddon after their time together with the Tampa Bay Rays. Or the proximity to his family’s roots in downstate Illinois and offseason home in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Plus, 1908 and the lure of being part of the Cubs team that finally ends more than a century of heartbreak.  

The Cubs return to the National League Championship Series as a stronger, deeper, more experienced team than the one the Mets swept out last year. Zobrist’s performance for the Kansas City Royals during that World Series run (.880 OPS in 16 playoff games) didn’t change the evaluation for Theo Epstein’s front office. It only reinforced the belief in a player the Cubs had already tried to acquire from the Rays and Oakland A’s. 

“I told them on the phone last year that I want to help them get those last eight wins,” Zobrist said after Thursday’s workout at Wrigley Field. “They had the Division Series last year, but they couldn’t get it done in the NLCS.

“This is exactly where I envisioned our team being when I was deciding who to sign with and what that might look like. So far, all that’s come to pass.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Beyond setting an example for their young position players, the Cubs understood Zobrist could handle elite velocity, different styles of pitching, situational hitting and the pressure-packed moments. Remember, the Cubs didn’t lead at any point during last year’s NLCS, completely shut down by New York’s power arms.

That grinding approach paid off during that Game 4 ninth-inning flurry against the Giants on Tuesday night at AT&T Park. Zobrist drove an RBI double into the right-field corner off Sergio Romo as the Cubs wiped out a 5-2 deficit and eliminated the franchise that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

“We know that we’re good,” Zobrist said. “We believe that we’re the best team. But you still have to execute – and you got to make it happen in those big situations. To be able to do that (there) with a hostile crowd and all the things that went into it – I think it definitely took our confidence to the next level.”

As a sign of respect and gratitude, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore drove to St. Louis in April to personally deliver a World Series ring to Zobrist, who showed off the bling as a reminder to his teammates before a game against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. 

“We still have our work cut out for us,” Zobrist said. “My ultimate goal in signing here is to win a championship. And that’s (why) everybody’s here. We’re close to that. We have a chance to do that now.”

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.

Cubs put Kyle Hendricks on 10-Day IL

Cubs put Kyle Hendricks on 10-Day IL

On Saturday, the Cubs announced that they are placing starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks on the 10-day I.L.with right shoulder inflammation. 

Following Hendricks' injury, the Cubs recalled right-handed pitcher Rowan Wick from Triple-A. Wick will be available on Saturday night and beyond, as the Cubs continue their four-game series against the Dodgers. 

This obviously a significant blow for the Cubs, as Hendricks is the team leader in innings pitched (88.1).

Prior to his loss on Friday night, Hendricks had won three straight outings, giving up less than 3 ER in each game. 

The Cubs have plenty of options to replace Hendricks for the time being. With an off day until Monday, they could keep their rotation intact. Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery are options, and the Cubs could push Hendricks next start back to by going with a spot starter. 

Stellar pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay is another intriuging option, and he is coming off of a great outing with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. On Fridaym he racked up 9 strikeouts, giving up 8 hits and 2 ER. 

The 24-year old Alzolay is ranked as the Cubs' fourth-overall prospect and the Hendricks injury could open the door for Alzolay to get called up.

The more likely scenario is that Cubs manager Joe Maddon chooses to use Chatwood. 

Chatwood is the only pitcher outside of the everyday rotation to have made a start this year and is the most obvious stopgap solution until we get further updates on Hendricks' status.