Cubs

With one bunt, Ben Zobrist helps swing NLCS in Cubs' direction

With one bunt, Ben Zobrist helps swing NLCS in Cubs' direction

LOS ANGELES – Forget cleanup hitter. Think of Ben Zobrist as a great point guard, someone who understands how the pieces fit together, sees all the angles, creates for his teammates and remains calm under pressure.

After watching the Los Angeles Dodgers hold the Cubs scoreless for 21 consecutive innings – and take control of this National League Championship Series – Zobrist realized he needed to do something different.

Zobrist had been thinking about this for days, but finally sensed the opportunity on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. Julio Urias – the 20-year-old lefty who’s evoked comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela – hadn’t allowed a hit through three innings. The Dodgers had focused on throwing first-pitch strikes and attacking Zobrist early with off-speed stuff in the zone.

“You just try to find the right time,” Zobrist said. “I felt like at that point it was definitely necessary to at least try. And if it doesn’t work out – or you foul it off – then next pitch I’m probably swinging.”

Zobrist bunted the Urias curveball he saw coming, placing it perfectly along the third-base line for the leadoff hit that put the Cubs in transition. Javier Baez and Willson Contreras hit back-to-back singles, scoring Zobrist for the first run and forcing one of four errors the Dodgers committed. Jason Heyward hit a ball to the right side of the infield to score Baez. And Addison Russell broke out of his slump by drilling a 94-mph Urias fastball over the right-center field wall for a two-run homer.

Just like that, all the fourth-inning pressure in Game 4 broke the Dodgers as the Cubs stormed back for a 10-2 victory that tied up a best-of-seven series. 

“All the little things,” Zobrist said. “You’re not going to hit a bunch of three-run homers every game. You really have to find a way to play small ball, especially in the postseason when we’re facing good pitching and they’ve been tough on us.

“That just kind of got everything going. Offensively, everybody contributed. It just kind of felt like the floodgates opened.”

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This is what Zobrist did with the Kansas City Royals last season, earning a World Series ring and signing a four-year, $56 million contract to help the Cubs win eight more games than the 2015 team that never led at any point against the New York Mets in the NLCS.

The Cubs wanted a veteran switch-hitter in the middle of their lineup to set an example for their younger players, a winner who would maintain the same pitch-by-pitch focus and daily approach, no matter what else might be going on around this team.    

“That’s kind of what you have to do to stay sane,” Zobrist said. “If you do different things when things are not going well, (then) you’re going to drive yourself crazy in this game.

“We try to keep the routine the same. We try to stay positive with each other and believe that it’s going to happen. We know that our offense is too good to keep down for a long time.

“Hopefully, tonight was a big indication of what is to come the next few games.”

While the best team in baseball during the regular season had to find its identity in October – see that first-round comeback against the San Francisco Giants – Zobrist already had enough self-awareness to know this: “I’ve said this before, I’m not a cleanup hitter. I’m just batting fourth.” 

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.