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.”
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.”