Cubs

Why Ben Zobrist doesn't see this red-hot start as an aberration for Cubs

Why Ben Zobrist doesn't see this red-hot start as an aberration for Cubs

Ben Zobrist isn’t going to compare this group on May 10 to the Kansas City Royals team that won the World Series last year. There will be 129 games left after Wednesday’s day-night doubleheader at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs desperately wanted his laser focus, unselfish attitude and sense of perspective.
 
Zobrist didn’t even join those Royals until a trade from the Oakland A’s in late July, a reminder that the right deadline deals can matter. That playoff performance (.880 OPS) reinforced what the Cubs already knew – that Zobrist could transform their lineup as a line-drive switch-hitter who gets on base almost 36 percent of the time, doesn’t strike out that much and can handle all types of pitching in high-pressure situations.  
 
Whether or not Zobrist envisioned it happening this fast when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, the Cubs are 25-6 and off to their best start since 1907, the best start in baseball since the 1984 Detroit Tigers, and now riding an eight-game winning streak. 
 
“I don’t see this as an aberration,” Zobrist said after going 4-for-4 during Tuesday’s 8-7 victory over the San Diego Padres. “I don’t see that this is something that we can’t continue to do in some way. Obviously, you can’t stay this hot all year long. It’s just such a long season. We know we’re going to have down points. 
 
“But it’s the ability to pick each other up. And (with) this team so far, you’ve got contributions from everybody, all around the clubhouse, up and down the lineup. Every pitcher, every reliever, everybody’s contributing in some way. And I think the confidence as a team is just super-high because of that.”

Zobrist, who will turn 35 later this month, has such a long, intense postgame routine that it can sometimes be difficult to find him in the clubhouse and get him at his locker.
 
Zobrist politely declined to explain in detail the adjustments he made to spark this hot streak (13-for-29 with 17 RBI in his last eight games), saying he focused on some mental cues with hitting coach John Mallee and different pregame drills more than a mechanical overhaul.  
 
Zobrist did credit cleanup hitter Anthony Rizzo for having great at-bats in front of him, allowing him to see more pitches, and the cumulative effect of a deep lineup. After a slower start, Zobrist has hit four of his five homers in May, pushing his average to .305 and boosting his OPS to .919 during this historic start. 

“You can’t think about that in the moment,” Zobrist said. “The time that we stop and have a powwow about it is probably the time that we start losing. We need to just stay in the moment and stay with our routine. I think the best things happen when you’re not overthinking it.”
 
Joe Maddon managed Zobrist for nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and hasn’t seen him playing at a higher level.
 
“Keep focusing on today,” Zobrist said, “because the moment you start thinking about how great we’ve played is the moment that we stop focusing on what we need to keep doing.”

Zobrist laughed when a reporter mentioned the anecdotal history of big-name free agents starting slow at Wrigley Field (like Jason Heyward with zero homers and a .569 OPS).  

“I’m glad you didn’t tell me that ahead of time,” Zobrist said. “I didn’t play particularly well in April. Honestly, I usually don’t play that well in May. I usually don’t really start picking it up like this until June. So this is a very good thing for me to start going earlier in the season.

“The crazy thing about this is we haven’t really even got ‘J’ going yet like he can go. And even some of these other guys can play even better than they have. Gosh, you feel like there’s more in the tank.”         

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.