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.”