Don’t touch Ben Zobrist right now. The guy is straight fire.
Zobrist was smoking hot coming into Friday’s game against the Washington Nationals and ace hurler Max Scherzer, but he cranked his personal thermostat up another level with a pair of home runs off the one-time Cy Young winner, leading the Cubs’ four-homer onslaught in an 8-6 win that showed what this lineup can really do now that summer has arrived on the North Side.
“It’s exciting to finally play here with the wind blowing out a little bit here today. It was great,” Zobrist said after the Cubs’ 22nd win in 28 games this season. “Any time you start feeling good at the plate, it makes the game a lot more fun, especially with a nice, warm day, the wind blowing out. I think probably a week ago, both of those balls I hit today would’ve been caught, but fortunately for me today they were blown out a little bit. Just feeling good right now, and I think we’re playing great baseball.”
In just the last three games, Zobrist has hit four home runs and driven in 11 runs. He’s the first Cub to drive in three or more runs in three straight games since Sammy Sosa. His numbers over the last 12 contests: 15-for-42 with five home runs, two doubles, 20 RBIs, 11 runs scored and 10 walks.
So, you know, pretty good.
Cubs skipper Joe Maddon has seen this before, of course. Zobrist played for Maddon in Tampa Bay and made two All-Star teams during his tenure there. His most powerful season came in 2009, when he hit 27 homers and drove in 91 runs for the Rays, both career highs.
After Friday’s outburst, Zobrist has five home runs and 24 RBIs through 28 games this season.
“It’s so nice to see this power resurgence because I’ve seen it,” Maddon said. “He’s getting pitches, he’s not missing them.”
“That’s the great thing about this game is you get to play every day,” Zobrist said. “And when you start getting comfortable you get to try again the next day and see if you can keep it going. Hopefully keep it going the rest of the weekend.”
Zobrist’s multi-blast day and ongoing torrid stretch demanded the game’s biggest headlines, but he wasn’t the only one knocking Scherzer around the yard.
After John Lackey gave up two early runs to put the Cubs in a rare hole, the offense raced to his rescue, Tommy La Stella smacking a two-run, game-tying homer in the second and Anthony Rizzo and Zobrist clubbing back-to-back jacks in the third. Add in Zobrist’s second long ball, a three-run shot in the fifth, and the Cubs roughed up the Nats’ front-of-the-rotation starter for seven runs on seven hits in just five innings.
It was a far cry from the way Scherzer sliced up the Cubs last season, striking out 13 hitters over seven shutout frames.
“I saw some pitches in the middle of the plate. I’m sure he would not have wanted them in the middle of the plate,” Zobrist said. “And I think that was probably the key, getting the ball there and putting good swings on the ball. We took advantage of that. I think Rizz hit a tough pitch down and in for a home run, but outside of that, I think a lot of other ones were just kind of left over the middle. … Not his best day, but I’ve faced him when he’s been lights out, as well, and you don’t take it for granted.”
“The huge story was our guys being able to score runs off a great pitcher in Scherzer,” Lackey said. “They’ve really done well. It’s fun to be on their side.”
The Cubs have the type of offense that can do this any day, and the lack of summer heat didn’t seem to slow the bats down over the season’s first 27 games, when they posted an outrageous plus-96 run differential.
But there was certainly something different about Friday’s warm-up, which came with an outward-blowing wind.
“I know the hitting coaches (felt good to see the wind blowing out). They felt a lot smarter before the game today,” Maddon said. “Really, you feel so different. We’ve hit so many balls well this year that have been outs that today were not. That’s just the way it plays.”
“Being here, it’s the ultimate love-hate relationship with this field,” Rizzo said. “There’s a few us that would have a lot more extra-base hits if it was blowing out, the wind, but today was nice and we took advantage of it.”
This weekend’s four-game set between the teams with the two best records in baseball has been considered an NLCS preview by some, and Scherzer is a guy the Cubs could face in Game 1 should these teams get a chance to play for the pennant come October.
After Friday’s home run derby, the Cubs don’t seem as if they’ll be intimidated by any pitcher this time around.