Ben Zobrist has reemerged as one of the Cubs' most important players

Ben Zobrist has reemerged as one of the Cubs' most important players

What a difference two weeks makes.

Ben Zobrist won't ever tell anybody that he was relieved the Cubs were bounced from the postseason on Oct. 19 last fall without another trip to the World Series. But those extra two weeks off and not grinding out at-bats against the best pitchers in the world have done wonders for the veteran utility man after back-to-back World Series runs.

"Last year, just a lot of little bumps and bruises," Joe Maddon said. "Two World Series in a row — there's some long seasons involved. I don't think his body responded as well.

"He spent a lot of time this offseason specifically trying to be ready for this season. I tell you what, he's looked great. ... He did something about it this offseason."

Many people were quick to write off Zobrist after a down 2017 campaign, assuming the former World Series MVP would just fade into the background in 2018.

Zobrist turns 37 next week, but the only way you'd know that is the fact he is constantly given days off to rest his aging body by Maddon.

Don't let the part-time role or the recent CleatGate ordeal distract you from the fact Zobrist has been very, very important to the Cubs' success over the first quarter of the season.

When he's been on the field, it's been shades of 2016 Zobrist, when he emerged as arguably the most important cog in the Cubs lineup. Everybody expects Bryzzo Souvenir Co. to put up gaudy numbers each summer but in that magical 2016 season, Zobrist spent a lot of the year in the cleanup spot, providing protection to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

This year, Zobrist has been asked to do something totally different — set the table for the big boppers.

And with the ascension of Javy Baez at second base, Zobrist has also been asked to play more and more in the outfield — 13 starts in right or left field compared to only 5 starts at second base. In 2016-17, Zobrist made 178 starts at second vs. 69 starts on the outfield grass.

After an injury-plagued 2017 campaign in which he hit .232 with a .318 on-base percentage and .693 OPS, Zobrist decided not to take any swings for a while over the winter to let his ailing wrist heal, but he had no intentions of sitting around, taking his usual four weeks off from working out.

"As time has gone on, taking time off is not necessarily good," Zobrist said. "When you get your body going and you're in good shape, you try to stay in shape. Maybe you lose it a little quicker as you get a little bit older and you're playing the game.

"Time off would be like staying away from working out for a month to let your body heal, which is what I did for most of my career. Three or four weeks of just activity I would do as a normal person, like I might play with my kids, I might shoot hoops or sometehing like that. But I'm not doing any sort of work out to try to be in shape.

"This year, it was like, OK, even though mentally I don't want to start yet, physically I need to stay in it 'cause I don't wanna lose that shape I was in at the end of the season."

Zobrist didn't even start swinging a bat until mid-December to let his wrist heal fully and focused instead on "building a foundation" for his body.

All that work he spent in the offseason sure seems to be paying off.

He's hitting .290 with a .365 on-base percentage on the season and has 2 of the 4 Cubs game-winning hits on the season — in Miami in the first week and then again Tuesday night in Atlanta.

As Maddon works to navigate the lineup on a daily basis, Zobrist has become the clear favorite to lead off against right-handed pitchers in most games.

But he's also hit second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh while filling in at first base when Rizzo was injured and also serving as a defensive replacement for Kyle Schwarber in left field often.

Even still, Zobrist is only on pace for 116 games played and 386 at-bats as Maddon tries to keep him frisky. Since becoming a full-time player in 2009, Zobrist has never played in fewer than 126 games in a season and has racked up at least 435 at-bats every year.

After games in which he does start, you can find Zobrist sitting with Cubs advanced scouting hitting coordinator Nate Halm, going over video and talking passionately about Zobrist's swing and how his physical movements match up with his thoughts and approach.

"That's where I'm trying to be more detailed ahead of the game and after the game with, 'OK, well, what was I thinking? What did I do and what about it did I like? What did I not like?" Zobrist said. "Bouncing stuff off him so he can hear those thoughts coming out."

It's just more proof that Zobrist is one of the best offensive minds in the Cubs clubhouse, always thinking along with the game.

Even if the Cubs are worried about his body holding up over the course of the long season, Zobrist's mind doesn't appear to be fading any time soon.

And when the game is on the line in a crucial moment, who else would Cubs fans rather have up at the plate right now?

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday


Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

After Mother Nature washed out the Cubs and Dodgers Monday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs recognized one of their Hall of Famers.

In honor of outfielder Billy Williams’ 80th birthday on June 15, the Cubs painted Williams’ No. 26 behind home plate. Cubs players are also wearing shirts with his number featured on the front.

On the Cubs Twitter page, there is also a glass case of pictures and Williams’ old jersey with other memorabilia. 

In his illustrious 16-year career with the Cubs, Williams, known as sweet swingin’ Billy from Whistler, hit .290 with 392 home runs, 1353 RBIs, 2510 hits and 911 walks.

His best offensive season came in 1970 when he hit 42 home runs and 129 RBIs, both career bests.

Williams also played with the Oakland Athletics for two seasons after he was traded by the Cubs after the 1974 season.

Williams was a guy you’d see on the field a lot during his day, starting all 162 games four times. In 1970 he eclipsed 161 games.

He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1987. Williams appeared in six All-Star Games, he was the 1961 Rookie of the Year and the 1972 NL MVP. He also won the NL batting title that year.