Ben Zobrist doubtful for Nationals showdown and where things stand with banged-up Cubs

zobrist.jpg
USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist doubtful for Nationals showdown and where things stand with banged-up Cubs

MIAMI – As their World Series MVP continues to deal with a lingering wrist injury, the Cubs aren’t expecting Ben Zobrist back for a showdown against the Washington Nationals. 

“Not yet,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday at Marlins Park.

Dusty Baker’s Nationals are on pace for close to 100 wins and have the kind of elite power pitching – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg – Zobrist has shown over and over again that he can handle in the postseason.

The Cubs will roll out a young, inexperienced lineup on Monday at Nationals Park, the beginning of a four-game series and a potential playoff preview. Zobrist injured his left wrist with an awkward swing on Memorial Day weekend and tried to play through it and now might be back closer to the Fourth of July.

The Cubs aren’t even at the point of finalizing the logistics for a Zobrist rehab assignment in the minors.

“We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t said: ‘This is the date,’” Maddon said. “It’s still not in that planning stage yet: ‘OK, this feels good, worked out a couple days and now we’re going to go there on Tuesday.’ We haven’t said that.”

A look at where things stand with the rest of the banged-up Cubs:

• The Cubs expect Kyle Hendricks to test his right hand (tendinitis) and throw by the end of this weekend, with Maddon keeping the door open for a potential return before the All-Star break. 

• The Cubs sidelined Jason Heyward because they could only play shorthanded for so long, but they expected the cut on his left hand to heal before the end of his 10-day stay on the disabled list, which could put him in play for the last game in Washington. 

• Remember Brett Anderson? The talented, injury-prone lefty who made the rotation out of spring training and put up an 8.18 ERA in six starts – before going on the disabled list with a low back strain – will begin his rehab assignment on Sunday at Double-A Tennessee.

• In the middle of an 11-games-in-11-days road trip, Maddon is looking forward to the possibilities with a healthy Zobrist and a productive Ian Happ and what it would mean to have two switch-hitters with defensive flexibility.       

“He’s his Mini-Me right now,” Maddon said. “When you get them both back, it really opens up a lot on a daily basis, regarding giving guys a day off, where do you want to play them, batting-order construction. They’re very versatile players and there are a lot of similarities.”

The Kyle Schwarber reboot begins Monday in Iowa

The Kyle Schwarber reboot begins Monday in Iowa

MIAMI – This isn’t a Tommy La Stella situation. The Cubs purposely told Kyle Schwarber to take a few days off to decompress before reporting to Triple-A Iowa. The reboot will begin Monday in Des Moines.

“We’re doing it to hopefully reset him, get him back up with a fresh start,” manager Joe Maddon said. “As you would expect, he was very professional about it, understood it entirely.

“There’s no actual timetable. I don’t anticipate it to be long. But we’ll see how it plays out, give him a little bit of room to get things right and then move it forward from there.”

The Cubs broke the news to Schwarber after Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field, where the entire lineup went 1-for-27 outside of rookie Ian Happ’s two-run homer. It left Schwarber hitting .171 with a .673 OPS, not enough to justify his 12 home runs and suspect outfield defense. The Iowa Cubs are in the middle of a four-game series this weekend in Round Rock, Texas.

The Cubs hope Schwarber can regain his confidence and almost become a trade-deadline addition, reenergizing the team the way he did in 2015, when he blasted 16 homers in 69 games and five more in the playoffs.

Under entirely different circumstances in 2012, future All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo used 70 games with Iowa to rework his swing and make adjustments after bombing his audition with the Padres.

“He’s going to go down and be able to exhale a little bit,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully, he can smooth things out. We’re all confident he will. Just do the best down there to get back up here and to be the Kyle Schwarber that we all know and love.”

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

This is the identity of the 2017 Cubs so far: 'Up and down, up and down'

MIAMI – The Cubs are the defending champs, but at the moment they really don’t have much of an identity beyond that, unsure what they can count on from one game to the next, waiting to get healthy and still searching for that sense of rhythm 45 percent into the season.

This is a 37-36 team dealing with injuries near the top of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks), the middle of the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and the heart of the defense (Jason Heyward) while a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) gets a few days to clear his head before reporting to Triple-A Iowa.

Just when it looks like the rotation is gathering strength, the offense went missing again during Friday’s 2-0 loss at Marlins Park, the night after the Cubs scored 11 runs in Miami and talked about it as the type of game that can create momentum.

“The difference 24 hours can make,” manager Joe Maddon said.

But this has been building for almost three full months. The Cubs have been shut out six times already and at the .500 mark at 15 different points this season.

The good news: John Lackey hit 94 mph and has put together back-to-back quality starts for a starting five with a 2.35 ERA the last two turns through the rotation. The 10 games before that, the Cubs rotation put up a 5.65 ERA, but neither trend has really changed the overall picture in a weak National League Central. 

“That’s where it all starts, for sure,” Lackey said. “If you’re going to be a consistent winning team, you got to have good starting pitching, because the offense can kind of come and go.

“You got to remember they’re pretty young. We got a lot of guys still learning, still making adjustments in the game. But the talent’s there, so you like our chances in the end for those guys to do good stuff.”  

The bad news: Lackey had no margin for error as the Marlins needed only three hits to score two runs (one earned). Lackey gave up his 21st home run – he allowed 23 in almost 190 innings last year – in the third inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched an 83-mph pitch 458 feet beyond the garish pink-flamingos-and-palm-trees sculpture.   

Defense was supposed to be the constant with this team, but the Marlins manufactured an insurance run in the sixth inning when Dee Gordon stole second base off Lackey and catcher Miguel Montero threw the ball away, setting up Christian Yelich’s sacrifice fly.   

“I certainly have all the confidence in the world in everybody here,” reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant said. “Last year was a great year for us. Everybody just seemed to be hitting at the right time, pitching good at the right time. Everything clicked.

“This season hasn’t been that way. You look at many players – and many Hall of Fame players – they’ve had some down years here and there. It just kind of seems like as a group we’re a little down right now, but plenty of time to turn it around.”

Ian Happ and Javier Baez accounted for four of the six hits against right-hander Jose Urena and three different relievers as the Cubs hit into three double plays, struck out seven times and followed the same pattern.  

“Our offense is just like you saw – up and down, up and down,” Maddon said. “It is youthful. Listen, I don’t want to keep saying that, but it’s true. It just is. These guys need more at-bats to figure out what to not swing at and how to battle.”