Chicago Cubs

Matt Szczur's perspective as Cubs shed 'Lovable Losers' label

Matt Szczur's perspective as Cubs shed 'Lovable Losers' label

No current player understands what it means to be a Cub more than Matt Szczur.

The 2010 fifth-round pick has been here longer than Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, Anthony Rizzo and Joe Maddon, just to name a few. 

And entering his eighth year with the organization, Szczur is already in Cubs history forever as one of thd guys who helped end the 108-year championship drought.

So how did the Cubs finally shed that "Lovable Losers" label and win it all? The key may be in Szczur's perspective.

"Winning the World Series is a dream come true, obviously," Szczur said. "If you ask a lot of these guys, it wouldn't matter what team. But being the Cubs, it's really special, just because of the drought for 108 years. As far as wrapping [my head] around it, I don't think we think like that. We just go out there and we're just trying to win every day. It's just hard to explain how I feel as a baseball player.

"It's awesome to win the World Series and to win with the Cubs, but as far as putting it in perspective, just winning the World Series is awesome. But that's what we're here to do. We're here to win; we're here to accomplish those feats.

"It's like the first time you get called up to the big leagues. People are like, 'Wow, what is it like?' But you've been playing [baseball] for so long, it's just another day. So winning the World Series with the Cubs — it's awesome, but that's what we're here to do.

"For me, that's the best way I can describe it. To put it in perspective as far as the Cubs not winning in 108 years, we don't think like that. As baseball players, we're here to win, every day."

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Szczur said he doesn't think the 2016 Cubs had any issues with "Cubbie Occurrences" or curses or anything even remotely in that category mainly because they didn't feel any added pressure. They didn't let any outside noise seep into the clubhouse and disrupt the mojo that was formed from the most talented roster in Major League Baseball and the confidence that came with the league's best regular season record.

As a two-sport star at Villanova, the former wide receiver has been in his fair share of locker rooms and called the Cubs World Series-winning clubhouse one of the best he's ever been a part of.

Szczur played only a small role in the Cubs' championship in terms of on-field stats, but his impact loomed large behind the scenes.

The 27-year-old outfielder was one of the top pinch hitters in baseball in the 2016 regular season and was not on the active roster in any of the three postseason series, replaced by Albert Almora Jr.

But as Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell broke out of their prolonged slumps at the turn of the tide in the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles, there was Szczur in a supporting role: lending Rizzo his bat and Russell his leggings.

"He's such a good teammate," manager Joe Maddon said. "You saw that last year; you saw how the guys gravitated toward him. He's not on the playoff rosters but he's with us and he's on the top step constantly.

"It's just who he is. It is the football mentality, but it's also him. This is a pretty good human being."

As the roster crunch starts to heat up with spring training coming to a close, will Szczur have a spot on these Cubs? He's out of options so he cannot be sent down to the minor leagues without passing through waivers and as a proven bench/role player, his value at the big-legaue level is apparent. 

But Szczur didn't come to Cubs camp with any sort of chip on his shoulder.

"I don't think like that," he said. "I just want to win. I feel like guys that want to win takes care of itself.

"I'll do anything to win. I won't cheat, but as far as on the field and what they ask me to do, that's just how I play."

Maddon sees that, too.

"Totally. He's been that guy his whole life," Maddon said. "Wherever he's played — I would imagine you talk to the Villanova football coaches and they'd tell you the same thing. You could go back to his high school days.

"He's just a different cat. The way he approaches life in general; he's just so sincere about everything and everybody he comes in contact with. No doubt.

"Here's a guy that's still trying to establish himself as an everyday player in the big leagues, but he's there for everybody else all the time. Just a different animal, man."

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

How Carl Edwards Jr. regained his confidence and killer instinct out of Cubs bullpen

Carl Edwards Jr. unleashed a big curveball that froze Cincinnati Reds leadoff guy Billy Hamilton with a check swing and forced Cubs catcher Victor Caratini to make a hockey goalie-style block in the dirt with two runners on. They all looked at third base umpire Ron Kulpa, who signaled strike three as the crowd of 36,698 roared on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.   

The Cubs hope that seventh-inning scene is more of a big-picture look at the rest of their season than the final score in a 2-1 loss. The Cubs believe Edwards can be an Andrew Miller-type presence during the playoffs, maybe their future closer. By striking out all three batters he faced, Edwards kept it a scoreless game and bailed out Kyle Hendricks, who looked more like last year’s major-league ERA leader.   

Edwards screamed and pumped his fist as he walked back to the dugout, an emotional release from the slump that had manager Joe Maddon getting what-do-you-do-with-C.J.? questions.

“It’s more mental than anything,” Edwards said. “I know this game is very humbling. I can look good for 30 straight appearances. And then all of a sudden – four/five big games – I can be hurt again. I just look at it as going out there and having fun.

“I knew in the back of my mind that I would get over it because I’m a strong-minded guy. It wasn’t (anything) physical. I don’t know how I lost confidence, but I lost it. Right now, I'm just slowly getting it back. And I’m feeling more and more comfortable going out there every day.”

After watching Edwards blow the save and give up a grand slam to Matt Wieters during a potential playoff preview against the Washington Nationals in early August, Maddon compared the situation to a great shooter in basketball: “You just keep throwing it back out there.”

“I don’t want to run away from him,” Maddon said. “He’s really good. He had a bad couple days. Hitters go through slumps. Pitchers go through slumps. Managers go through slumps. Writers go through slumps. We all go through slumps.

“I love the guy. I absolutely love him. I love the teammate that he is. He had a couple tough days. Everybody does.”

Edwards actually had a 1.07 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP through his first 27 appearances this season – and then put up a 6.55 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP across his next 25 games. Still, there is so much to work with here, from the swing-and-miss stuff (70 strikeouts in 48.1 innings) to his natural feel for pitching to the internal drive that allowed him to blossom as a former 48th-round draft pick.         

“A big thing has been my dad sending me messages,” Edwards said, “every day telling me to pray and meditate. He knows me like a book. It’s just getting those words from him and seeing those messages before I go out to the game. And taking that message with me: No matter what happens, I’m here for a reason.”

Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it. Be yourself.

“He’s always done that,” Edwards said. “(When) I was struggling real bad, he told me: ‘Every day, just go back to backyard baseball. Say a prayer. Miss you. Meditate and just know, son, you’re there for a reason. And no matter what the outcome is, I’m going to still love you regardless.’ Just my dad being my dad. He basically taught me pitching growing up, so he’s the one that knows me best.”

Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

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Cubs: Ben Zobrist breaks down what went wrong this season and how he can still make it right

Ben Zobrist is a self-made player who feels months behind where he should be, freely admitting: “If we were in September right now, I’d be like: ‘Uh-oh.’”

The Cubs have played that long game all year, hanging around and slowly moving ahead in the National League Central race, hoping they will peak at the right time and the muscle memory will take over in October. That just seems to be getting harder and harder for their World Series MVP.

“We’re still where we need to be,” Zobrist said, “even though I have not played anywhere near my capability this season.”

Zobrist is a man of faith, so he will try not to feel snake-bitten, even as the injuries keep piling up, scratched from Monday’s game with a stiff neck and held back in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.

But watching Zobrist work a pinch-hit walk in the eighth inning and line an RBI single off Reds closer Raisel Iglesias in the ninth inning underlined how much the Cubs need him without Dexter Fowler leading off and Willson Contreras hitting in the middle of their lineup. 

Coming off back-to-back World Series runs, there were questions about whether or not a stiff neck would prevent Zobrist from being ready for Opening Day. Playing a doubleheader on May 9 at Coors Field stressed his lower back and sidelined him again. An awkward swing on May 26 at Dodger Stadium would eventually put him on the disabled list with a sore left wrist and force him to miss most of June.

Playoffs? Personal three-peat? The Cubs are a 62-56 team with a 1.5-game lead in the division. Zobrist is also too much of a realist to think that he can just flip a switch when he’s hitting .223 with an OPS that’s roughly 80 points below the league average and he hasn’t homered since the first game after the All-Star break.

[MORE: Cubs don’t see finish line for Addison Russell yet: ‘I don’t think that there’s any rush’  ]

“Right now, I’ve got more important things to worry about and they’re more minute,” Zobrist said. “Am I doing the things I need to do to have a good, quality at-bat? If I can start doing that again, then I’m very confident that when we get to that time, I’ll be able to do what I normally do. But that’s a long ways away for me, still.

“I’m trying to get to the point where I normally am in May. I’m not thinking about playoff time. I need to get back to that May time where I’m getting things where they need to go.”

After getting shut down by the New York Mets’ power pitching and swept out of the 2015 NL Championship Series, the Cubs identified Zobrist as the switch-hitter to diversify their lineup and set an example for their young players.  

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs believed his ability to handle fastballs and play multiple positions would keep him productive through his mid-30s – Zobrist has already been worth every penny of that four-year, $56 million deal.

“I’ve always been a hands/wrists/forearms (hitter),” Zobrist said. “That’s been one of my strengths: Let the pitch get deep and still get my hands to the front of the zone. That’s been really difficult to do. In June, it was impossible for me.

“And when that went, it was like: ‘OK, this is a tough one,’ because I tried to play through it. It just wasn’t healing and I wasn’t able to do the work. That’s when I hit the DL. I had to figure out (that) I have to get the wrists and the hands completely healthy. Or else I shouldn’t be out there, because the pitchers are too good.”

At 36, Zobrist is old enough to remember watching the championship celebrations for Michael Jordan’s Bulls on TV, childhood memories that inspired him to give a speech during that massive Grant Park rally last November, a scene that he envisioned when he took a hometown discount to sign with the Cubs.  

“Age is about figuring out how to take care of you, because every guy is a little bit different,” Zobrist said. “There’s no formula once you get to a certain point. When you’re 25, the formula is nothing. It’s essentially just like: ‘Show up. Do the work. And you’re going to be able to do what you know how to do.’

“But as you get a little bit older, you start kind of going: ‘OK, what is it about me that I have to do to get back to where I feel great on the field?’ That’s a learning experience that’s constantly happening.

“Whereas before, you didn’t really have to do anything to get ready. You could just basically pick up a bat and run down to the cage and start swinging as hard as you want to swing.

“And now it’s like: ‘OK, if you want to go 100 mph, you’re going to have to take longer than 2.whatever seconds to get there.’ You’re going to have to really ramp it up and figure out those particular issues for you as a player that are going to pop up.”

Nights like this – the rest of the team going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, almost getting shut out by a last-place team and missing the dimensions their World Series MVP brought to this lineup – make you wonder if there will be enough time for Zobrist and the defending champs to figure it out.