Chicago Cubs

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.

Joe Maddon should have the last laugh on this Cubs season

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon should have the last laugh on this Cubs season

“There’s nothing I can really say to them that would make a difference right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said inside Wrigley Field’s underground interview room on Sept. 10, answering a broad postgame question about team meetings at the end of a lost weekend where the Milwaukee Brewers outscored the defending World Series champs 20-3.

“They just need to see consistency from me,” Maddon said after the division lead had shrunk to two games over the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. “They just need to see me do what I always do. I’m having conversations with all of them daily. It’s more one-on-one for me, as opposed to group. One-on-one therapy as opposed to group therapy.”

Maddon chuckled at that one-liner – and he should have the last laugh on this Cubs season. Within one week – basically the time it took for the entire Bears season/Mike Glennon experiment to crater – the Cubs went from being on the ropes to landing a knockout punch against the Cardinals and doubling their lead over the Brewers in the National League Central.

What appeared to be weaknesses while this team couldn’t get rid of a World Series hangover – a laissez-faire attitude in the clubhouse, no real sense of urgency, the short attention span, too many off-the-field distractions – can be seen as strengths now that the Cubs are a season-high 17 games over .500 after sweeping the Cardinals out of Wrigleyville.

It’s too early to take a victory lap when Maddon returns to Tropicana Field on Tuesday and faces the Tampa Bay Rays. But by not overreacting and completely losing his players, and staying relentlessly positive and patient, and remembering there is life outside the stadium, and allowing all of this natural talent to finally take over, Maddon has the Cubs in position to make the playoffs for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened for this franchise since player/manager Frank Chance won three NL pennants in a row and back-to-back World Series titles in 1907 and 1908.

“There’s only one time to really call a team meeting – if your best pitcher is pitching the next day against a really bad team,” Maddon said. “That’s when you could look good. Otherwise, try to refrain from that. Don’t pick the wrong day. In our game, sitting there, trying to rehash the obvious, there’s no motivational component to that whatsoever.

“When things tighten up like this, they need to see you be consistent, not inconsistent. If I were to do something like that – that’s something I never do – so that would send out all the wrong signals.

“I’ve been around managers that have done that in the past. I’ve been one in the minor leagues – and I hated me for it afterwards.

“For the group that’s always looking for the inspirational speech, I promise you, if in fact it had any impact at all, it might last 10 minutes by the time they got out to the field. And if the other team’s pitcher that night is better than yours, it’s not going to work.”

The Cubs have created huge advantages in terms of talent, payroll and experience. But Maddon has held it together while every member of the Opening Day rotation got injured at different points this season and an everyday catcher (Willson Contreras), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist), an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell) and a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) spent time on the disabled list.

“Honestly, it’s minor-league training, man,” Maddon said. “It happens all the time. You immediately start thinking about: ‘OK, what do I do now? What’s next? Who’s the replacement? How do we fix this? How do we plug the dike?’ That’s it. I don’t take a doomsday approach mentally ever.

“I reference it often – the minor-league training really matters a lot in these situations. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to utilize different people, different methods, possibly. But ‘How do you fix this?’ is your first thought.

“That’s the beauty of this game, man. It is an endurance test. And it is a test of depth a lot of times also. You have to have it. That’s where I go. I remember playing in the Texas League with eight position players and one of my pitchers had to be the DH. You just do it.”

[MORE CUBS: 10 reasons for optimism as the Cubs enter the final two weeks of the 2017 season]

Maddon is old enough to collect Social Security checks, but he remains an ideal modern manager. Not because he dyes his hair “Blue Steel” and organizes themed road trips that feel more about building his personal brand than any team-bonding concept.

It’s the way Maddon tames the media before and after every game, pumps The Geek Department for information, casually namedrops the assistant director of research and development (Jeremy Greenhouse) during his press briefings and sees the Cubs from 30,000 feet.

“This is an organization working as one,” Maddon said. “For years, I was a part of the other side where I thought nobody was listening and it’s really a tremendous disconnect. If I ever got a chance to be doing what I’m doing right now, I would absolutely listen to these folks, because I think it’s important.”

So when Theo Epstein’s front office pushes Jen-Ho Tseng to make his big-league debut in the middle of a pennant race, Maddon sells the decision. Even though Tseng wasn’t one of the 40 pitchers the Cubs put on their spring training roster, and Maddon had only seen him on video and just met him for about five minutes.

“I trust the people making these decisions,” Maddon said. “Having spent so much time in the minor leagues, I listen to minor-league people. I listen to front offices. I listen to people that get to see people play that I don’t get to see.

“So if your evaluators really believe strongly in this, and your minor-league people do, too, you listen to them. You believe. You trust. That’s part of how this thing works.”

If Maddon had emerged from obscurity to become a borderline Hall of Famer during that small-market miracle in Tampa – five seasons with at least 90 wins in nine years – then winning the World Series with the Cubs guaranteed his Cooperstown plaque.

Of course, Maddon got slammed for his Game 7 decisions and had to keep answering questions about it months and months later. The manager didn’t really lash out or second-guess himself – and once again his team seems to be peaking at the right time.

Since 2015, the Cubs have played 162 regular-season games in August, September and early October – and gone 109-53 plus winning five playoff rounds so far.

“It’s a mental thing, man,” Maddon said. “It’s competition. It’s the competing component of it. It goes so far beyond just looking at statistical information and lineups and where do they rank right now sabermetrically. It has nothing to do with (sabermetrics). I talked about the heartbeat last year. It’s going to show up over the next couple weeks again.”

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.