Cubs manager Joe Maddon considers veteran Ben Zobrist’s blazing hitting in May one of the biggest surprises of the team’s surprising start.
So does Zobrist.
‘‘I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep it up,’’ the just-turned 35 year old said. ‘‘I’ve never had a month like this.’’
His month of May has included a 15-game hitting streak — extended Sunday by a three-run homer in the third inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 victory against the Philadelphia Phillies — and a streak of reaching base safely in his last 34 starts.
That is the longest such streak for a Cub since Starlin Castro reached safely in 40 straight in 2011.
All of it has helped elevate Zobrist to surprise status in the National League, where he is toying with the league lead in hitting (.351) and on base percentage (.451.)
‘‘Playing at this level as well as he has is the one thing that stands out,’’ said Maddon, who managed a young Zobrist in Tampa. ‘‘He’s exceeding expectations right now.’’
And also allaying for now the questions that came from some quarters about signing the seven-year veteran to a four-year deal in the off season.
‘‘He’s raking,’’ said pitcher John Lackey, the beneficiary Sunday of Zobrist’s early homer and fine defensive work from the rest of the team. ‘‘You wonder which way the ball will go [when Zobrist hits]. It’s fun to watch.’’
For all the attention the Cubs’ corps of young talents draws, it seems second baseman Zobrist is the one position player who is a lock to make the All Star team outside of pitchers. He has been on two other All Star squads, but not with the hitting credentials he is boasting now.
‘‘Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding down napkins in the wind [going in different directions], but lately I haven’t had to do that,’’ Zobrist said. ‘‘You just try to keep it going, doing the same drills, having good at bats. It’s just a daily grind.’’
Having good hitters around him has helped, he added, as well as having one defensive position to concentrate on.
‘‘Up and down the lineup, we’re doing it,’’ Zobrist said of the hitting, with ten hits Sunday including a home run from Miguel Montero. ‘‘It kind of frees your mind up [knowing the team can score].
‘‘I haven’t played this much in one position in my career. I think it’s helping me clear my thoughts of `fielding’ thoughts,’’ he added.
Maddon sees in Zobrist a player who has managed to keep the quickness in his swing.
‘‘I think he’s covering a great variety of pitches better than when he was younger. Sometimes as guys get older they commit to a ball early. He’s still quick and fast with reaction time,’’ Maddon said.
‘‘I’m guessing at times [at the plate], but if I don’t guess right, I’m staying on pitches I used to miss,’’ Zobrist said.
‘‘I can tell there are times when my body is getting tired. But the fact we have such a great roster enables me to take my days [off].’’
Maddon knows Zobrist will need those days, but the way the team has played as a whole – and the versatility of his roster – is making it easier to give a hot bat a day off.
‘‘We talked in camp about how important it was to have a good start to absorb a bump [losing stretch],’’ Maddon said. ‘‘Having the good start and the record we have and our good back-ups helps you [rest players.] You can still stub your toe and look good.’’