It all came together for Ben Zobrist on Friday, because why not? He’s a Cub in the midst of one of the most glorious, do-no-wrong starts to a Cubs season ever.
The veteran infielder, a long-time Joe Maddon piece acquired in part for his intangible effect on the field and in the clubhouse, made the most tangible of contributions in the latest episode of a spectacular season on the North Side. Zobrist hit two home runs, drove in four runs and scored three in an 8-6 victory over the Washington Nationals before 39,206 on a gorgeous spring day at Wrigley Field.
“It’s awesome,” Zobrist said. “It’s exciting to finally play here with the wind blowing out a little bit. The crowd was electric. It’s fun.”
After a modest start at the plate this season, Zobrist is heating up to add even more fuel to one of the best starts in franchise and National League history. He has four home runs and 11 RBIs in his last three games. The Cubs have won five consecutive games and are 22-6 — tied for the best 28-game record in the National League since the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who started 22-4 on their way to ending a franchise-long World Series drought.
“Anytime you starting feeling good at the plate, it makes the game a lot of fun — especially with the nice, warm day, the wind blowing out,” said Zobrist, who is hitting .277 with five homers and 24 RBIs this season. “Probably a week ago, both of those balls I hit would have been caught. But fortunately for me, they were blowing out a little bit. Just feeling good right now. We’re playing great baseball.”
That’s the Cubs 2016 story in a nutshell. Twenty of their 22 victories have been by two runs or more. (They’ve won 17 times by three runs or more.) Their run differential of plus-98 leads the majors by a mile. The Cardinals and Nationals were next at plus-45 heading into Friday night’s games. After 28 games, the 1927 Yankees had a run differential of plus-77. That’s how hot the Cubs are. With Pedro Strop, Travis Wood and Adam Warren unavailable for rest purposes, the bullpen gave up four runs — but only after the Cubs had build an 8-2 lead against former Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
“We’re just playing well,” Maddon said. “We’re functioning in all areas of the game — pitching, defense, hitting, base running. We’re functioning on all levels. We’re giving guys rest. Jason [Heyward] has been out for a couple of days because of a wrist. Dexter [Fowler] gets kicked out of a game [for arguing a strike three Thursday night] and gets a rest.”
Maddon knows he has a hot hand. The Cubs hit four home runs off Scherzer, while John Lackey (4-1), pitching in the same conditions, allowed but one homer and only two runs in seven innings. Tommy LaStella hit a two-run homer off Scherzer in the second inning after the Nationals had taken a 2-0 lead. Anthony Rizzo homered in the third and Zobrist followed with his first of the game for a 4-2 lead.
With everything going the Cubs’ way, Maddon knows what to do now.
“Stay out of the way,” Maddon said. “I just try to throw out the best lineup every day based on rest and match-ups. You really try to stay out of the way as much as you can an empower your guys to go ahead and play, the coaching staff to go ahead and coach. And not try to interfere with things as much as you possibly can.”