Zen of Zo: Why veteran’s influence key to sustained Cubs success

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Ben Zobrist tries to turn double play in second inning of Cubs’ 7-3 victory over Reds Friday night.

CINCINNATI – Ben Zobrist hit two home runs with a double in between to help power the Cubs to a 7-3 victory over the Reds on Friday night.

It’s the third three-hit game in Zobrist’s last seven games – with six walks and 21 total bases in that stretch – as he heats up just in time for next week’s playoff opener.

Even before the big game Friday, a longtime National League scout said he graded Zobrist as the toughest out in the Cubs’ playoff lineup.

“He thrives this time of year,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Yet to fully measure the value the Cubs envisioned with last winter’s four-year, $56 million free-agent investment, ask Zobrist whether he’s considered how quickly young, Gold Glove-caliber infielder Javy Baez might chase down his second base starting job.

“If we’ve got younger, more athletic, quicker guys to play those positions,” he said, “and offensively and defensively it makes more sense for somebody else to play second, and for me to play the outfield – I mean, that’s the goal. You’ve got to put the best team on the field.”

Nobody’s talking about the idea of Zobrist – a three-time All-Star with a 2015 World Series ring – spending more time on the bench. And regardless, it’s a more apt conversation for next February than this fall as the calendar flips to October and drips with anticipation for the Cubs.

But watching how manager Joe Maddon has continually rearranged all the moving parts to his versatile batting order and best-in-baseball defensive crew to get this team to this lofty perch on Oct. 1, it’s also tempting to wonder how the parts get moved to sustain the success going forward.

Especially as Baez continued to impress this season – leaned on more heavily as the season progressed to handle anticipated infield hot spots at third or second almost daily. And as the cerebral, steady elder statesman in Zobrist looks ahead at three more seasons as a central figure for the team.

“Honestly, I haven’t played well enough defensively, as good as I think I can play defensively, this year,” Zobrist, 35, said, adding Wrigley Field has been a tough adjustment after playing most of his career in Tampa Bay with the truer, higher turf bounces.

“It’s been difficult. It’s been hard for me to get my footing at times. And I’m not as fast as I used to be,” he said. “And [in Tampa] the ball was always bouncing a lot. And I didn’t have to bend as low.”

He laughs at that.

But he doesn’t downplay the effect he believes it has all had on his infield range.

He also doesn’t flinch at moving off his middle infield comfort zone to play more outfield if it means making room for somebody like Baez – if that means a stronger team.

“Seeing him come into his own offensively this year, how well he’s made the adjustment and how well he plays defensively, obviously there’s times when it’s better for him to be at second base than me to be at second base,” said Zobrist, who told the Cubs last winter he would play any position they asked as long as it meant signing with such a talented young team.

“They signed me here to be a veteran leader, to contribute what I can contribute offensively and defensively,” he said, “and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that over the course of the season.”

In fact, teammates talk about his work ethic and preparation. Maddon and the staff laud his influence. And the Cubs’ best record in more than 100 years (102-57 and counting) at least suggests a good fit.

“At times I’m like, ‘I need to be better in order for our team to be better defensively,’ “ he said. “So I know it’s not going to get any easier the next three years.

“It’s not about being perfect. It’s about bringing your best to the team. And we just have such a capable team all the way across the board – very capable guys – that you’ve got to be willing to be flexible.”

Whether it’s a function of Zobrist’s influence or a larger group mindset carried over from last year’s success in Maddon’s first year as Cubs manager, Baez sounds as willing as Zobrist to be flexible.

“Our goal is to win,” Baez said. “Time will keep going; things are going to keep changing; they [will] make a decision on my position and everything’s going to be good.

“Right now, I just want to win that World Series ring for Chicago.”


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