The Cubs haven’t hit like a contender for almost two weeks.
“We’re just not consistently making hard contact by any means, and I can’t defend that,” manager Joe Maddon said.
But that hasn’t stopped the National League batting race from resuming this week at Wrigley Field with the arrival Friday of NL leader Scooter Gennett (.321) and the Reds.
The Cubs’ hitting will be critical for maintaining their division lead over the last 16 games.
Enter Ben Zobrist, who’s batting .311.
After a scheduled day off, the Cubs’ eldest statesman is expected to return to the lineup Friday with the league’s fourth-leading average in another three-game batting-race showcase. Zobrist struck out as a pinch hitter Thursday against the Nationals.
Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, Nos. 2 and 3 in the race, respectively, just left town after a 10-for-24 combined effort for the Brewers.
To be sure, modern baseball analysts have long dismissed batting average as an incomplete measure at best and more often as outdated.
Even Zobrist downplays its value as he heads into the last two weeks of his first batting race.
“I’m not even worried about that unless it actually becomes a reality,” he said of becoming the first Cub since Derrek Lee in 2005 to win that race. “I just want to keep having quality at-bats and helping us figure out where we’re going.
“I can’t think about it right now. I don’t want to think about it right now. It’s there — I think about it more than I want to anyway, so to talk about it more is just not good for me. The better thing for me to talk about is how I can have a quality at-bat today or try to figure out how to help the team win today.”
And that’s just it.
Even if you’re of the school of thought that a batting title — or even, in Zobrist’s case, a first .300 season — means nothing, what Zobrist is doing for this team right now is desperately needed.
Maddon’s reference to “hard contact” is no coincidence, given the Cubs’ near-bottom ranking in the majors in that category since the All-Star break. Already a strikeout-prone team, the Cubs don’t walk enough or hit for enough power to compensate for their inability to — as Maddon often says — “move the baseball.”
So keep an eye on Zobrist vs. Gennett this weekend as the Cubs try to rediscover the two-week hitting surge they enjoyed until newcomer Daniel Murphy cooled off after being acquired and installed at the top of the order.
Can Zobrist, 37, be the spark and inspiration for a final surge?
He’s hitting .354 (.389 on-base percentage) since the All-Star break. An offseason program after an injury-hampered 2017 and the team’s scaled-back playing time have kept him fresh.
While the Cubs were struggling to hit and score during this week’s series loss to Cain, Yelich and the Brewers, Zobrist was the only Cub in 10 at-bats to avoid striking out against Brewers relief ace Josh Hader. He lined an eighth-inning single Wednesday.
“That’s been a huge help for me this year in regard to getting here,” he said of the playing-time formula that includes regular days off each week. “They recognized it, and I had to embrace it — that kind of role where I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to play, but I was playing as much as I should be playing.”
How much can he do the rest of the way? How much will his teammates follow his lead?
Just watch the batting race.
The National League batting race (team games remaining in parentheses):
- Scooter Gennett, Reds (15), 173-for-539, .32096
- Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (15), 153-488, .31352
- Christian Yelich, Brewers (15), 163-520, .31346
- Ben Zobrist, Cubs (16), 123-396, .31060
- Freddie Freeman, Braves (16), 173-564, .30674