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Sports Saturday

Cubs leadoff spot problems a case study in closer-like uniqueness of mental side of role

Ben Zobrist has a .370 on-base percentage in 21 games there this year. Until Rizzo the last two games, everyone else for the Cubs had a miserable .269 OBP there.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers
Anthony Rizzo has reached base four times in 10 plate appearances as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter the last two games.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It was a rare, if not remarkable, feat Anthony Rizzo pulled off when he returned to the Cubs’ leadoff spot Thursday in San Diego, then drew a first-inning walk and eventually scored.

Whether the self-proclaimed “greatest leadoff hitter of all-time” should have been deployed before the final 17-game sprint to the finish can be debated.

What’s not debatable is that the Cubs’ season-long deficit at the top of the batting order not only has played a significant role in their inconsistent team production this season, but also has provided a case study in uniqueness of that spot in the order.

“In spite of how much you don’t want them to think differently [batting there], they’re going to think differently,” manager Joe Maddon said of his efforts to find mix-and-match production, especially during the four months his best leadoff man, Ben Zobrist, was taking a personal leave.

Before Rizzo took his turn there Thursday, the Cubs had the worst leadoff on-base percentage in the majors (.283) and tied for the sixth-fewest runs scored from the spot (87).

And that includes Zobrist’s .370 OBP in 21 games there. Until Rizzo, every Cub not named Zobrist: .269 OBP (.188 average).

In fact, the lengthy runs of Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward in the spot suggest the role takes a different mentality and approach – almost like the closer mentality it takes to consistently get those final three outs.

“I think it does,” Maddon said.

Rizzo, for instance, embraces his moments at the top, even talking big and having fun.

And Zobrist’s style just makes him a natural, Maddon said.

“He’s naturally willing to accept the walk,” Maddon said. “He’s naturally fine with that. … Where some guys just can’t totally buy into that.”

Consider that Schwarber is hitting .236 with a .376 OBP when not leading off (through Wednesday) – but hit .204 with a .304 OBP in 56 games leading off.

Heyward had a .355 OBP when he was asked to take over for a month ahead of Zobrist’s return to the team – but hit .147 with a .252 OBP in 32 games at leadoff.

“Deeper in the order you feel a lot more comfortable going up there swinging, first pitch or something,” said Heyward, who admitted feeling more compelled to take early and see pitches while leading off. “You don’t exactly hunt the same. So naturally that changes. Whenever you try to do that, you do lose a little bit of aggressiveness, you do start to be a little cautious. And that’s not how you hit.

“That’s just where we were at [in the season with a need] at the time.”

DID YOU KNOW

  • Yu Darvish leads the National League in both home runs (31) and hit batters (11). Only five pitchers in history have led the NL in both, only one in the last 20 years: Pedro Astacio (2003 with Mets, 1998 with Rockies). The others: Mark Leiter 1996, Kevin Gross 1986, Phil Niekro 1979 and ’75, and Wilbur Cooper 1919.
  • Shortstop Nico Hoerner on Monday became the first Cub with three hits and four RBI in his major league debut since Dee Fondy in 1951. “Good company?” Hoerner said. Fondy, a first baseman, finished his career with exactly 1,000 hits.

THAT’S WHAT HE SAID

“Obviously you don’t know me too well. I’m pretty much pissed all the time.” – Pitcher Jon Lester after a recent outing when asked what specifically “pissed him off” about it.

“It brings a whole different energy. It lifts the whole club up.” – Pitcher Kyle Hendricks on Nico Hoerner’s sudden-impact big-league debut Monday.

“Everybody gets to start back over once you’re there. You just have to get there.” – veteran pitcher Cole Hamels on the postseason.

HIDDEN FIGURES

26 – Days spent on the injured list (knee, elbow) for closer Craig Kimbrel, compared to 54 active since joining the team midseason (through Friday).

4 – Years the Cubs have qualified for the postseason with fewer than 90 wins, among 20 appearances (85 in 2007, 88 in 2003, 89 in 1938, 84 in 1918).

6 – Days it took the Brewers to make up five games on the Cubs to tie for the NL’s second wild-card position Wednesday night.