CINCINNATI — If anybody had forgotten about Ben Zobrist’s minor-league efforts to return to big-league playing shape for the Cubs’ final push, he’s threatening to put a quick end to that during his latest stop in Myrtle Beach.
The 2016 World Series MVP homered in his first two games since joining the Cubs’ advanced Class A affiliate in the Carolina League, including a leadoff shot in the first inning Friday.
The team has taken a “cautiously optimistic” approach to the 38-year-old’s efforts in the last week or so to prepare to play after nearly three months away from the team on personal leave while he took care of family business related to his pending divorce.
Others have doubted he can do it well enough to contribute in a September playoff push.
But Zobrist may already be showing signs he can return at that level.
“That’s my interpretation,” manager Joe Maddon said. “My biggest concern would be, is he able to catch up to the fastball? Has he slowed down? How is he moving on the infield? How does his arm stroke look? If that all looks normal, then it’s going to look normal here, too.”
Zobrist homered, walked and scored twice as the designated hitter Thursday after three days off following a three-game stint for Class A South Bend last weekend. On Friday, he started at second base and finished 1-for-3 with a strikeout and groundout.
“I’m trying to leave him alone right now and let him go play,” said Maddon, who has gotten internal reports and followed Zobrist’s progress on social media, as well. “He looks great.”
The Cubs’ bullpen took another short-term hit Friday when left-hander Kyle Ryan went on bereavement leave after the death of his grandmother. He’s expected to rejoin the team Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Ryan, whose departure left Derek Holland as the bullpen’s only left-hander for the final three games of the Reds series, has become one of Maddon’s most trusted relievers this year, regardless of handedness. Ryan has a 2.80 ERA in 52 appearances.
Right-hander Alec Mills, who made two strong fill-in starts for the Cubs last month, was recalled from Class AAA Iowa.
You may not have seen the last of Javy Baez batting left-handed in a game, at least not if his manager has any influence on it.
Maddon said he has no problem — “not at all” — with Baez trying it again after the Cubs shortstop ended the top of the ninth in Thursday’s blowout victory with a fly to center against Reds catcher Kyle Farmer (who pitched the final 1⅓ innings for the Reds).
“I thought it was interesting,” said Maddon, who raved about Baez’s “legitimate” ability from the left side, as evidenced by some batting-practice shows at Wrigley Field. “It’s no different than us putting [catcher Victor] Caratini out there to pitch. It’s the hitting version of that.”
Baez, who said he was nervous when he first went to the plate left-handed after getting the OK from Maddon, isn’t sure if he’ll try it again.
“I’ll probably do it again if I face a position player or somebody that’s not throwing hard,” he said.