After four months away from the Cubs for personal issues related to his marriage, Ben Zobrist wasted no time striding from the on-deck circle right into the batter’s box to lead off the first inning Tuesday night — even as a long standing ovation from the capacity crowd at Wrigley Field grew louder.
“I wanted to try to have a good at-bat. If I let myself sit and think about it, that was not going to happen,” said Zobrist, whose familiar “Benny and the Jets” walk-up music — sung by his wife, Julianna — could be heard vaguely through the cheering.
“It was a very warm welcome,” he added. “I just feel really grateful that I get to be part of this and be part of being a Chicago Cub. People make me feel special around here.”
Whether or not his choice to stick with his walk-up music spoke to his faith in “healing relationships,” which he mentioned upon his return from the restricted list Sunday, his relationship with the Wrigley faithful was quickly restored. Zobrist and catcher Willson Contreras energized the Cubs in their long-anticipated returns in a 6-1 victory over the Mariners.
Talk about the power of rest. Or fresh starts. Or whatever else you want to call it. Zobrist reached twice and scored twice. Contreras, who missed the last month with a hamstring injury, went 2-for-3 with a walk and homered in his first at-bat back for the first run of the game.
“It felt really special, the welcome that I got from the players and the fans,” said Contreras, who said he got chills hitting the homer off pal Felix Hernandez. “It was a special moment for me because I know that I got hurt a month ago and I battled my way back, and to be able to step in the box and hit a homer in my first at-bat coming back was just awesome.”
Kyle Schwarber had a big day, including his 33rd homer, after moving up to the No. 2 spot in the order — part of a domino effect created by Kris Bryant’s late scratch for a sore knee. And Nick Castellanos hit a big three-run homer in the fifth.
But the night belonged to Zobrist and Contreras — and what their continued presence down the stretch might mean for a team clawing to return to the playoffs.
“We missed them for a while, and then you add them back and it’s a boost, that shot in the arm,” said starter Jon Lester (12-9), who pitched around constant traffic, left the bases loaded three times and pitched six scoreless innings to earn his 189th career victory.
Teammates talked about the clubhouse presence and quality at-bat that have been missing in Zobrist’s absence, and the energy and impact bat that have been missing while Contreras was out.
“Being able to have those two guys back, it’s definitely a good thing,” Schwarber said.
Just how good might show in the standings and in key series down the stretch, starting Thursday in Milwaukee, when Zobrist is expected back at the top of the order for possibly three of the four games against the Brewers.
“I feel great physically,” he said.
The Cubs kept pace Tuesday with the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central, still three games back. And they kept the Phillies — 2½ games back in the race for the second NL wild-card spot — from gaining ground.
“He’s a role model to follow. He’s a huge example to look up to,” Contreras said of being reunited with Zobrist, his fellow lineup mainstay. “He’s going to help us a lot. Only by watching him going through stuff, professionally, he’s amazing.”
Manager Joe Maddon added of the 38-year-old Zobrist: “Having pretty much the month of August to get it going again, you saw [the result].”
“Wow,” Maddon said. “I wasn’t expecting all that.”