‘Today’s the day’: How trade to Cubs opened opportunity for Zach McKinstry

The Cubs acquired the utility man from the Dodgers for veteran reliever Chris Martin.

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CINCINNATI — A phrase infielder Zach McKinstry’s girlfriend would repeat to him day after day became his mantra as he waited on the Dodgers’ bench for a chance to prove himself: ‘‘Today’s the day.’’

Usually, it wasn’t. In his last 24 days with the Dodgers — from the time he returned from a stint on the injured list for neck stiffness to the day he was traded to the Cubs — McKinstry logged seven plate appearances. But the mantra kept him focused as he waited.

It’s gonna be a good day, and you’re going to get in there and get to show off who you are.

‘‘At the end of the day, I had to get traded for that to happen,’’ McKinstry said in a conversation with the Sun-Times.

McKinstry already has had more than twice as many at-bats with the Cubs than he did with the Dodgers this season. And he only joined the Cubs, who acquired him in a deal for reliever Chris Martin before the trade deadline, a couple of weeks ago. McKinstry, a utility player, started at third base Saturday and went and went 0-for-4 in the Cubs’ 7-2 win against the Reds.

It took awhile for McKinstry to find his timing, but he broke through with a three-hit performance Tuesday against the Nationals at Wrigley Field.

‘‘About time,’’ he said with a laugh that night, engulfed by reporters. ‘‘A weight off my shoulders. . . . Just going back to my timing from last year and working on that load I had last year at the beginning of the year.’’

He logged his fourth Cubs hit the next day.

Specifically, McKinstry told the Sun-Times, he added a toe tap back into his load. That’s what he had been doing when he was slashing .296/.328/.556 in April 2021. Then a strained oblique muscle on his right side sidelined him for about a month.

On his road back from the injury, McKinstry worked on modifying his load, cutting down on the toe tap. The thinking was that a slower, more controlled movement would be a better timing mechanism when he got the hang of it.

‘‘Didn’t really have many at-bats without [the toe tap], other than minor leagues,’’ McKinstry said. ‘‘And it just didn’t feel like me.’’

He played in 46 more major-league games in the rest of the 2021 season, entering as a pinch hitter in more than a third of them. He notched only 18 more hits.

With his new load still a work in progress, McKinstry found himself rushing and collapsing into his front side, which took the power out of his back leg.

This season, he had only 14 major-league plate appearances with the Dodgers.

‘‘When he’s playing every day and getting consistent at-bats, he’s been really good,’’ Travis Barbary, the manager of the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers, said in a phone interview. ‘‘And I don’t see any reason why he can’t do that at the big-league level.’’

The Cubs clearly saw the same thing.

‘‘We had talked to the Dodgers throughout the year about him,’’ Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. ‘‘Never quite lined up on value during the course of the year. And then when we talked about Chris Martin in that context, it made a lot of sense. I think he’d been sort of blocked in their system.’’

When McKinstry joined the Cubs, he began working with hitting coach Greg Brown and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington on recapturing the success he had found at the beginning of last season. Part of that process has been bringing back the toe tap.

As McKinstry battled through an 0-for-14 stretch to start his tenure with the Cubs, manager David Ross kept penciling him into the lineup. He understood it would be a process for McKinstry to rediscover his timing.

Each day might be the day.

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