Archive | Ben Zobrist

Addison Russell Delivers in Win over Brew Crew; Cubs Reach Ten over .500

Posted on 27 April 2016 by Bob

The Chicago Cubs upped their record to an MLB-best 15 – 5, on a chilly Tuesday night at the Friendly Confines behind a sharp outing by Kyle Hendricks who pitched five innings while giving up just two hits and one earned run. Hendricks was lifted in the bottom of the fifth but not due to his performance. Manager Joe Maddon simply found an opportunity to manufacture runs on a night that cold temps had made runs hard to come by.

Hendricks

Facing a 1 – 0 deficit with just one out and two men in scoring position; Joe Maddon figured this was the time to strike. With the pitcher’s spot due up; Maddon lifted Hendricks, after just 69 pitches, in favor of Tommy “3am” La Stella. With runs at a premium, Maddon went all in and although La Stella merely walked; he extended the inning and allowed the next man up the opportunity to drive one in, which Dexter Fowler ably did sending a deep sac-fly to center and scoring Soler from third to knot the game up one-all.

Russell Triple Flex

This set the stage for Addison Russell’s late-game theatrics in the sixth inning. After Kris Bryant reached on an error and Ben Zobrist walked, Russell smacked a two-out triple to deep right-center scoring both men and breaking the game wide open for the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo, thankfully added an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh to make it 4 – 1; a margin they would use to hang on as the Brewers Ryan Braun delivered an RBI double off the bench in the eighth to bring Milwaukee within a run.

Hector Rondon came on to close in the ninth and made things interesting. After recording the first two outs on a strikeout and groundout, Rondon gave up a single to CF Kirk Nieuwenhuis eliciting some unease from Cubs fans not accustomed to tight contests this year. Brewers third baseman Aaron Hill stepped to the plate next and almost delivered a Brewers’ walk-off celebration, as he flied out to deep left field with Cubs fans holding their breath. The ball appeared to be held up in the wind, saving the Cubs from a potential collapse.

The Brewers and Cubs seemed to be in agreement on this as Milwaukee center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis intimated:

“He’s been a good guy in these spots lately and almost came up with that one at the end there; I think that ball is gone for sure if the wind is not blowing.”

Hector Rondon gave off a look of relief as catcher David Ross came out to congratulate him; knowing how close the Cubs had coming to being on the other end of the one-run game.

Still, the results persist as the Cubs had to play through the wind and cold as well and came away with a 4 – 3 ‘W’. They were able to hang on for the victory and ascend to pole position in the the MLB standings. Their 15 – 5 record gets them off to their best start in over 100+ years and their ten game margin over .500 is a benchmark in how far this team has come from even a year ago. Last year, it took until the dog days of August to reach the milestone; a full three months later than the club this year. That’s a nice testament to this team getting hot of the gate but doesn’t mean anything in terms of how they will handle the grind of a long season. Nevertheless, it shows how dialed in these guys are; the focus and drive of players not only wanting to be better than last year, but the best version of themselves. The Cubs know the expectations and are embracing them fully.

“We talked about this in the spring,” Anthony Rizzo said. “About turning up the levels to get ready for this.”

It appears that the dial has been turned to ’11’ with little chance of being turned down. A formidable combination of excellent pitching with batting-practice type power at the plate has taken the league by storm.

A storm is where we find ourselves tonight as cold temps and rain have enveloped Wrigley creating a dreary atmosphere for Jake Arrieta’s first start post no-no. He is set to face off against Milwaukee’s Taylor Jungmann with first pitch coming at 7:05Pm CST.

Here’s to hoping the rain clears up so Arrieta and Co. can stay on schedule.

Let’s Go Cubs!

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The Song Remains the Same; Cubs Pitchers Get it Done on the Mound & at the Plate (AGAIN!)

Posted on 20 April 2016 by Bob

For the second night in a row, a Cubs pitcher held the opposing team in check and delivered an RBI single. This time it was Jason Hammel’s turn as he threw six innings of five-hit, one-run ball while striking out six. Facing a one run deficit in the top of the fourth inning, Hammel stepped to the plate with two outs and bases loaded. He proceeded to slap a grounder right between the third baseman and shortstop to drive in not one, but two runs as Jorge Soler and Ben Zobrist came around to score.  They would be the only runs the Cubs would score, but ultimately all the runs they would need as the bullpen combination of Warren, Wood, Strop, and Rondon would work innings seven through nine to keep the Cards at bay and make the one-run lead hold up. The Cardinals lone run coming on a Yadier Molina triple in the second inning that scored Randal Grichuk.

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 19: Starter Jason Hammel #39 of the Chicago Cubs hits an RBI single against the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth inning at Busch Stadium on April 19, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

It was in many ways a replay of the night before when John Lackey went seven strong innings and nabbed himself an RBI single, albeit not the game winner as Lackey was already working with a lead. This night was “Hammel Time” for sure but Jason Heyward grabbed some of the headline yet again this series.  In the bottom of the fourth, with Matt Holliday on third base representing the tying run, Yadier Molina flied out to right field. Holliday was sent by the third base coach and Heyward, using those defensive instincts we’ve heard so much about, got in perfect position to make the catch while already preparing his body to make the throw home. He rifled the ball to Catcher Miguel Montero who was able to apply the tag just as Holliday was sliding towards the plate. Despite another  ‘0-fer’ night at the plate, Heyward’s defense has not only helped us to forget the lack of hits but also preserved the Cubs lead at 2 – 1, which would become the final score.

Heyward throws out Holliday

There’s been a bit of fussing lately concerning the low batting averages of some of the Cubs big hitters and rightfully so. After all, we can’t expect Dexter Fowler to keep up the torrid pace he has begun the season with. Still, it ultimately comes down to if you win the game or not, and to date, the Cubs have done a lot more winning than losing. No one says the heart of your order has to bat  over .200 to win; sure, it helps, but it’s not required. Sometimes taking a walk, or finding a way to get on base, coupled with a stellar defensive effort is enough to get you in position. The Cubs bats will surely wake up as April gives way to May and (hopefully) warmer temperatures. In the mean time, the Cubs don’t need to apologize for anything. They have won big and now they have won a tight contest; the bottom line is that they are finding ways to win, always the hallmark of a good ball club.

The series finale is currently in progress with the Cardinals jumping on Kyle Hendricks early, notching 2 runs apiece in each of the first two innings. The Cubs got one back in the fourth against Carlos Martinez on an Anthony Rizzo solo home run, but it’s been pretty much all Cards so far. Given how well the Cubs pitchers had kept St. Louis in check in over the first two games, the Red Birds were due to break out a bit, especially at home against the Cubs #5 starter. The game is currently in a prolonged rain delay in the seventh inning.

Here’s hoping the Cubs can get the runs and weather to climb back into this thing and complete the sweep. If not, two out of three ain’t bad.

Let’s Go Cubs!

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Lackey Carries Cubs Past Cards in Return to Busch

Posted on 19 April 2016 by Bob

In his much-ballyhooed return to St. Louis, John Lackey put on quite a show. He may wear a Cubs jersey now but the man clearly still feels at home in Busch Stadium scattering four hits over seven innings while striking out 11, just shy of his career high. More importantly, he allowed zero earned runs, building on his 1.93 home ERA at Busch last year. Pretty impressive for 37-year-old. He even added an RBI single late in the game; perhaps to let the Cardinals know he was worth more than just a qualifying offer.

Lackey Mows Down Cards

“You could tell he was amped up,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. That’s one way of putting it.

On a night when much of the attention was supposed to be on Jason Heyward; it was his older, less sought-after  teammate who stole the headline. That’s not to say J-Hey didn’t contribute.  Heyward struggled at the plate, going 0-4, but  compensated with his fielding, leaving his feet to make several catches in right field to support his pitcher. They did all this amidst a chorus of boos from the Red Bird faithful; something that seemed to invigorate rather than intimidate the two former Cardinals.

“I’ve seen booed, that ain’t booed,” Lackey said. “That was pretty soft boo.”

The escalation of this rivalry has been hastened by the results of last year’s NLDS and the defection of two key players to the North Side. Now the action on the field threatens to elevate it to a fever pitch.

Chicago Cubs' Dexter Fowler, right, rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run off St. Louis Cardinals' Mike Leake, left, during the sixth inning of a baseball game Monday, April 18, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Even though the Cubs were able to pile on, beating the Cards by a final score of 5 – 0, the game was very much a pitcher’s duel heading into the sixth inning. To that point, Lackey and Card’s starter Mike Leake had allowed just a few hits apiece, each displaying the ability to work out of jams with men in scoring position. Then Dex Fowler came to the plate and ignited the Cubs offense; depositing a monster home run 435 feet to dead center (his third of the year) and breaking the stalemate. The Cubs piled on in the seventh with Jorge Soler launching a zinger to shortstop Aledmys Diaz who could not corral it cleanly and then sailed the throw to first over first baseman Brandon Moss’ head, allowing Kris Bryant to score from third, Miguel Montero to advance to third, and Soler to take second on the errant throw. Addison Russell would then hit a sac-fly to center to plate Montero before Lackey delivered his RBI-single to score pinch runner; Matt Szczur.

The Cubs would add their fifth and final run in the eighth when Kris Bryant would single home Ben Zobrist, who had doubled to lead off the inning in breaking out of an 0 for 24 slump that I’m sure was as much a relief for him as it was for fans of the new second baseman. All around it was a night full of positive takeaways for the Cubs as they got a leg up on their division rivals at their house and did so with some moxie and swagger that will prove helpful should the teams find themselves in a playoff chase/series yet again.

The series continues tonight as Jason Hammel takes the ball against the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia. First pitch is 7:15PM CST at Busch Stadium.

Let’s Go Cubs!

 

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Spring Training Begins as Cubs Look to Build Upon 2015 Success

Posted on 04 March 2016 by Bob

After a brief and mild winter the Chicago Cubs full squad returned to Mesa, AZ last week to commence spring training and with it, another season in their quest for a World Series title that has eluded them for the last century and counting. Of all the squads that have come and gone since then, perhaps none have been better poised to lift the hardware over their heads in the crisp, November air. None have been as “hyped” as well.

Embrace the Target

Expectations are sky-high entering 2016, as they should be. Fresh off a turnaround season that saw the Cubs float from last place to the NLCS, there will be no sneaking up on teams this year. 2016 is the year that was circled in pen when Theo Epstein was signed back on October 12, 2011. ‘This is the year’, ‘The time is now’, and ‘Embrace the target’ are the mantras (old and new) that the Cubs will live by this season. While some will say pegging the Cubs as the favorites on paper is detrimental to the team’s success, I would ask “what choice does one have with a roster like this?”

The Cubs return an incredible young core led first baseman and MVP candidate, Anthony Rizzo. He is flanked by Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, phenom shortstop: Addison Russell,  and the one man wrecking crew that is Kyle Schwarber. Throw in the best right fielder in the game; the newly acquired Jason Heyward and World Series Champion/two-time All Star second baseman Ben Zobrist and it is clear why the prognosticators have chosen the Cubs as the favorites (and we haven’t even discussed the pitching yet).  This team amazingly got better without having to give up any of it’s highly-rated but largely unproven talent (the lone casualties being Starlin Castro and Chris Coghlan, who while solid contributors were not long term answers for this squad moving forward).

Heyward Cubs Spring training

As if the off-season hadn’t been kind enough to the North-Siders with the additions of Heyward, Zobrist, and starting pitcher John Lackey (on an incredibly affordable deal), the Cubs welcomed Dexter Fowler back last week on what is essentially a one year deal. Media reports had linked Fowler to the Orioles and many Cubs players thought that a deal had been finalized but Fowler had remained in contact with Cubs and ultimately wanted to be here with this team, even if he left money on the table to do so. The rich definitely get richer as the Cubs lineup will now be a veritable murderer’s row looking something like this on any given day:

  1. CF Dexter Fowler
  2. 2B Ben Zobrist
  3. 1B Anthony Rizzo
  4. 3B Kris Bryant
  5. C Kyle Schwarber
  6. RF Jason Heyward
  7. LF Jorge Soler
  8. P
  9. SS Addison Russell

It’s not as if the talent ends there either with Miguel Montero still likely to resume the starting catcher’s role and Javy Baez waiting in the wings as a super utility player capable of filling in at a number of positions both infield and out. Depth is a wonderful thing to have, as any big league skipper will tell you. The grind of a season coupled with a rash of injuries can sink a team faster than you think making the Cubs’ focus on redundancy and utility a needed insurance policy that any team with championship aspirations should carry.

The depth isn’t limited to position players either as, unlike last year, the Cubs have great depth and multiple, quality starters led by Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Jon Lester and John Lackey round out a top three that look to be as formidable as any in the National League save the NY Mets. Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks look to be in line for the final rotation spots but will need to prove it this year after somewhat rough outings in the second half and playoffs of 2015. In the event that they stumble, the Cubs added insurance in the form of resigning Travis Wood and Trevor Cahill, both former starters turned bullpen long men. They added Adam Warren in the Castro trade with the Yankees who could compete for the fifth of sixth spot, provided his value isn’t better served in the pen. They also acquired Aaron Brooks from Oakland in the Coghlan tried which freed up money to sign Fowler and netted another potential spot starter/bullpen arm who will most likely start the year in Triple-A.

The team, as is, appears set with the season a little over a month from starting but one has learned to expect the unexpected from this Cubs’ front office. Still, there is one thing that should not be unexpected and that is for this club to get every team’s best shot on the field, hence Maddon’s acceptance of the hype in his theme for this season: “Embrace the Target”.

Maddon Spring Training

“I’m really a big believer in running towards the fire instead of away from it,” Maddon said. “I want our guys to get comfortable with the concept of everyone speaking so glowingly of us.”

He steered a young and inexperienced club through rough seas in his first year but this season it will be mostly uncharted waters. Here’s hoping to churn that hype into a calm and steady wake as the SS Cub sets sail.

 

 

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Cubs Land Heyward and Amplify Expectations for 2016

Posted on 11 December 2015 by Bob

The Cubs reeled in a very big fish today; one that will definitely rock the boat, and also send a ripple effect throughout the entire pond. Jason Heyward is a Chicago Cub, and the rest of the league may be left wondering if they “need a bigger boat”.

Heyward a Cubs

Make no mistake about it, this acquisition is monumental from both a symbolic and a material perspective. The Cubs have acquired arguably the Cardinals’ best player, bolstering Chicago’s lineup and defense while subtracting from their main rival. His impact will be immediate both in his plate discipline and his superb fielding skills but this is not just about his physical presence but also what his signing symbolizes for the Chicago Cubs and the league at large.

In bright and bold lettering: THE CUBS ARE BACK. Relegated to laughing stock status for the better part of the last decade (and vast swaths of the previous century), these Cubs are officially the team to beat heading into the 2016 season. Sure, that’s just on paper but given the team’s success last year breaking in a mostly young group under a new manager, it’s hard not to dream big with this club’s expectations next year. Theo Epstein and Co., to their great credit, delivered on their promise of building a contender and in a relatively short time frame. It wasn’t always pretty, easily apparent, or popular but this management group laid an incredibly strong foundation and are now reaping the benefits their prowess and discipline have sown.

Committing $184 million over eight years to one player is the type of move that puts other teams on notice. They are a big-time contender who is “All-In” in 2016. The fever pitch will reach crescendo this impending spring and with it will come the expectations that all highly-touted teams are saddled with. They will be heavy and tangible and it will be up to Joe Maddon and his veterans to guide these sophomores through pressures never felt to heights never seen.

It’s hard to articulate just how truly epic signing Jason Heyward is. You cannot truly appreciate what signing a player to this type of deal is like until you crawl through the mud and muck that was the Cubs from 2010-2014. Never making the big splash. Trading off your assets for prospects. Repeatedly finishing last in your division. Entire seasons over by the end of July.  A 100 loss season.  All of that makes this day that much sweeter. The excitement on twitter today is proof of just how important today was to the two primary fan bases affected. For the Cardinals, it was complete dejectedness with some bitterness and embarrassing sour grapes thrown in. For the Cubs, it was unbridled elation; the future foretold of in 2010 has finally arrived.

Cubs beat cards

It’s not just Jason Heyward, but man, is he a BIG piece. He boasts a career .268/.353/.431 slash line and will most likely begin his Cubs career in CF, although that could change pending on whether or not Jorge Soler is moved for starting pitching.  Heyward also ranks 5th in WAR (12.7)  by position players over the last two seasons. His defense is excellent, saving 122 runs since the start of the 2010 season, the most in baseball during that time frame. He is also 26 meaning he is just entering his prime. All this adds up to a home run for the Cubs even though Heyward is not known for his long ball. It’s being reported that he turned down more money from the Cards and Nats to play in Chicago, showing that you really can’t put a price on how valuable Theo, Maddon, and Ricketts have been in turning this team around. Free agents want to come here, young players want to stay here, and fans should turn out in droves to cheer this squad on.

Signing a Jason Heyward is a marquee acquisition but add in Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Adam Warren and the Cubs are clearly winning this off-season. They also may not be done as many sources say they are still looking to make a deal for another starter with the Padres’ Tyson Ross, the Indian’s Carlos Carrasco, and several Tampa Bay Rays out there as possibilities.

This team will have a huge target on their back as the calendar turns and hopefully they can embrace the challenge and are careful not to let the “pressure exceed the pleasure”. Good times loom ahead on the North Side as winter hasn’t felt this warm in years.

GO CUBS GO!

 

 

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Cubs Land Zobrist; Trade Castro to Yankees for Warren

Posted on 09 December 2015 by Bob

After a long Tuesday filled with rumors of signings and trades, a big one finally came to fruition for the Chicago Cubs who were able to land the highly coveted Ben Zobrist for $56 million over four years.  Zobrist had been courted hard by the Mets who saw him as an important piece to stabilizing their infield but the Cubs, who failed to beat the Mets on the field in the NLCS, were able to best their National League competitors with not only a solid offer but also closer proximity to Zobrist’s off-season home in Nashville, TN and the chance to be reunited with Joe Maddon who managed him in Tampa Bay for the majority of his career.

Ben-Zobrist

This was a huge coup for the Cubs who seemingly came out of nowhere to steal Zobrist from the Mets, Nationals, and Giants who allegedly offered the free agent more money but not enough of the intangibles that the Cubs did.  Zobrist, who has been known in the past as super-utility man and bench weapon, will assume the starting second basemen duties recently vacated by Starlin Castro.  Zobrist has a career .265 batting average and figures to slot somewhere near the top of the Cubs lineup, possibly even lead off. His presence alone should help cut down on the Cubs strikeouts next season and one can only hope his discipline is contagious. There is some concern given his age (34) and the fact that he has a no trade clause through the first 3 years of the contract but the Cubs are betting that his impact these first 2-3 years will far outweigh any drop off he suffers by age 38.

This was an outstanding move by the Cubs and gives them another veteran presence to guide these youngsters through their “sophomore” year. He is also a proven winner having been a major contributor on the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals last year after coming over at the deadline from Oakland.

“Ben is a winning baseball player,” Theo Epstein said. “His offense, his defense, his baserunning. He’s been one of the more valuable players in the game for a long time.”

Maddon has to be overjoyed at the versatility Zobrist brings to this roster being capable of playing multiple positions infield and outfield, as well his ability to lead off and get on base. Combine that with Javy Baez’ flexibility and the Cubs have a plethora of situational substitutions that should prove to be a great advantage day in and day out over the course of the season and the variety of match-ups they will face.

Starlin castro

In acquiring Zobrist it became clear that someone had to be moved given the cluster of infielders on the roster. The math just didn’t add up and Epstein found a suitable trade partner for the longest-tenured Cub on the team, Starlin Castro. Yes, it was sad to see Castro go given his desire to play for the Cubs and his strong finish last year but the math just didn’t add up. Castro may have never fully realized his potential in Chicago and with so many options, his skill set became expendable. His rebound after being benched and moved to second base did allow him to bring some pretty decent talent back in the form of pitcher Adam Warren and second basemen Brendan Ryan from the Yankees. This may seem paltry given what Castro was projected to do in his career but realistically it is just about right. Warren is no slouch going 7 – 7 last year with a 3.29 ERA splitting time as a starter and in the bullpen. He provides great depth for the Cubs as a possible #5 starter or “long” man out of the bullpen. This is precisely what the Cubs need given their shortcomings in the NLCS this past year. With Lackey also in the fold, Hendricks and Hammel get bumped back a spot and possibly into competition with Warren for the #5 starter position. Competition and depth are two great things to have.

So while Castro could return to All-Star form in New York, the Cubs essentially got Zobrist and Warren for the price of his salary which is not a bad return at all. It clearly signals that 2016 is an “All-In” year with the Cubs aggressively tackling their deficiencies to reach the next level. Castro’s contributions through the lean years and positive clubhouse presence will truly be missed and he deserves a curtain call for his accomplishments these past six years in Chicago but the future is now on the North Side and the Cubs cannot afford to be sentimental with the stakes raised to staggering heights this year.

So a big day for the Cubs and it sounds like they may not be done. No, this move does not preclude them from signing Jason Heyward but the math on that will have to be incredibly creative. Still, no one really saw Zobrist coming so it’s safe to say that no one really knows what Theo is capable of. This ain’t over by a long shot but Cubs fans have to be happy with the early returns. They are acting like a big market contender for the first time in years and for the fans it has to feel like Christmas cam early. They have also been able to hold on to the majority of their young talent so far while continuing to better their roster. They have done all this without sacrificing the future.

Stay Tuned…

Go Cubs Go!

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