Ben Zobrist strode to the plate for the first time in nearly four months to a thunderous ovation that nearly drowned out the all-too-familiar strains of “Bennie and the Jets” that have long accompanied his plate appearances. He ended up striking out on a Félix Hernández curveball on 3-2, but the result was irrelevant for a number of reasons.
Chief among those was that it meant having a truly complete roster for the first time in months, even if said group is noticeably flawed. Though he should not be viewed as a savior under any circumstances, Zobrist’s return gives the Cubs something they haven’t had this season: Someone who’s willing to walk up to Old Man Fowler’s house and knock on the door.
“It was great just to get back finally, the last couple days I’ve been just kinda itching to get back out there,” Zobrist told NBC Sports Chicago’s Kelly Crull after the game. “A little bit mentally fatigued, emotionally fatigued, just coming back and being around the guys and just excited to add what I can to this equation.”
For as much as we view baseball as a results-oriented game, it’s the process that matters most. Lock in the right process, the results will come. By working a full count, even if it came against a guy who had trouble finding the zone all night, Zobrist displayed the kind of professional approach everyone had hoped would still be there after all that time off.
As proof that it wasn’t a fluke, Zobrist once again worked a full count when he came to the plate for the second time. Even better, he didn’t swing and miss as he fouled off three pitches in the process of drawing a walk. He then advanced to third on a Kyle Schwarber double and scored on a sac fly off the bat of Nicholas Castellanos.
That’s what the cool kids like to call “manufacturing runs,” and it’s something many have long bemoaned the Cubs’ inability to do. Ah, but the hitterish display from Zobrist was hardly over.
Leading off the bottom of the 5th, this time from his weaker right side, Zobrist pushed a bunt down the third base line for a single. A Schwarber single pushed him to second, after which a Castellanos homer brought three runs around. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s twice Zobrist reached base and twice he scored as a result.
He wasn’t able to do the same in his final at-bat, a groundout, but he managed to work yet another full count. Both strikes were of the called variety, but Zobrist would have walked again had the second of them been (properly) called a ball. Not that it really mattered by then, with the Cubs already in possession of all the runs they’d need, it just would’ve been nice to see the man further rewarded for his work.
The big thing with Zo is that he’s willing to do the so-called grunt work and just set the table in whatever manner he can. Part of the trouble with the Cubs over the last two seasons is that everyone seems to be trying to win the game with a single swing rather than staying in the moment and trusting their teammates to do the same.
“Just get on base any way that you can,” Zobrist said. “Walks are just as important as hits up there and, yeah, I’d like to drive the ball a little bit, I’d like to really get my swing going, but, you know, look around the field and find a hole.
“That’s the goal is just shoot the ball out there, get on base, because when you’ve got guys swinging the way we were swinging tonight behind me, I’m gonna still score a lot of runs for the team.”
That strategy could well end up keying a late run for the Cubs, though maybe we should hold off on that kind of talk until they win another game or six with Zobrist at leadoff. For now, it’s enough to see him back in uniform and producing offense out of a spot in the order from which the production has been downright…offensive.