How Ben Zobrist got back to ‘old times’

Former Ray Ben Zobrist has had a lot to be  thankful for this season with Cubs. [AP]
Former Ray Ben Zobrist has had a lot to be thankful for this season with Cubs. [AP]
Published Oct. 1, 2018|Updated Oct. 1, 2018

Ben Zobrist was, finally, starting to look old last year.

Injuries and inconsistent performance, plus maybe some ill fortune, ganged up to make his age 36 season with the Cubs one of his worst in what somehow was already a dozen in the majors.

But as he did first in establishing himself as a legit big-leaguer with the Rays, and then transforming himself into the model for the multi-positional impact player now common throughout the game and as well as All-Star, Zobrist has again adjusted.

And succeeded.

As the Cubs, after losing Monday's tiebreaker game with the Brewers, head back into the playoffs, Zobrist was again a key reason.

His .308 average ranked sixth in the National League, his .379 on-base percentage eighth, his .831 OPS productive and his play at second base and in the outfield  again stellar.

"Overall,'' Zobrist said, "I feel really good about the offense, the defense and just staying healthy.''

There are two reasons for his resurrection after what was his worst season since making it to the majors to stay during the Rays 2008 World Series season, hitting .232 with a .693 OPS.

One, how hard he worked during the winter.

Two, how much he was rested during the summer.

Zobrist, who turned 37 in May, took it upon himself to be as physically fit and ready as he could be when he showed up for spring training.

"He wasn't happy with last year,'' said former Rays and now Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "When he came out to camp this year, the first moment I saw him, I said, "Wow, he's in as good a shape as I've seen him.' ''

Then the Cubs took it upon themselves to devise a plan to keep him strong and healthy all season, usually limiting him to three straight days of play and avoiding day games after night games.

"A lot of it has to do with the extra rest, I think that's helped a lot,'' Zobrist said. "I've had some breaks, had some things that have gone well. It helps when the guys around you are playing so well, and you're just trying to add to the mix.''

First baseman Anthony Rizzo said they expected Zobrist, in the third season of a four-year, $56 million deal, to bounce back.

"He's just Zobrist, he's just being himself,'' Rizzo said. "He's a pro. He takes it year to year. He came off a two-year bender basically with the Royals and their (2015 World Series) championship and then with us. Just from the get-go last year it was tough for everybody. I can't imagine how tough it was for him being 36 (at the start of the season). But he's Ben Pro-

Traded by Tampa Bay after the 2014 season to the A's (who later that season sent him to the Royals), Zobrist doesn't keep up too much with the current Rays, given that Kevin Kiermaier is the only former teammate still with them, though Rocco Baldelli and Kevin Cash are on the coaching staff, which he admits is amusing. He did keep track of Joey Wendle, who he got to know when in Oakland, and delighted in his success.

Zobrist has enjoyed playing again for Maddon, noting "the great job" he's done in a challenging season. And reuniting with former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who joined the Cubs staff this year, and apparently as entertaining as always, especially in his conversations with pitchers on the mound.

"Just like old times,'' Zobrist said.

In more ways than one.

Here is a look at other former Rays on the 10 playoff teams (though not all may be on the postseason rosters):

A's: RHPS Edwin Jackson, Fernando Rodney; OF Matt Joyce.

Astros: No ex-Rays, but a couple of Tampa Bay locals, RHP Lance McCullers, OF Kyle Tucker.

Braves: LHP Jonny Venters, 1B Lucas Duda, C Rene Rivera, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez.

Brewers: LHPs Xavier Cedeno, Dan Jennings.

Cubs: RHP Steve Cishek, LHP Mike Montgomery (in minors), C Bobby Wilson, Zobrist, Hickey, Maddon.

Dodgers: RHP Dylan Floro, LHP Zac Rosscup (in minors), OF Andrew Toles (in minors), first-base coach George Lombard.

Indians: OF Brandon Guyer.

Red Sox: RHP Nathan Eovaldi, INF Steve Pearce, LHP David Price.

Rockies: RHP Wade Davis, RHP German Marquez (in minors), LHP Jake McGee,

Yankees: INF Adeiny Hechavarria.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.