CLEVELAND (AP) — This is why Ben Zobrist came back home. And this is why manager Joe Maddon wanted him so badly.
The Cubs needed a veteran in the clubhouse to teach their seemingly endless supply of budding young stars, someone who’d been there. Who’d done that. Who cared little about curses or droughts. Who knew what Maddon wanted and how to translate it.
Zobrist, fresh off a World Series title with the Kansas City Royals, was searching for a place to spend the final years of a consistently fine career. What better place to do it than a 2-hour drive from where he grew up in central Illinois?
And there he was early Thursday morning, standing in the batter’s box in the top of the 10th inning in Game 7, facing a two-strike count with two runners on. Then the 35-year-old switch-hitter did something that may have encapsulated everything Maddon loves about him.
Zobrist shortened his swing. He fouled off one pitch to stay alive. The next provided the biggest blow in Chicago’s season-long bout with the weight of its own history, a double inside third base that scored pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. with the go-ahead run in an 8-7 win that gave the Cubs their first championship since 1908 and earned Zobrist the World Series MVP award.
“It’s a team game and I can’t believe I get the opportunity to hold this trophy,” he said.
Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw intentionally walked Chicago slugger Anthony Rizzo to get to Zobrist, who entered the game hitting .391 in the Series but had gone hitless in four at-bats. Shaw quickly got ahead 1-2 before Zobrist — batting left-handed — poked a foul ball down the third base line past a diving Jose Ramirez. The next pitch was more of the same. In a situation where some of his teammates would have swung for the outer reaches of Progressive Field, Zobrist settled for making contact.
The normally understated Zobrist pointed toward the sky after his 10th and final hit of the series as the blue-clad fans who spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars to turn portions of the Indians’ home field into an eastern suburb of Wrigleyville roared once more.
“I know he threw a pretty hard cutter,” Zobrist said. “I just barely hung in there and fortunately he put one just close enough to the plate where I could slap it down the line.”
By the time Zobrist went to the dugout to fetch his glove and ran back out to his spot in left field, the lead was two. Barely 10 minutes later, Zobrist was sprinting to join the dogpile in the infield after Kris Bryant threw to good friend Anthony Rizzo at first for the final out, the second time in as many years Zobrist found himself awash in the joy.
Last fall he helped the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in five Series games. When he went looking for a job, there was really only one place to go: Chicago.
“Ben is a winning baseball player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the day Zobrist signed a four-year, $56 million deal last December. “His offense, his defense, his baserunning. He’s been one of the more valuable players in the game for a long time.”
One who also came to Wrigley Field without an ego. Maddon moved the player he cultivated a close relationship with while the two were in Tampa Bay around like a kid with a new toy. Zobrist played primarily at second base but also spent time in left and right field. Always without complaint. Always with the greater goal in mind.
A goal that was realized after Cleveland’s Rajai Davis tied the score with a stunning two-run homer off Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman in the eighth. After the ninth inning ended, there was a 17-minute rain delay. And then the Indians dared Zobrist to be the difference.
Just as he has whenever the Cubs called on him this season, he was.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.