ST. LOUIS – Adbert Alzolay’s bare heel struck the warning track dirt, and he rolled through his foot, feeling the ground beneath him with each step as he made his way around the Busch Stadium Field.
These barefoot walks, a mindfulness exercise that’s swept through Major League Baseball in recent years, have been part of Alzolay’s routine for a couple seasons now, he said.
“I just feel like walking on the dirt first barefoot really helps you to wake up your nervous system from the bottom of your feet all the way to the top,” Alzolay said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “So, I’ve been doing that a lot. I can see the results. I feel like my body is more ready.”
When he steps on the mound, he radiates an entirely different kind of energy.
As Alzolay has claimed the closer role this month, his celebratory shouts and fist pumps have become a staple of Cubs wins – at least the close ones. As the Cubs approached the trade deadline, making a final push to convince the front office of their postseason potential, Alzolay crossed the double-digit saves threshold this week. In the Cubs’ 3-2 win against the Cardinals on Friday, Alzolay recorded his 12th save of the year, aided by center fielder Mike Tauchman’s home run-robbing catch.
“That was one of the small goals we had getting ready for the season, personally, was to get at least 10 saves in the season,” he said. “And I feel like that came pretty quick, to be honest.”
He reached it with over two months to go. And he’s seen a difference in his stuff during adrenaline-filled short stints.
“I don’t have to be saving gas or something to go multiple innings,” he said. “So I feel that coming in for one inning and then just attacking the strike zone with my best weapons right away really has helped me to get to the position that I am right now.”
He was successful in a multifaceted relief role, too. But the Cubs lacked stability in the back end of their bullpen. Lately, Alzolay, Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather have provided it, working backwards from the ninth inning.
“He’s got guts,” manager David Ross said. “… To be able to harness those emotions and execute pitches within that, not everybody’s built for that. And he’s embraced that. I think he wants that.”
Entering Friday, Alzolay had a 1.64 ERA in 19 save situations this season.
“There’s a lot of little things that you can look into, like his ability to move the slider around, changing shapes, changing fastballs and all those things,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Sun-Times, “but his ability to attack the strike zone and get ahead – his walk rate is at a great spot, he’s punching out a lot of guys, but he’s also having an innings where he throws 10 pitches.”
He had one of those on Wednesday against the White Sox. He’d recorded a save the night before by striking out the side. But on the second night of a back-to-back, he induced a lineout and two groundouts for this 11th save of the season.
The contrast between Alzolay’s pregame routine and postgame celebrations is by design.
“To balance those kinds of emotions, you have to control that,” he said. “So, it’s a lot of work behind the scenes. You’ve got to find a really good spot where your mind is so clear that you don’t let any play or any bad call or whatever [affect] the moment.”
He releases it all on the final pitch. Alzolay’s high fives in handshake lines after wins has become the stuff of legend.
“They just seemingly become harder and harder,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “Guys are preparing for it. And it’s been funny to see guys’ reactions. When you come off the field, guys are shaking their hands.”
Alzolay’s catcher gets a pat on the chest.
“You’re glad you have a chest protector on,” Barnhart said, “because it feels like you’re going to break your breastbone.”
Said catcher Yan Gomes: “I’m more embracing it now. Anytime we get a big smack on the chest, it means we win.”
After Tauchman pulled Alec Burleson’s would-be walk-off home run back over the center field wall to end the game Friday, Alzolay switched up his usual routine.
“I liked the hug more than the high-five,” Tauchman said. “The high-five hurts for 15, 20 minutes. I’ve got to ice my hand after some of the high-fives. The hug was great.”