Cubs

With Cubs and Cardinals heading in opposite directions, time for Jason Heyward to forget about offensive numbers

With Cubs and Cardinals heading in opposite directions, time for Jason Heyward to forget about offensive numbers

Since Jason Heyward defected from the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs haven’t really seen the hitter who hammered a two-run homer off Jake Arrieta during last year’s playoffs, cracking the code to the most unhittable pitcher on the planet at that time.

As advertised, Heyward is an outstanding right fielder who deserves to win his fourth Gold Glove. His intelligence, natural instincts, aggressive mentality running the bases and patience at the plate helped change this team’s identity. A low-maintenance player happens to have the biggest contract in franchise history, and a professional attitude that’s a good influence on the clubhouse.

Heyward also foresaw the decline coming for the Cardinals, switching sides in the rivalry and joining a red-hot team that’s on a 10-game winning streak after Thursday night’s wild 4-3 walk-off victory in the 11th inning at Wrigley Field, pushing the division lead to 13 games.

But for $184 million, the Cubs expected so much more offensive production from a prime-age player who just turned 27 this week. It’s on Twitter and up there across the huge video board in left field – a .227 average, five homers (one since the second weekend of June) and a .624 OPS that ranked 158th out of the 160 qualified big-league hitters at the start of the game.

“It can’t be a numbers game at this point,” Heyward said. “That’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to starting off slow and going through struggles at a certain point in time this late in the season. You can’t ever look at numbers – not that I personally ever looked at numbers, anyway – but right now they’re just not going to matter.

“It’s just going to matter (in terms of) wins and losses and what I do every night to help my team win, whether it’s get on base, whether it’s come up with a big hit or making big plays on defense. Believe it or not, that’s what I always look at trying to do.”

[SHOP: Get your own Jason Heyward jersey here]

The new-wave metrics that used to rate Heyward as one of the most valuable players in the game – without being a middle-of-the-order slugger – are harder to believe when you don’t watch him play every day. Whether it’s been a wrist issue, a hard-to-maintain swing or trying too hard to make a good first impression, Heyward hasn’t been the all-around impact player the Cubs envisioned.

“I know what he’s kind of going through,” said Jon Lester, the $155 million pitcher who’s admittedly more comfortable in the second season of that megadeal. “This year’s been tough, I’m sure, for him.

“I’m sure people check the box score and they don’t watch the game. He’s squared a lot of balls up for us this year and he hasn’t had a lot to show for it. I know that’s hard, because this game is built around results.

“Everybody’s in there rooting for each other, but especially for him, (because) he does so many other things well. (He) brings so much – other than what he does at the plate – to this team. I think (that) gets overlooked at times.”

At the beginning of a four-game series that could bury the second-place Cardinals in the National League Central, Heyward grounded into a momentum-stopping double play in the second inning and got booed after swinging at a first-pitch fastball and popping out with two runners on to end the 10th.

Heyward also put pressure on the Cardinals with a two-out infield single against Carlos Martinez in the sixth inning, loading the bases for Chris Coghlan, who tried to call timeout and then lined a two-run single into right field. Moments later, Heyward sprinted home and scored on David Ross’ bunt hit.

“The guy just works so hard,” said Ben Zobrist, the other big-name free agent signed with the idea of transforming this lineup for October. “You see him working every day to try to break through. He’s had so much bad luck this year, hitting balls hard at people and people making great plays on him.

“He’s going to come through. We know he’s one of the most talented guys in this clubhouse – and that’s saying a lot. All the work he’s putting in is going to pay off here.”

In a bottom-line game on a World Series-or-bust team, no one will remember Heyward’s OPS if all the little things he does help add up to a championship this year.

“I personally handle it by trying to come in and help my team win every day,” Heyward said.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”