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.”
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.