Cubs

Jason Heyward knows how sweet it will be for Cubs to clinch in front of Cardinals

Jason Heyward knows how sweet it will be for Cubs to clinch in front of Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – Even Jason Heyward – a thoughtful player who chooses his words carefully – admits the Cubs would particularly enjoy clinching a division title in front of the St. Louis Cardinals and partying at Busch Stadium.   

“But I want to wreck the American League clubhouse or Wrigley at the end of the year,” Heyward said before Monday’s 10-2 win eliminated the Cardinals from the National League Central race and guaranteed at least a tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. “That’s what’s most important.

“So, yeah, that could be fun here. It will be fun. Celebrating’s fun, regardless. But we got to take care of some business. That will be a fun step to where we want to be.”

This is exactly where Heyward wanted to be, because he saw one window opening and another one closing when he switched sides after the 2015 playoffs where the Cubs dismantled a 100-win Cardinals team.

The Cubs have only 12 players left from the 25-man roster for that NL Division Series roster, amassing young talent and building out a deep organization on the verge of a third 90-win playoff season in a row.

Heyward signed the biggest contract in franchise history: before Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez played a wire-to-wire season in the majors; before Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. made their big-league debuts; and the same year the Cubs drafted Ian Happ.     

“Signing with Chicago, people would always say: ‘Oh, how do you feel about the rivalry?’” Heyward said. “When I got to the Cubs, I made it kind of clear that I feel like we got some catching up to do, as far as that goes, playoff wins and world championships and things like that.

“This is another opportunity to take a step in that direction. And we want to continue to be known as a team that’s expected to be in the playoffs.”

Heyward may never live up to the offensive expectations set by an eight-year, $184 million megadeal. But he is at least a more productive hitter this season with a .259 batting average (up almost 30 points) and a .705 OPS (a 74-point jump) to go along with his contact skills, game-changing instincts on the bases and Gold Glove defense in right field.    

There are also the intangibles that might make Heyward the most respected player in the clubhouse for his day-to-day attitude, sense of calm and leadership style. (See: World Series Game 7 Rain Delay Speech.)

After getting swept by the Brewers on Sept. 10 – which left Milwaukee and St. Louis only two games back – it was Heyward who reminded reporters at Wrigley Field that no one would remember what happened during the regular season as long as the Cubs got into the playoffs. The defending World Series champs have gone 11-2 since then, finally looking like a team ready for October.

“We’re on a rollercoaster of a baseball season,” Heyward said. “Every year’s different and you got to be able to handle each blow.

“You can’t ever say ‘back on track’ or whatever. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten ‘on track.’ We’re in first place. We’ve been in first place for a while now. And here we are with a chance to clinch our division. To me, we’re on track.”

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.”