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.

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.