Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again


Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again

The St. Louis Cardinals are under investigation by the FBI and Justice Department. Their top prospect (Oscar Taveras) died in a car crash last October. Their Opening Day starter (Adam Wainwright) is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon. They still have the best record in baseball.

Whatever happens to the hackers who cyber-attacked the Houston Astros, the Cubs know the Cardinals won’t go away anytime soon, that they will eventually have to go through their biggest rival.

“They can’t lose right now,” reliever James Russell said. “It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a big series. We need to go in there and do some damage.”

The Cubs traveled to St. Louis after Thursday’s disappointing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The biggest crowd at Wrigley Field so far this year (41,498) watched $155 million ace Jon Lester give up four early runs and last only four innings. A four-game series that began with victories over Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke ended with the Cubs getting shut down by Carlos Frias and four relievers.

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Russell made his big-league debut with the Cubs in 2010, when the window to contend slammed shut for Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

Russell got traded to the Atlanta Braves at last year’s deadline and returned to a completely different team this season. He understood how long it had been since the rivalry had some real juice, even though the Cubs began the day in third place in the National League Central, trailing the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games. Still, a 39-32 record would be good enough to make it as a wild card if the playoffs started today.

“Obviously, our main goal is to win the division,” Lester said. “We’re going to keep trying to plug along and do that. That starts tomorrow.”

The Cardinals are 26-7 at Busch Stadium, where weird things usually seem to happen to the Cubs amid the sea of red. The national media wants a piece of Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. MLB Network is picking up Friday’s game, Fox wanted the rivalry for its Saturday window and ESPN chose Cubs-Cardinals for “Sunday Night Baseball.”

“Of course, when you’re playing them head up, you definitely want to make some noise,” Maddon said. “But I don’t want our guys to approach it any differently. I don’t want them to think that they have to play any harder or any better. Just go play.”

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General manager Jed Hoyer, whose wife is from the St. Louis area, hears it from his in-laws whenever the Cubs play the Cardinals. It’s not as glamorous or as overhyped as the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. But Hoyer compared the Cardinals — with 11 World Series titles overall and 11 playoff appearances since 2000 — to what Theo Epstein faced when they took down the Evil Empire.

“I look at their presence as a huge positive,” Hoyer said. “It makes you keep your standards really high and makes you not cut corners because we’re not going to beat them with gimmicks. We’re not going to beat them by cutting corners. We’re going to have to beat them by being a great organization.

“That’s what we had with the Yankees. I think we were much better in Boston because the Yankees were in our division. If we hadn’t had them, we might not have kept our standards that high. We always felt like we had to win 95 games to make the playoffs.

“I kind of feel the same way here. It might not be 95, but it’s the same mindset of that’s what we have to develop to go head-to-head with them. It’s good. It pushes us.”

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The Cubs still have 13 games remaining against the Cardinals — and nine more against the Pittsburgh Pirates — and won’t pass the schedule’s halfway point until after the Fourth of July weekend.

“You always got to keep your eye (on the division),” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better. I believe that. We’ve had kind of a mini-run, but not a real good run yet, and we’re definitely capable of that. As our young guys get more experience, I believe that’s all possible.

“The focus has to be winning the division. And then if you don’t, you still have a shot. But if you don’t want to aim high enough, man, you’re going to miss your target.”

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday


Cubs honor sweet swingin’ Billy Williams on 80th birthday

After Mother Nature washed out the Cubs and Dodgers Monday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs recognized one of their Hall of Famers.

In honor of outfielder Billy Williams’ 80th birthday on June 15, the Cubs painted Williams’ No. 26 behind home plate. Cubs players are also wearing shirts with his number featured on the front.

On the Cubs Twitter page, there is also a glass case of pictures and Williams’ old jersey with other memorabilia. 

In his illustrious 16-year career with the Cubs, Williams, known as sweet swingin’ Billy from Whistler, hit .290 with 392 home runs, 1353 RBIs, 2510 hits and 911 walks.

His best offensive season came in 1970 when he hit 42 home runs and 129 RBIs, both career bests.

Williams also played with the Oakland Athletics for two seasons after he was traded by the Cubs after the 1974 season.

Williams was a guy you’d see on the field a lot during his day, starting all 162 games four times. In 1970 he eclipsed 161 games.

He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1987. Williams appeared in six All-Star Games, he was the 1961 Rookie of the Year and the 1972 NL MVP. He also won the NL batting title that year.