SAN FRANCISCO – Standing at his locker late Friday night, Jason Heyward gave his explanation for how he apparently avoided serious head trauma or a major neck injury: “God looked out for me.”
This could wind up being a costly 8-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants, but it wasn’t immediately clear what price the Cubs will have to pay for this spectacular effort from their $184 million outfielder.
Heyward slammed headfirst into AT&T Park’s right-center field wall, stealing an extra-base hit from San Francisco leadoff guy Denard Span, showing the range, athleticism and instincts that have made him a three-time Gold Glove winner.
A Cubs team already sickened by one devastating outfield injury watched Heyward writhing in pain in the dirt after making a highlight-reel catch in the first inning. He walked off the field – with two Cubs trainers there for support – and is being evaluated for an injury to his right torso/abdominal region.
“Uncomfortable, in some pain, but relieved that nothing’s broken,” Heyward said. “Got to get an MRI tomorrow to see what else is going on in there.”
Span blasted Jake Arrieta’s third pitch into the gap and Heyward tracked it down, extending his right arm to make the catch on the run and crashing his left shoulder into the wall. Heyward instantly grabbed his right side as center fielder Dexter Fowler rushed over and waved to the dugout for help.
“I’m at a loss for words – just an amazing catch,” Arrieta said. “His ability to stay focused on the ball while traveling at such a high speed with no regard for the wall – he’s the best in the league at that. He’s shown that year in, year out. It’s just a guy who’s going to put his body on the line to make a play, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Even while waiting for his offensive production (.611 OPS) to increase, the Cubs understand Heyward’s presence has already helped transform a team that leads the majors in defensive efficiency.
“I knew I had a long way to run,” Heyward said. “I knew I had a lot of space to make the play. I knew I had enough room to make the catch. When you dive and catch a ball, you try and position yourself not to land on the wrist or anything like that. I knew I was good as far as that goes, (but) momentum took me into the wall.”
The Cubs value versatility and built a flexible roster, allowing them to move Kris Bryant to right field and bring Tommy La Stella off the bench to play third base. The Cubs responded by jumping Jake Peavy for five runs and knocking him out in the second inning, with Bryant driving a ball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer.
But this could become another difficult test where the Cubs find out what they’re made of (again). Kyle Schwarber – who was supposed to be a huge left-handed presence in the middle of this lineup – wrecked his left knee in an outfield collision with Fowler during the first week of the season. Schwarber is recovering from season-ending surgery to reconstruct his ACL and repair his LCL.
If Heyward is sidelined for an extended period of time, the short-term solution could be summoning Matt Szczur, who’s on a rehab assignment with Double-A Tennessee and recovering from a hamstring injury.
Jorge Soler also put together a strong all-around game, making two catches at the left-field wall on a 57-degree night where the winds were blowing out at 20 mph. By the time Ben Zobrist and Soler hit back-to-back homers off Giants reliever George Kontos in the eighth inning, the sellout crowd (41,750) started to thin out, with some fans heading toward the exits while others started to chant: “Let’s go, Cubbies!”
Once again, the Cubs will find out if Soler can find the consistent focus and live up to what manager Joe Maddon called “superstar” potential.
“Of course, we’ll make adjustments,” Maddon said. “I’m anticipating good right now (with Heyward), but that’s the way this game goes. I just love the way we’re playing.”