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First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs

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First impressions of Jason Heyward and how he can change Cubs

PHOENIX — Jason Heyward is listed at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and has the biggest contract in franchise history. Yet there are still times where he blends into the background on this Cubs team.

That’s partially by design, the Cubs investing in Gold Glove defense and on-base/contact skills after a 97-win season, plus Heyward wanting to go to a place where he could be part of a talented young core that could win for a long time.

It also says something about the subtleties to Heyward’s game, which still got him paid like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Eight years and $184 million guaranteed wasn’t necessarily even the biggest offer out there this winter.

Just watch Heyward in the seventh inning of Sunday’s 7-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, sprinting from first base to third on a ball that skipped past shortstop Chris Owings into left field. Heyward then raced home on Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly to right field, and plays like that are what Chicago fans can expect on Monday night when he makes his Wrigley Field debut in a Cubs uniform.

“Everybody is only going to look at batting averages all the time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But this guy is a really good baseball player. He impacts the game in so many different ways. I just love him right where he’s at.”

What a difference between Heyward’s low-key arrival and the symbolism behind Jon Lester’s six-year, $155 million contract and how that framed his first season on the North Side.

“There should be a lot of hype around him,” said Lester, who will start the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. “There should be a lot of hype around ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist). Those two guys have really elevated the young guys in the way they go about their business, which is even more impressive (considering) what they did last year.”

[MORE CUBS: Another win over D-backs sends Cubs back to Wrigley riding wave of momentum]

Lester remembered watching Kris Bryant stretch a single into a double against Zack Greinke on Saturday and turning to assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske: “I told ‘Ske: ‘This isn’t a knock on you, (but) my favorite part about this team is the way we run the bases.’”

“That’s a testament to J-Hey,” Lester said. “He brought that over. That’s what he’s known for — playing really good defense, running the bases with — I don’t want to say reckless abandon, because he knows what he’s doing — but he makes other guys better. He makes guys want to get better and take that extra base and do that sort of thing.”

To be clear, Bryant was a polished, heads-up, instinctual player from the moment he arrived in The Show last year. Anthony Rizzo credited Dave McKay — a Dale Sveum hire now on Arizona’s coaching staff — for helping him develop that aggressive mentality on the bases. And Maddon turned running hard to first base into a “Respect 90” catchphrase.

But the Cubs believe Heyward will be a good influence, the same way Lester stayed the same guy throughout a statistically strong season (3.34 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 205 innings) that still had plenty of ups and downs.

“Position players have it a little bit easier than pitchers do, just because our days are so much more magnified,” Lester said. “He plays every day. He goes 0-for-4, it’s like: ‘Well, I got tomorrow.’ (When) I stink — I got four more days for everybody to talk about how much I stink.

“It’s just so much easier for a position player to come in and feel more relaxed and more of a part of this team, as opposed to a guy that kind of stands out.

“Plus, he’s such a level-headed, grounded guy that you’d never know what he signed for.”

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Heyward wore a St. Louis Cardinals uniform the last time he played at Wrigley Field, and he will hear all about that decision when the Cubs go to Busch Stadium next week and reignite that rivalry.

Heyward — who had once been Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect while coming up with his hometown Atlanta Braves — didn’t feel like he needed to be The Man or a face of the franchise.

“Early in my career in Atlanta, there was a lot of focus on me,” Heyward said. “And you got guys with Hall of Fame (resumes), guys who put up some good numbers (and had) good seasons. The focus is all about what the team wants" (it to be) from ownership down to the front office down to the coaching staff.

“I feel like here, they do a great job of just letting it be about the team,” Heyward said. “It’s not one person that’s going to do it overnight. I understand that there’s marketing and things like that to promote. But as a group, you want everyone understanding this is your team — the Chicago Cubs — not just one player to look at and say: ‘We’re going to rally around this guy when he comes to the bat or when he’s on the field.’

“That’s something special, regardless of the contract you have.”

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.