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.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.