Jason Heyward reflects on The Decision, Cubs Way and joining baseball’s version of Golden State Warriors

Jason Heyward reflects on The Decision, Cubs Way and joining baseball’s version of Golden State Warriors

After Kevin Durant bolted from the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer, he talked about the culture and chemistry surrounding the Golden State Warriors, sounding exactly like Jason Heyward’s explanation for making The Decision.

Heyward never made it personal while leaving the St. Louis Cardinals, even if Adam Wainwright and some of The Best Fans in Baseball took it that way. In the end, the Cardinals felt like no matter what they offered, they could never match the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a World Series at Wrigley Field.  

Major League Baseball isn’t the NBA, where a handful of the best players in the world can create Super-Teams and entirely shift the league’s balance of power and course of history. But in terms of getting treated like rock stars, reaching a tipping point in the National League Central and creating an environment that values freedom and self-expression, Joe Maddon’s Cubs have a Golden State of mind, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr even meeting the manager before a game in San Diego in late August.   

Of course, that’s how a 103-win Cubs team will be remembered if they run into a LeBron James, the way the record-setting Warriors won 73 games in the regular season before losing a Game 7 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. (Though Golden State’s title drought only goes all the way back to the 2015 NBA Finals.)

But before Wrigleyville turns into some combination of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras and Times Square on New Year’s Eve – Tuesday became the simulated-game calm before the storm – Heyward reflected on his first season with baseball’s traveling circus.  

“Yeah,” Heyward said, he felt the weight of that eight-year, $184 million contract. “But to be honest, I can look myself in the mirror and say: There’s the pressure of being a first-rounder. There’s pressure from playing at home in front of your home crowd, all that stuff. There’s pressure from getting traded at 25 years old and going to play for a different team. It’s just a different pressure. 

“At the end of the day – (whatever your contract may be) – there’s always going to be pressure from the fans. But that’s fun. That’s what we want. Nobody expects more out of yourself than you, so that’s a good pressure to have. If people aren’t expecting you to do well, then you don’t feel like you’re doing your job.”

In Heyward’s mind, the Cubs have lived up to all of his expectations – even as he’s dramatically underperformed offensively – and none of this should be interpreted as a shot at The Cardinal Way.    

Heyward is a class act who contacted traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani sometime between his welcome-to-Chicago press conference at Spiaggia Restaurant in December and Cubs Convention in January, asking to pay for hotel-suite upgrades on the road for veteran catcher David Ross and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske this season, thanking them for helping him when he broke into the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves. 
Heyward – the son of two Dartmouth-educated parents – wanted to think big picture with his career and take advantage of the rare opportunity to be a 26-year-old free agent. 

“It’s been a blast,” Heyward said. “It’s been awesome to show up for work every day, to be around the people that I get to work (with) – teammates, coaching staff, the people that work at the stadium, the people that take care of us and make sure we have everything we need, the vendors and the people that run the concessions. Everybody takes pride in working at Wrigley Field.

“And then the fans, they feel like they’re a part of the family. It’s really fun, man. It’s a unique experience. It’s well-thought-out, well-planned.

“We don’t take it for granted.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Given their young core and deep lineup, the Cubs might be the only team that could have afforded Heyward’s career-low .631 OPS, which ranked third-worst among all qualified big-league hitters. But the bleacher bums got an up-close view of Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field, Maddon loves the instincts and aggressiveness while running the bases and teammates rave about his sense of calm and professionalism in the clubhouse. 

“I get to be myself,” Heyward said, a big selling point for a player compared to Hank Aaron as a rookie and once expected to put up huge power numbers. “And then do what I need to do to get ready to play every day. 

“There’s not a lot of hands-on (stuff) in the sense of you need to be one certain kind of way. The bottom line has been: Let’s make sure we’re doing the fundamental things right (and) approaching every day as if you’re trying to get the best out of yourself.

“After that, don’t try to do too much. Let the game come to you. Take what you get out of it – and 100 percent have fun with it – and just push each other to be the best we can. 

“At the end of the year, you look up and then you see what you have from it. Don’t really put too much stock into one day or the past or get ahead of yourself.”

While the 86-win Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, Heyward will be playing in the postseason for the fifth time in seven years when the Cubs face the wild-card winner – either the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants – on Friday night at Wrigley Field. 

If Heyward didn’t necessarily see Kris Bryant becoming a runaway MVP winner this year – or Addison Russell developing into an All-Star shortstop at the age of 22 or Kyle Hendricks emerging as a Cy Young Award contender – then he understood the Cubs should be good for a long time.
“It’s a pretty good group of coachable guys,” Heyward said. “That, to me, is the most impressive thing. Because you can have all the talent in the world – and the numbers can be whatever they are at the end of the year – but it’s really impressive to see them always wanting to take their game to the next level and not get complacent.”

When Maddon looks out from the dugout, he finds it reassuring to see Heyward standing in right field, and his all-around skills should help the Cubs win low-scoring, one-run games in October. But one big hit and no one will remember that Heyward only had seven home runs during the regular season.

“Everything matched up – the fan base, the city, the opportunity for me grow into myself as a baseball player even more,” Heyward said. “Where (else) are you going to have the ability (to) play with a group (that you can) grow with? 

“I’ve said that many times before, but I feel like that’s an important thing when you’re talking about playing with a team that’s serious about contending every year – and serious about trying to win a World Series every year. That’s the bottom line.”

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.

Cubs put Kyle Hendricks on 10-Day IL

Cubs put Kyle Hendricks on 10-Day IL

On Saturday, the Cubs announced that they are placing starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks on the 10-day I.L.with right shoulder inflammation. 

Following Hendricks' injury, the Cubs recalled right-handed pitcher Rowan Wick from Triple-A. Wick will be available on Saturday night and beyond, as the Cubs continue their four-game series against the Dodgers. 

This obviously a significant blow for the Cubs, as Hendricks is the team leader in innings pitched (88.1).

Prior to his loss on Friday night, Hendricks had won three straight outings, giving up less than 3 ER in each game. 

The Cubs have plenty of options to replace Hendricks for the time being. With an off day until Monday, they could keep their rotation intact. Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery are options, and the Cubs could push Hendricks next start back to by going with a spot starter. 

Stellar pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay is another intriuging option, and he is coming off of a great outing with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. On Fridaym he racked up 9 strikeouts, giving up 8 hits and 2 ER. 

The 24-year old Alzolay is ranked as the Cubs' fourth-overall prospect and the Hendricks injury could open the door for Alzolay to get called up.

The more likely scenario is that Cubs manager Joe Maddon chooses to use Chatwood. 

Chatwood is the only pitcher outside of the everyday rotation to have made a start this year and is the most obvious stopgap solution until we get further updates on Hendricks' status.