SAN DIEGO – With Jason Heyward looking lost at home plate, could the Cubs be forced to sit their $184 million outfielder in October?
It’s a question Joe Maddon doesn’t have to answer directly now, one that the manager wishes will go away, because Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, baseball IQ and playoff experience should translate in cold-weather, low-scoring, one-run games.
Maddon didn’t frame this as a benching, hoping to reboot Heyward’s offensive game with a four-day break that ended with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. It shouldn’t be like flipping a switch for a hitter who woke up with an overall .617 OPS, a .170 batting average after the All-Star break and one home run since June 11.
But maybe this fifth-inning sequence shows Heyward’s luck is about to change. Moments after what looked like an RBI double landed just foul on the wrong side of the right-field line, Heyward lifted an Edwin Jackson pitch 365 feet out toward the top of the right-field fence, where it bounced off a fan trying to make a catch for a two-run homer. The way this season has gone for Heyward, you sort of expected an interference call to erase it.
“I’m not worried about the playoffs,” Maddon said. “I just want to make the playoffs and then we’ll take it from there.
“You still got six weeks (left). There’s so much baseball to be played. So many different things are going to occur. He can become the hottest hitter in the National League over the next month. He’s very capable of that. I don’t even think about the playoffs. I don’t think about playoff rosters. I think about Monday night in San Diego.
“To get any further than that along mentally is a trap.”
Heyward has talked repeatedly about ignoring his own personal numbers, focusing on how to help the Cubs win that night and getting a chance to start over in the postseason. He laughed when a reporter asked if he felt any better or different and believes his luck will even out and that hot streak could be around the corner.
“You always think you’re going up there every at-bat to get a hit,” Heyward said. “Right now, if I’m going to err, err on the aggressive side. That’s a good way to be. I’m going to be ready to hit and let the ball go if it’s not there. But I’m not worried about six weeks. I’m worried about tomorrow.
“Playoff-wise, my teammates know I can help this team win. My manager, my coaches know I can help this team win. I know I can help this team win. And that’s the bottom line. We’ve done this collectively, so it’s not about one person.”
Maybe Maddon reaching into his bag of motivational tricks and relaxation techniques will help unlock the player who created a bidding war among the Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals during the offseason.
“He’s endured a lot, in the sense that he hasn’t hit like he wanted to,” Maddon said. “Being the free-agent signing, honestly, that’s got to weigh on you a little bit.
“I’ve been really impressed with how he’s been able to maneuver through all of this, not hitting to the level that you would expect, but I know that he’s going to. But in the meantime, he’s just playing (a good game of) baseball.
“I give him a lot of credit. The guy is just dripping with emotional intelligence.”
OK, this home run came against Jackson, an ex-Cub who’s on his third team since getting released last summer in the middle of a $52 million contract. And Heyward committed his first error in a Cubs uniform in the sixth inning, running in hard for Brett Wallace’s line drive and misplaying it for a two-base mistake. But the Cubs are looking for any sort of confidence boost at this point.
“I want to see a smile on his face,” Maddon said. “Just play hard, like he always does. I’d rather see him cut back on his work right now and just play the game. I want him fresh, mentally and physically, because there are so many different ways he can help you win a baseball game.
“I just want him to go play. I mean that sincerely. He can’t do any more work. He can’t try anything differently. He can’t work any harder. He can’t do any of that. It’s impossible. Just go play.”