Cubs

Miguel Montero likes the edge Cubs have brought into clubhouse

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Miguel Montero likes the edge Cubs have brought into clubhouse

MILWAUKEE — Miguel Montero looks around and realizes: “Wow, I’m the old man now.”

But that’s exactly what Cubs executives had in mind when they traded for Montero, taking on the three years and $40 million left on the All-Star catcher’s contract and sending two lower-level pitchers to the Arizona Diamondbacks.          

That trade closed during the same winter meetings in San Diego, where the Cubs won the Jon Lester sweepstakes and toasted their new $155 million ace. That led to another deal for backup catcher David Ross, reuniting the World Series battery for the 2013 Boston Red Sox.

Theo Epstein’s baseball operations department wanted to change a clubhouse culture that hadn’t really gone bad, but had been filled with too many placeholders, guys waiting to get traded or just fighting for survival. The Cubs needed more of an edge.     

“When you have guys that won in the past, they know how to win and they like to win,” Montero said before Friday’s 7-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. “It can be contagious to all the players. That was the main thing for (the front office) — to bring in guys that won in the past like Lester and Ross.

[MORE: Cubs survive while waiting to click on all cylinders]

“I just went to the playoffs — no farther than the playoffs — but this is farther than a lot of other guys (here). I’m competitive. I love to win…even playing video games.”

Montero sat back in his chair inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse, chilling at his locker and enjoying being back around a potential contender he tagged with “#wearegood” on his personal Twitter account.

“You got to believe it,” Montero said. “It’s something that I really, truly believe.”

The Cubs wanted that veteran confidence and been-there, done-that perspective for moments like this during the long season, coming off a disappointing series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Montero doesn’t want to be in a rebuilding situation.  

“You’re out of it in the first month of the season, it’s difficult to go to the field,” Montero said. “For what? To play for me? For my numbers? That’s pretty much it. I’m not that guy. I like to win. And I like to play to win. You do that, your numbers are going to be there.

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“You can’t really worry about the numbers. That’s what a lot of people get caught up in. They just care about their numbers. Do this, do that, and at the end of the day, we lost the game, but I had a good game. Does that take you somewhere? No.

“Because if you win and you go 0-for-4, I guarantee at the end of the year, you’re going to have a good season. The numbers are going to be there. Because that’s contagious. Hitting is contagious, so is pitching. It’s going to get to that point.

“We win a couple in a row, get back to winning series and take it from there. You’re going to feel invincible coming into a stadium.”

Montero feels like he did in 2011 and 2012, when he generated 33 homers and 174 RBI combined. His production so far — .286 average, .858 OPS and 13 RBI in 23 games — suggest that the three-catcher rotation could help him stay fresh.

“This year, I feel really good when I play,” Montero said. “Maybe a little off timing, because it’s hard when you’re used to playing every day and then you come here and you’re playing three times a week and every other day, things like that. Which I understand. That’s not part of my job.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“My job is when they put me in the lineup, be ready to play. But my swing feels good. My approach has been good. I’ve been driving the ball the other way more than the last two years, which is a good sign. Hopefully, it stays like that the whole year. This game is up and down, and I just hope the downs are a little bit shorter than the ups.”

Montero will turn 32 this summer and might feel old when he looks at someone like Addison Russell, who was born in 1994. Time will tell if the Cubs got this chemistry experiment right.

“I feel great,” Montero said. “All the guys have a lot of energy. I’m still a high-energy guy. But being around these guys will pump you up a little more.”

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi live from Gallagher Way for this edition of Baseball Night in Chicago.

Listen to the full podcast episode in the embedded player below: