While Cubs plan Wrigley celebration, Jason Heyward is on to new season and off to good start

While Cubs plan Wrigley celebration, Jason Heyward is on to new season and off to good start

MILWAUKEE – Jason Heyward projected an all-business vibe on Sunday morning when reporters gathered around his locker inside Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse. Win or lose, Heyward is always accessible, polite and thoughtful, qualities that help insulate him from the pressure of having the biggest contract in franchise history.

Even at the end of the worst offensive season of his career, Heyward had enough clout to call that team meeting inside a Progressive Field weight room and refocus the Cubs in Game 7, though he hasn’t really felt like reliving his rain-delay speech: “It’s fine, but it’s on to this season.”

Heyward’s in-the-moment attitude also knocked down a softball question about what he’s looking forward to during Monday night’s banner-raising ceremony at Wrigley Field.   

“Um, what’s our record right now?” Heyward said. “Winning two series on a road trip.”

So much for feeling the hangover or looking ahead or getting distracted: One week into defending their World Series title, the Cubs are 4-2 with two walk-off losses, heading home for the 102nd opener at their iconic ballpark and a Wednesday night ceremony where they will get their championship rings.    

There are several reasons why the 2017 Cubs might be a better team on paper. But this 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers highlighted how Heyward – now hitting .333 with an .820 OPS in an admittedly small sample size – could be so much more than a good clubhouse guy and a defensive wizard in right field.

“The reaction we got after winning it all last year, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see that again in any sport,” All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s images you’ll never forget, memories you’ll never forget. Tomorrow will be no different. People are going to be excited for that banner to go up.

“We’re excited about it, too, but everyone wants us to repeat, so we got to focus on winning today and then tomorrow.”

Heyward helped set the tone when the Cubs jumped Zach Davies in the first inning, blasting a two-run triple into right-center field and giving Jake Arrieta a 4-0 lead before he threw his first pitch.

Heyward’s 2-for-5 might have been a 5-for-5 cycle if: Ryan Braun hadn’t made a diving catch in the left-center field gap in the second inning; second baseman Jonathan Villar hadn’t made a diving stop to his left in the fifth inning; and Keon Broxton hadn’t made a leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning.    

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Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, tipped his helmet to Broxton as he ran toward second base.

“Yeah, it was a good play,” Heyward deadpanned.

After a year of bad luck, bad timing and bad rhythm – at least from an offensive point of view – the Cubs watched Heyward break down his swing at the team’s Arizona complex and expect to see the returns on their $184 million investment. 

“I’m relaxed up there, not thinking a whole lot,” Heyward said. “Just really trying to focus on what the pitcher’s going to do, how they’re going to attack you, that kind of stuff. Not thinking about the swing or anything like that. It’s just where you need to be.

“Be aggressive in the strike zone. But be on time, be relaxed and go up there one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, the same stuff (for) anybody. Let the game take care of itself.”

Imagine how intimidating this lineup could be if Heyward resembles more of the guy who hit 27 homers for the Atlanta Braves in 2012, which became the template for his new/old swing. Heyward has already seen the blueprint for the championship rings, suggesting the Cubs feature the team’s 2016 logo when asked for his input during the design phase.  

“I don’t know how much I’ll have it on,” Heyward said. “It kind of goes without being said in Chicago, which is really cool, and for the majority of baseball fans around the world, so I don’t know how much I’ll wear it. I know I’ll cherish it and probably look at it a lot.

“It’s just going to be cool to hold it. There’s a lot of history in it, of course, and there’s a lot of our history in it, as well, with the 2016 season. It should be an awesome thing."


Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."