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.
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."