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."


The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

Amid rough patch, Cubs shake up their bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been under the microscope recently as they've hit another rough patch.

With Pedro Strop on the injured list, Cubs relievers have combined for a 5.04 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over the last week, allowing 32 hits and 11 walks against only 15 strikeouts in 25 innings.

The Cubs are shaking things up, sending veteran left-hander Xavier Cedeno to the injured list with left wrist inflammation and promoting right-hander Rowan Wick from Triple-A Iowa.

"We had to get things straightened out out there," Joe Maddon said of the bullpen. "Cedeno's still not 100 percent right, so we made that move. Wick's up and he's been pitching really well. We liked him in spring training; he provides length if we need it also, so there were a lot of reasons to do it, but he was pitching well enough to be here, too."

The Cubs acquired Wick, 26, from the Padres back in November for minor leaguer Jason Vosler. Wick has pitched well in Triple-A Iowa this season — in 13 outings, he has a 2.84 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while striking out 25 batters in 19 innings. 

Of his 13 appearances, 7 have been of a multi-inning variety and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 3 games (6.2 innings). He said a key to his success has been the ability to throw three different pitches for strikes and has been in a good flow lately of getting ahead in the count.

Wick made 10 appearances for the Padres in San Diego last year, sporting a 6.48 ERA in 8.1 innings.  The results weren't what he wanted in the big leagues, but that experience is something he can rely  on now.

"[I learned] that I can pitch here and that I belong," Wick said. "To be comofttable and hopefully pitch well."

Cedeno, 32, signed with the Cubs just before spring training started, but has been hampered by the same wrist issue all spring. He was first activated off the injured list less than two weeks ago and did not give up a run in 5 appearances, though he surrendered 4 hits and 3 walks in just 2 total innings of work.

With Wick in tow, the Cubs bullpen now looks like this:

Steve Cishek
Brad Brach
Brandon Kintzler
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery
Tyler Chatwood
Carl Edwards Jr.
Rowan Wick

Strop is working his way back from a hamstring injury and threw a 25-pitch bullpen Monday, so his return may not be far off. 

Brandon Morrow resumed his throwing program Monday, as well, but is still weeks away from returning even in a best-case scenario.

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