Cubs

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

Why Kris Bryant wants to be like Jason Heyward and what it means for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – To get a better idea why Theo Epstein’s front office invested $184 million in Jason Heyward – and how Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks through the lineup – just listen to Kris Bryant. 

The National League’s leading MVP candidate explained Heyward’s value to the best team in baseball late Friday night at Dodger Stadium after blasting his 34th and 35th home runs during a 10-inning comeback victory.

Bryant, a particularly gracious teammate, credited Heyward for sparking the ninth-inning rally against Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, hitting a leadoff double and taking advantage of a misplayed strike three and a wild pitch to score the game-tying run.   

“We all know what he can do at the plate,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows what he can do in the field. He’s a huge asset to this team. If it wasn’t for him getting us started there, we wouldn’t have won the game. Simple as that.
 
“Heads-up base-running (is) something that you really can’t teach. And he has it. It’s just awesome to see him come out and compete every day.

“It inspires me. It makes me want to be like him, always keeping your head up, always being a great teammate, being so positive. I can’t say enough about him.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

Maybe a road trip that began with Heyward getting a mental break and sitting through three games at Coors Field becomes a turning point in a poor offensive season (.229 average/.629 OPS). In his first game back after that reboot, Heyward homered against the San Diego Padres, hitting his first one in almost a month. 

After sitting against Los Angeles lefty Julio Urias – with Maddon wanting to get Jorge Soler involved – Heyward came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez in the seventh inning of Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 loss at Dodger Stadium (and then get thrown out trying to steal second base).       

“He’s not hit to his level yet this year, but he plays a significant game on a nightly basis,” Maddon said. “He doesn’t cry about things. He doesn’t make excuses. He shows up and he plays. That’s why I say he’s a winner.

“The hitting’s going to be there. I’m telling you it’s going to be there. And it’s going to be there at the right time this year – and for years to come. 

“He’s just had a tough moment and he’s been digging himself out of a hole all year at the plate. But every place else, he’s among the best in the game right now.”

That’s why the Cubs can sacrifice a measure of offense in the playoffs and still thrive with Heyward’s Gold Glove defense, speed and instincts.   

“Jason does set a great example daily,” Maddon said. “Because a lot of guys going through that moment would not be the teammate that he is and pick up everybody else. 

“A lot of times when guys aren’t hitting, they go, ‘Oh, my self-worth goes down. Should I pop off? Should I say something?’ Guys who have carried their batting average on their sleeve and then react accordingly – that’s not good. Just be who you are. He has a lot to bring on a daily basis, even if he’s not 3-for-4.”   

The Cubs also remember Heyward as a tough out and a dynamic lineup presence for the St. Louis Cardinals during last year’s playoffs. And everyone will forget the numbers from the regular season if Heyward performs in the postseason. 

“Once October starts,” Heyward said, “you got to be on. That’s the way we’re trying to look at it.” 

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Brandon Morrow lands on DL after hurting back while taking his pants off

Remember that one time Sammy Sosa threw out his back while sneezing? Well, Brandon Morrow may have topped that on the Cubs all-time list of wacky injuries.

The 33-year-old closer was placed on the 10-day disabled list prior to Wednesday's game after hurting his back while taking his pants off upon returning from the team's road trip to St. Louis. It's being labeled as "lower back tightness."

"It's frustrating any time you can't get out there, and especially when you can't go because of something stupid like taking your pants off," Morrow told reporters on Tuesday.

And that's put the Cubs pitching staff in a tough spot for the rest of the week, given Wednesday's series finale against the Dodgers is the third game in a little more than 24 hours for the Cubs.

"I don't want to downplay anything," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "Obviously he had back spams, he had the same thing in spring training. We'll start treating it the same way we did in spring training; I think he was out about a week to 10 days. If things go as we hope, I think it'd be the kind of thing where he'd probably be able to be throwing before the 10 days is up.

"But we felt like it wasn't going to be something where he was ready this weekend and if he's not going to be ready all weekend, we can already backdate it three days so it made sense to put him on the DL."

Morrow is tied for fifth in the National League with 16 saves and owns a 1.59 ERA is 26 relief appearances this season. Justin Hancock, who served as the 26th man during Tuesday's doubleheader, stayed with the team as a result.

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.