Cubs

After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?

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USA TODAY

After two years of struggling at the plate, what does 2018 hold for Jason Heyward?

Jason Heyward's rain-delay speech that helped the Cubs to a Game 7 win and a curse-smashing World Series championship might have been worth the $184 million.

But heading into Year 3 of his franchise-record eight-year pact, Heyward's statistical contributions at the plate have been anything but worth the investment.

No one is doubting Heyward's defensive value, which Joe Maddon endlessly praises and loves so much that he keeps Heyward as an everyday fixture in the Cubs' lineup despite the lack of offensive success. Heyward has won a Gold Glove in each of his first two seasons with the Cubs, and it doesn't take an expert in advanced defensive metrics to know that Heyward is a fantastic defender.

But in two years on the North Side, here's what Heyward has done with the bat: a .243/.315/.353 slash line with 18 home runs, 42 doubles, 108 RBIs, 15 steals, 160 strikeouts and 95 walks in 1,073 plate appearances over 268 regular-season games.

And with the Cubs' outfield and lineup in general crowded with promising young position players like Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez, the question has to be asked: Will Heyward's role be limited as the Cubs look to win their second championship in three seasons?

To get the answer out of the way early, probably not. Maddon loves Heyward's presence in right field — as he should, considering Heyward's won four straight Gold Gloves there — and believes the offense will come.

"What I expect is outstanding defense, outstanding leadership qualities, very good base runner. Offensively, I know all the expectations are — I’ve been really happy with him as he is, I have," Maddon said last month at the outset of spring training out in Arizona. "We’ve gone to the playoffs, won a World Series with him. Of course, you look for maybe a higher average, more power, whatever. I like him on the field, man. I like him in the dugout. I like him in our clubhouse.

"He’s such a skillful athlete, I think all those numbers will continue to rise as he gets up to 32, 33 years of age. It’s going to keep getting better. But he’s such a good baseball player and he’s such a force within the group. And I know hitting’s a topic of discussion, I totally concede that, but I don’t look at it that way. I think he will get the big hits when it’s necessary, but I also believe the stuff everyone’s looking for, it’s going to start showing up."

But none of that means that "fixing" Heyward isn't one of the Cubs' top priorities. New hitting coach Chili Davis arrived with a few clear missions, and getting Heyward back to what he did earlier in his career is among those at the top of Davis' list.

And it shouldn't be viewed as some impossible thing. Heyward's lack of production in his first two years as a Cub remains a head-scratcher considering how good he was leading up to his arrival on the North Side. He had a career year with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015 that earned him that massive contract, his .293 batting average a career high, as were his 23 stolen bases and 33 doubles. His .359 on-base percentage was the second highest of his career, his .439 slugging percentage the third highest of his career, and he finished in the top 15 in voting for National League MVP honors. During his five-year tenure with the Atlanta Braves, he hit 84 home runs and reached base at a .351 clip. The Cubs saw firsthand what Heyward could do when he slashed .357/.438/.643 with an opposite-field homer in the 2015 NLDS.

Davis' solution to the problem? Get Heyward back to doing what he did before.

"He knows that there's more in the tank, and he's reaching for it. He wants to be better," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "I think what happened to Jason from the Braves years to the years here ... was he probably got away from who he is. He was a natural, gifted athlete with the Braves. So we're just talking, we talk about getting back to natural, getting back to what makes him a good player.

"So it's more his interaction with me and telling me the things that he felt when he was doing well and my eyes trying to see that whenever he works, he's focused on doing those things all the time. And he's working well. We've been here since some time in November. Little baby steps. But I tell you what, you don't have to say things to him twice. He retains the information very well."

Heyward, never one to be short on confidence no matter what the numbers might say, has a different solution.

"Play. Be on the field and play. Everything else is going to take care of itself."

Heyward's referencing the fact that he played in "only" 126 games last season, a noteworthy decline for a guy who has cracked the 140-game mark five times in his eight-year career and the 150-game mark twice. He made a couple trips to the disabled list in 2017, both times with fluky hand injuries, nothing that reflected a lack of conditioning or preparation. So for Heyward, he believes that simply being healthy for a full season and staying off the disabled list will yield the results he expects to see.

Whether Cubs fans expect to see those same results at this point is a different thing entirely. But Heyward's confidence in himself and his expectations for 2018 are not at all lacking.

"If I’m coming in with higher expectations, then I feel like I’ve been tripping (for the past couple years)," Heyward said. "I feel like you always expect to do well, have high expectations. Myself, I’d like to play more games. Knock on wood, try not to be on the DL, especially a couple times, that hurts. Especially someone like myself for repetition, at-bats, just going with the flow of the game and being able to build off of that.

"I feel like when I play a lot of games in a season, I’ll do a lot of good things. I did a lot of good things last year, but missed time takes away from that a lot."

Heyward talked positively about working with Davis, who has other charges to turn around, too, in Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, who both had disappointing 2017 campaigns. But Heyward, because of his humongous contract and the benefits he could bring to the Cubs' lineup if back at full production levels, would figure to be the most important on that list.

Heyward, though, believes that no matter what Davis or any coach can contribute, it all comes down to him. And that's how fans and observers will see things, too.

"It’s important to understand that your voice needs to be the most important as a player," Heyward said. "You can hear whatever you want to hear from a coach, but if you don’t know how to put it together for yourself, it isn’t going to matter."

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.