Cubs

Despite Cubs loss, Yu Darvish took a major step in the right direction

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USA TODAY

Despite Cubs loss, Yu Darvish took a major step in the right direction

There's a strong case to be made that Yu Darvish just had his best start in a Cubs uniform despite the team's 6-5 loss in Cincinnati.

The 32-year-old pitcher didn't pitch deep enough Wednesday night to earn a quality start and the bullpen blew a late lead (and then coughed up the game in the 10th inning), but this was only the second time in 17 outings with the Cubs that Darvish did not walk a single batter.

It was also the first time in those 17 starts in which he struck out at least 10 batters, racking up 11 whiffs in 5.1 innings. He needed 102 pitches to get those 16 outs, but he threw 66 percent strikes and allowed only 2 runs.

Those are all very encouraging signs for Darvish after he walked at least 3 batters in five straight starts entering Wednesday. He gave up 11 free passes in only 8 innings across a pair of starts on the last homestand, failing to pitch beyond the fourth inning in either appearance. 

Darvish has been a focal point of this team all season, but that's been especially true over the last few weeks as the Cubs pitching staff has been on cruise control. Even with his sharp outing Wednesday, Darvish is still only 2-3 with a 5.14 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 42 innings this season.

Joe Maddon has talked a lot recently about how he and the Cubs want Darvish to attack hitters more and not try to be so perfect or fine with his pitches. Last time out against the Marlins, the right-hander said he felt like he had a better mental approach, but his command — namely of the fastball — was off.

Against the Reds, Darvish threw 20 of his 32 fastballs for strikes, but actually threw his cutter more than any other pitch — locating 29 of 38 cutters for strikes on the evening.

It was just one start, but Wednesday is proof of the tantalizing potential Darvish has and why the Cubs signed him to a six-year deal last February.

His next start is slated for Monday, when he's lined up to pitch opposite Jake Arrieta in the series opener with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

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Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi live from Gallagher Way for this edition of Baseball Night in Chicago.

Listen to the full podcast episode in the embedded player below: