Milwaukee Brewers

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward has changed everything for the Cubs lineup

Who needs Bryce Harper when the Cubs are set with Jason Heyward in right field for the next half-decade?

OK, that might be a little extreme, but Heyward has actually turned a major corner in his Cubs career, as evidenced by this stat:

And it's not just the numbers. It's how Heyward has turned things around at the plate and who he's gotten his hits off of.

Start with the walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on the last homestand. That pitch was a 97 mph fastball up and Heyward hammered it into the right field bleachers.

He also turned on a 99 mph Jordan Hicks sinker over the weekend in St. Louis for a 2-run homer. Then there was the single Heyward hit at 107 mph off Josh Hader to tie the game in Milwaukee last week — which was the first hit by a left-handed hitter off Hader all season. And the single Heyward had off the Pirates' dominant left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez in Pittsburgh last month. 

Suddenly, Heyward is able to catch up to elite velocity. And not only that, but he's PULLING these balls.

In his first two years with the Cubs, Heyward had just 1 homer off a pitch 95 mph or faster. He already has 3 this season.

"He looks confident at the plate," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "I feel like he's swinging with aggressiveness, swinging with a purpose. ... I'm happy for him that he's been delivering those [big] moments and I feel like as he does, his confidence is only gonna grow."

That refrain — "I'm happy for him" — is commonly heard around the Cubs these last couple of weeks. Inside the clubhouse, Heyward is absolutely beloved for his professionalism, work ethic and leadership. 

Heyward is a guy that's easy to root for, whether you're his teammate, a fan, a media member or part of an opposing team. Case in point:

It's been a really rough couple of years at the plate, but these last few weeks, Heyward has transformed the Cubs lineup as Joe Maddon has moved him back up to the 2-hole, where he began his Cubs career in the early part of the 2016 season.

"He's the guy that's really ascended among the group," Maddon said. "He's made all the difference by being able to hit second and providing some really big hits in the latter part of the game."

If the Cubs had a playoff game tomorrow, Maddon's lineup for that contest would probably feature Ben Zobrist leading off and Heyward hitting second (which would've sounded crazy even a month ago). Maddon loves how they set the tone and example for the rest of a young lineup that is still developing.

As Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff are trying to drill into the heads of the team's stable of young hitters the importance of putting the ball in play with two strikes, Heyward is sporting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (11.5 percent), which ranks 11th in MLB behind Buster Posey. Heyward is on pace for only 56 strikeouts in 441 at-bats this year.

And believe it or not, it was actually a concussion that got Heyward on the right path. 

During the Cubs' first trip of the season to St. Louis in early May, Heyward went into the stands to try to rob Dexter Fowler's walk-off homer on the final game of the series. The Cubs right fielder smacked his head on the wall on that play and wound up on the disabled list for nearly two weeks.

But he didn't waste any time while he was on the shelf.

"Oh I know I made strides [while on the DL]," Heyward said. "Can't waste any days. That's how hard this game is. When you're going through things, just naturally in the season, it's hard to slow it down. It's hard to break everything down, to pay attention. But I just try to use my time wisely."

Thanks to that time off, Heyward now has his hands "free" and more involved in his swing than at any other point in his Cubs career.

That's all he worked on while he was on the shelf with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

"Literally, my hands," Heyward said. "Using my hands, keeping that simple. It's way easier to make adjustments on the fly when I'm really just throwing my hands at the ball instead of just arms and muscle the ball over.

"... It's hard to catch everything wheren you're just going at it day in and day out. But I was just able to see that here and work on that and feel it and here we go."

Since he's returned from the disabled list on May 18, Heyward is hitting .307 with a .347 on-base percentage and .489 slugging percentage, good for an .836 OPS. In that 24-game stretch, Heyward has 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers).

To put that in perspective, that's as many extra-base hits for Heyward as he had in the previous 40 regular season games (48 games if you include playoffs) dating back to last September.

Neither the Cubs nor Heyward are getting ahead of themselves here and guaranteeing this offensive hot streak to continue. 

This is the same guy who walked into the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park last week and flipped off MLB Network because they were discussing how the Cubs are the best team in the league when facing a starting pitcher the third time through the order. He didn't want his team to get complacent or too caught up in the past and think they've already accomplished something this season when the goal is another World Series.

There was actually a clue earlier in the season that an offensive breakout could be on the way for Heyward, but he then fell back into a slump before making a major adjustment with the time off.

"No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations, but he deserves so much credit," Theo Epstein said. "He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. In a difficult spot — the concussion DL — once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.

"Clearly found something in his swing — his hands, the feel of creating some lag and some whip in his swing. That's huge for him because with all that he's been through the last couple years, he never lost the ability to recognize pitches early, the ability to manage a really good at-bat and never lost his hand-eye.

"Now that he's got that whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently. He's driving the ball through the gaps, he's hitting with some backspin or the pull side. The ball's coming out hot when he gets it deep to the opposite field.

"Just really happy for him that all the work has led to the better feel for his swing and how he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate."

Summer of Sammy: Relive Sosa's 25th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Relive Sosa's 25th homer 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.

After victimizing poor Cal Eldred for three solo shots in the first game of the series, Sosa wouldn't let the Milwaukee Brewers leave town in June 1998 without one more dinger.

He connected in the 4th inning of the series finale on June 17, 1998, a solo shot off a pitcher named Bronswell Patrick (yes, that's his real name) that went 430 feet down the left field line.

The Cubs wound up losing the game 6-5, though Jose Hernandez did make it close with a 2-run shot in the bottom of the 9th inning.

Through this game, Sosa sported a .300/.348/.917 slash line (1.265 OPS) with 12 homers and 25 RBI in 15 June contests that season. (Yes, that's a .917 slugging percentage.)

But believe it not, those June numbers are about to get even better...

Fun fact: The Cubs lineup on June 17, 1998 featured 4 hitters with a batting average of .320 or higher — Sosa (.333), Mark Grace (.347), Mickey Morandini (.320) and Matt Mieske (.323), though Mieske was a part-time player. 

The 2018 Cubs currently feature only 1 player (part-time or full-time) hitting at least .320: Albert Almora Jr. who entered play Saturday at .321.