SAN DIEGO – As Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward returned to the starting lineup Monday for the first time since four days of mental cleansing on the bench, it was tempting to view the final six weeks of the season as his 39-game tryout for a starting job in the playoffs.
But that’s clearly not how manager Joe Maddon sees it – at least not with this much time left before October.
“I’m not worried about six weeks. I’m worried about tomorrow,” said Heyward, who three pitches after missing an RBI double by inches foul, hit his first homer since July in the fifth inning of Monday’s 5-1 victory over the Padres.
“Playoff wise, my teammastes know I can help this tema win,” He said. “My manager, my coaches — I know I can help this team win. That’s the bottom line.”
Heyward’s two-run shot was his lone hit in four at-bats, but “the kind of thing that can get his confidence going and get him going in the right direction offensively,” said Maddon, who pontificate on Heyward’s potential playoff role or status.
“I just want to make the playoffs and then we’ll take it from there,” the manager said. “He’s still got six weeks or so. There’s so much baseball to be played. So many different things are going to occur.
“He could become the hottest hitter in the National League over the next month, and he’s very capable of that. I don’t even think about the playoffs; I don’t think about playoff rosters.”
Heyward, whose season-long slump included a .225 average and just five home runs entering Monday’s game, has struggled even worse since the All-Star break: .170 with one homer.
The break seemed to help by the fifth inning, when he drove a two-run homer just over the glove of leaping right fielder Patrick Kiviehan with two outs. It was his first homer since July 29.
“It’s good to come through and help,” said Heyward, who laughed off talk about how he felt getting back on the field after the four-day layoff.
Maddon said his only message to Heyward upon his return was: “Just go play.”
“I want to see a smile on his face, playing hard like he always does,” Maddon said. “I’d rather see him cut back on his work right now and just play the game. I want him fresh mentally and physically, because there’s so many different ways he can help you win a baseball game.
“He can’t try anything differently. He can’t work any harder. It’s impossible. So just go play.”
Whether the $184 million contract “has got to weigh on you a little bit” in the first year, as Maddon suggested, the manager said he’s been impressed with Heyward’s poise and steady demeanor through the struggles.
“What you’re talking about is emotional intelligence,” Maddon said.
And what he, at least, is not talking about is playoffs and Heyward’s would-be role at that point.
“I don’t worry about stuff like that,” Maddon said. “I’ve been involved in the playoffs several times. I don’t get ahead of myself ever, and I don’t want to do that now.”
Notes: Infielder Tommy La Stella was 1-for-4 with a double in his first game for AAA Iowa after being moved up from AA Tennessee Monday. He’s expected to rejoin the club after rosters expand in September. … Outfielder Jorge Soler, who has been limited to a pinch-hitting appearance Sunday since fouling a ball off his knee Saturday night reported improvement Monday and could be in the lineup Tuesday against Padres left-hander Christian Friedrich. … Maddon said he hasn’t discussed with the front office specifics yet on who might get added in September from the minors. Besides La Stella, right-handers Hector Rondon and John Lackey are expected to be added from the DL early in the month, with right-hander Pedro Strop returning from a knee injury toward the middle of the month. … Left-hander Jon Lester earned his 10th win in 11 decisions, dating to May 27, with six-plus strong innings – and improved to 5-0 with a 2.28 ERA in seven starts since the All-Star break.