Cubs

Enjoy the latest version of Jason Heyward; maybe, just maybe, he’ll stick around

This new right fielder for the Cubs is impressive. Not like the last guy. The last guy couldn’t hit his way out of an invisible fence.

The new guy looks confident, shows an odd ability to hit a baseball a long way on occasion and has a batting average that is not below average. When he digs in at the plate, you actually believe there’s a chance he’ll get a hit. It’s the strangest thing.

This might be a story of redemption. Or it might not be. The new Jason Heyward and the old Jason Heyward appear to be worlds apart. The problem is that it’s June and what separates those seemingly different worlds is only 2½ months.

But if you don’t allow yourself to believe in this now, there’s the distinct possibility you’re soulless. A .378 average the previous two weeks? A .328 average the last month? He has raised his average 50 points since coming back from a concussion May 18. This is fun stuff. Is it real? Or is this Henry Rowengartner breaking his arm and ending up with a turbo fastball, only to return to earth eventually? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

Jason Heyward is doused with sports drink after hitting a walk-off grand slam against the Phillies during the ninth inning Wednesday at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won 7-5. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Last week, I was switching back and forth between the Cubs-Phillies game and one of the NBA Finals games in which LeBron James played the Warriors by himself, which was every game. I flipped to the Cubs just in time to see Heyward crush a fastball for a walk-off grand slam. There were so many discordant things about that moment. That Heyward hadn’t been pulled for a pinch hitter, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. That Heyward had delivered. That the left-handed-hitting Heyward had homered against a left-handed pitcher.

But the thing that stood out the most was how hard Heyward had hit the ball. At the moment of contact, anybody who was watching the game and had even a casual relationship with the sport said, “That’s gone.’’

Into the right-field bleachers it went, and into orbit Wrigley Field went.

I was not aware that Heyward had that kind of power. Oh, there had been rumors, but those had been from years back, when he was in Atlanta. Here in Chicago, we had grown so accustomed to mighty swings and dead-ball-era flyouts from him that it never occurred to us that a grand slam was on the list of options.

Then on Saturday, there was this headline on the Sun-Times’ website: “Jason Heyward’s hot hitting helps the Cubs tie franchise record.’’

What in the world? Heyward and a record? Are you kidding? What next, fish walking down Michigan Avenue?

As it turned out, Heyward’s double in the first inning against the Pirates had given the Cubs 94 consecutive games with at least one extra-base hit, equaling a club record.

OK, it’s not the most significant record around. But it was another reminder that Heyward is a part of things offensively, which hasn’t always been the case.

The numbers argue that the 2018 Heyward isn’t so different from the 2017 model. His slash line this season is .267/.330/.404. Last season, it was .259/.326/.389. He had 11 home runs and 59 runs batted in last year. He’s on pace for 11 homers and 61 RBI this year.

Compared to his dreadful 2016, when he hit .230, he looks like Ted Williams right now.

So why all the hullabaloo? Is it because we’re hungry for something to root for when it comes to Heyward? Is it because we want more than a great glove and a rain-delay speech from a guy for whom the Cubs terribly overpaid? Or did we just want to use the word hullabaloo? Probably all of those reasons.

There is something different about Heyward. He has changed his swing, relying more on his hands than his arms. He’s hitting the ball much harder than last season. There is something real here, even if it has only been 10 weeks. It’s solid, grounded stuff.

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There was a lot of false hope and false praise in his first two seasons with the Cubs. His manager and his teammates raved about him in the face of conclusive evidence that he had lost whatever it was that got him to 27 home runs in 2012. We were told that he was hitting the ball hard right at people. Bad luck, we were told. OK, sure. But the law of averages says that if the ball is screaming off your bat, success eventually will find you. The truth was that he wasn’t making much contact, and the result was a lot of misery for everyone involved, including the viewing audience.

Heyward is never to going to escape the eight-year, $184 million contract he signed in December 2015, and here’s guessing he has made peace with all that money.

But now there is something good or sort of good going on. Maybe what we’re seeing is a statistical anomaly that the rest of the season will buff out to resemble the mediocrity of the past. But what if it isn’t?

Such a nice question to ponder.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.