Cubs hero Jason Heyward’s walk-off slam latest sign of new life in bat since DL
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Maybe all Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward needed these last couple of years at the plate was a knock on the head.
‘‘Things do seem a little more clear,’’ Heyward said with a laugh after his two-out grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted the Cubs to an unlikely 7-5 victory Wednesday against the Phillies at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs trailed in the ninth after two of their best relievers, Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow, each gave up their first home runs of the season. For Morrow, it was the first he had allowed since 2016.
‘‘A lot of unlikely events occurred,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Nothing seemed less likely than the identity of the hero in the Cubs’ first walk-off victory of the season. The long-struggling, left-handed-hitting Heyward was facing a tough matchup in left-hander Adam Morgan.
But Heyward really has seemed to be a different hitter since hitting his head on the outfield wall May 6 in St. Louis and spending close to two weeks on the concussion disabled list.
Heyward called the ordeal scary and said he was thankful when he was able to return to baseball activities about halfway through the time he was sidelined.
But while he’s able to joke now about the fact he’s hitting .340 in 13 starts since hitting his head, an actual benefit was the work on his mechanics he did leading up to his return.
‘‘Just use my hands and try to be whippy with the bat,’’ he said, describing the emphasis he adopted. ‘‘Have lag instead of trying to hit the ball with my arms and body.
‘‘That’s what the time away kind of allowed me to do, just making sure to do anything I could before I got back. And since I’ve gotten back, to work on that every day.’’
Heyward, the $184 million free agent who had struggled offensively almost from the moment he signed that deal before the 2016 season, made no guarantees beyond trying to keep it up the next time he plays.
So far, however, he’s 18-for-53 with five extra-base hits, three walks and 11 RBI in those 13 starts since returning. That includes four multihit games in five games last week — and a moment Wednesday he said he has practiced since he was 8 years old.
‘‘He’s a huge part of this team,’’ said left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who led off the ninth by drawing the first walk in rookie pitcher Seranthony Dominguez’s 13 career appearances. ‘‘Special moments find special people, and that was one of them.’’
The no-doubt shot on a 2-2 pitch gave the Cubs their fifth victory in their last six games and their eighth in their last 10. They moved one game behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central.
‘‘Hopefully, that’s the kind of game that can push us a little bit,’’ said Maddon, whose team led 3-0 until Cishek gave up a three-run homer to Aaron Altherr on his first pitch with two outs in the sixth.
Imagine what it might mean for the Cubs if Heyward continues to be a force at the plate, especially with more than 5½ seasons left on his mega-contract.
‘‘Mechanically, I like what he’s doing now,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘He didn’t have a great night, but who did? But the last 10 days or so, Jason’s been hitting the ball consistently hard. And even when he doesn’t, he’s finding some holes with it, too. And playing some great defense. . . . Hopefully, that’s going to do something to really project his confidence in the right direction.’’
By the way, said Maddon, who hosted boyhood idol Joe Namath before the game: ‘‘Joe guaranteed the win before the game.’’
What did the Jets’ famous Super Bowl prognosticator have to say about Heyward?
‘‘I was just concerned about tonight’s game,’’ Maddon said.