Cubs’ Jason Heyward gets ‘very, very loud’ since hitting wall in St. Louis
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Of all the walls in popular myth and current affairs these days, this might be the one the Cardinals pay for.
It still looms at Busch Stadium, unmoved and unchanged, awaiting Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward’s return Friday to St. Louis.
‘‘I’m not thinking about that at all when I’m going back,’’ Heyward said.
As Heyward takes the field 40 days after suffering a concussion when he hit that wall while trying to rob Dexter Fowler of a walk-off home run last month, it is the $184 million outfielder who looks changed, moved and maybe even redefined by the experience.
‘‘The ball is sounding very, very loud out there,’’ teammate Ben Zobrist said. ‘‘You see how comfortable he is. Everybody roots for him and wants him to do so well. It’s been really good for our team.’’
With the Cubs heading into a weekend showdown with the National League Central rival Cardinals, Heyward is one of the hottest hitters in their lineup, with more than two weeks of results previously unseen from him since he signed his eight-year free-agent deal before the 2016 season.
And he attributes much of those results to work he did in the batting cage in the days leading up to his return from two weeks on the concussion disabled list.
Heyward downplays the magnitude of the changes in his swing — beyond a more-hands, less-arms emphasis — and makes no promises about staying power.
‘‘There’s nothing new or different from him,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘He’s setting up better. You can see how the ball’s coming off the bat. It’s kind of snapping. There’s no push in his swing; it’s all snap right now.’’
Nothing new or different? Everything’s new and different about the results from a guy whose first two underachieving seasons at the plate with the Cubs spawned continual discussions about the worst contracts in baseball.
Even after he and the rest of the Cubs were shut down by the Brewers in the last two games, Heyward is 22-for-60 (.367) with a .914 OPS in his last 14 games, all but two of them after being moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order.
More impressive are the left-handed-hitting Heyward’s four hits in his last nine at-bats against lefties, including a walk-off grand slam against Phillies reliever Adam Morgan last week and a tying single against lefty-killer Josh Hader of the Brewers in an extra-inning victory Monday. Those numbers also include another hit to the pull field against hard-throwing lefty closer Felipe Vazquez of the Pirates.
‘‘Everything’s the same; nothing’s different,’’ Heyward said of his emotions, demeanor and confidence. ‘‘It’s another day. Things are going however [they’re going]. There’s no, like, ‘The sky opened up,’ or when things are going bad, ‘It’s pouring rain.’ That’s not me.
‘‘Every day’s the same in my book. I’m here trying to help my team win.’’
But what if this is just the first chapter in a new book for Heyward at the plate?
‘‘No one should get ahead of themselves with grand declarations,’’ said team president Theo Epstein, who is rooting as hard as anyone in the organization.
Heyward certainly isn’t doing that.
‘‘I’m just getting good pitches to hit and putting good swings on the baseball,’’ he said.
A rival scout who has covered Heyward through much of his career said that he hasn’t fundamentally changed his swing, but that the difference has been even better pitch selection in recent weeks for the normally selective Heyward.
‘‘He deserves so much credit,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘He made such good use of his time when he was on the DL. It was a difficult spot, on the concussion DL, and once he felt good enough to work, he worked really hard.
‘‘He clearly found something with his swing and his hands and some feel and created some lag and some whip in his swing. That’s huge for him because through all he’s been through the last couple of 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.’’
Consider that his first season with the Cubs — 2016 — was the worst of his career: .230 with a career-low seven homers and a .631 OPS. And that an injury-hampered season in 2017 wasn’t a lot better (.259 with a .715 OPS).
‘‘Now that he’s got the whip going, you see the ball coming off the bat totally differently,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘All the work has led to a better feel for his swing, and now he can take advantage of that great brain and eye that he has at the plate.
‘‘In an era when strikeouts are up almost across the board, he’s making a ton of contact and starting to drive the ball. That’s