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Is Cubs’ strong man Heyward ready for heavy lifting in October?

 

The story in the Heyward family is that Jason’s dad, Eugene, was inspired by a character in an epic film, a character of great strength.

Jason can’t remember what movie it was, but that’s where he got his curious middle name: Alias.

It’s pronounced “Elias,” which also was how the character’s name was spelled, said the Cubs’ right fielder.

Even as he struggled offensively this year, Jason Heyward's Gold Glove fielding did not slump.

“But my dad wanted my initials to be JAH for Jehova,” Heyward said.

If Jason Alias Heyward ever had a baseball season that lived up to that name, a season that ever begged for strength from the heavens – or an alias – it was this first season in Chicago.

The most coveted position player in last year’s free agent market signed an eight-year, $184 million deal, went 1-for-5 in the season opener and four days later reached his high-water average for the season at .250. He finished with career lows in home runs (seven), on-base percentage (.306) and slugging (.325).

“You want to come through so many times; you want to come through too much, every time,” Heyward said of the pressure he put on himself after idealizing the career destination he was able to choose for the first time in his career.

“Too in love with the city and the team and all those things, too happy to be in the most ideal situation,” he said. “Forget the contract; you’re just trying too hard because of all those things.

“You can love things too much sometimes,” he said.

But as the Cubs’ open the playoffs Friday night at Wrigley Field, two important developments during Heyward’s rough season point to him as a player to watch in the Cubs’ efforts to complete a 108-year Odyssey.

First, he remains the best right fielder in the game by several defensive metrics, a game-changing force in the field that never wavered through his hitting struggles.

“Listen, he’s been a big part of what we’ve done,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our run prevention is why we had the run differential and the wins we did. And he’s a huge part of that run prevention.”

The Cubs’ MLB-leading run differential of plus-252 was a whopping 37 percent better than the No. 2 Red Sox (plus-184). Heyward has 18 defensive runs saved for a team that led the majors with 82, according to fangraphs.com.

And second: The final two weeks of the season, Heyward went 14-for-46 (.304) with nine walks (.410 on-base percentage), six extra-base hits and an .889 OPS.

The change that led to that production started nearly two weeks before that, he said, when the Giants played a four-game series at Wrigley, all one-run games, and when all the idealizing and self awareness disappeared into the playoff-like din of each of those games.

“It’s just go play and do what I need to do to go win. That’s what it’s been,” he said, “and that’s helped me so much here in this past month. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I do.”

If it carries into the next few weeks, he could be a decisive factor in the postseason. Last year against the Cubs, he was the toughest out in the Cardinals lineup during the National League Division Series.

It reminds Hoyer of J.D. Drew, who struggled for the Red Sox all of 2007, then hit a first-inning grand slam that set the tone for a series-changing Game 6 win in the ALCS on the way to a championship.

“It was like all of a sudden everything that happened to that point was behind him,” Hoyer said. “And he had one of the biggest swings of that entire World Series run. It’s a new season, and I think there’s a chance [Heyward] gets some huge hits for us.”

Often lost in Heyward’s struggles at the plate this season were the things he did everywhere else during the game, from the Gold Glove fielding to aggressive, alert base-running that set an early-season tone for the team, to behind-the-scenes moments with younger teammates.

“There’s a lot of things this guy does every day to help you win a ballgame,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Teammate Kris Bryant, an MVP candidate in his second season, brought up Heyward unsolicited one night when somebody asked about Bryant’s and Anthony Rizzo’s influence on each other.

“It’s not just us,” Bryant said. “Jason Heyward comes to mind. Anytime you’re struggling or frustrated, he knows what to say, he knows what to do to get you out of that and get you thinking in the right mindset.”

It’s no coincidence the Cardinals offered to make him the highest paid player in franchise history with a 10-year, $200 million offer to stay last winter after one season with the club.

“He’s just kind of an old-school, just comes-to-play-everyday kind of player,” Cards manager Mike Matheny said. “You know what you’re going to get from the defensive side. He’s a plus-plus defender. Offensively he had a good year for us. He was a threat on the bases – smart base runner.

“He was everything we could have asked.”

What Matheny seemed to like most were the “intangibles” he said Heyward offers.

“That old-school thinking of how the game should look and how the clubhouse should operate,” said Matheny, who was so impressed with the then-25-year-old Heyward that he brought him into closed conversations with veteran players during key points in the season.

“He always had good ideas, and you could tell he was thinking about this club and not just about himself,” Matheny said.

Heyward is old school right down to his dismissiveness of the analytics that ironically help make him a $184 million player – the metrics that quantify the base running and defensive details that he considers more a matter of knowing the game, paying attention and using your head.

“None of those things are me,” he said of sabermetrics. “I remember when WAR came out for the first time, and I think mine was 6-point something, and people were saying, `How does he have the highest WAR? I’m not buying it.’

“I’m like, `You came up with it. Why are you talking down on me like I came up with it? I didn’t ask for it. You made it for yourself.’ That’s what’s so funny about that.”

As Heyward remembers that story and laughs it becomes even more apparent how much different he seems in September and October than in April and May.

“I was in another new place for the third year in a row,” said Heyward, who was traded from Atlanta to St. Louis before last year, “but this one being the one that I chose and that I couldn’t wait to get to and I’m so excited about.

“And I still feel that way. That feeling hasn’t gone way. Yeah, that’s what’s made it harder than it had to be.”

And required more strength to get through than any season before.

“I’ve always been strong,” he said. “I’ve always been a mentally tough guy.”

Of course he is. It’s his middle name.