By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward stood in front of his locker decked out in a ’70s-style brown checkered suit looking quite comfortable.
Months removed from the greatest professional struggles he has faced, Heyward looks like himself again. The 6-foot-5 specimen of an athlete is again generating power with his swing. All of that work this past offseason has paid early dividends, with Heyward consistently producing hard contact.
“He looks very confident,” manager Joe Maddon said Thursday. “He’s very confident. It’s nice to see that.”
Well, self-confidence can be tested when you’re dressed as an “Anchorman” character, part of the Maddon-led themed road trip to Los Angeles. But that’s just life on this Cubs team, one that was back in a first-place tie at the conclusion of a 5-1 win over the Giants on Thursday at Wrigley Field. They slugged out 20 home runs in a 7-2 homestand, with Heyward hitting a pair in his first five games off the disabled list.
Heyward has been a key part of the Cubs’ offensive efforts in his second season. He has five homers and 19 RBIs, along with a .763 OPS through 33 games. Heyward entered Thursday registering hard contact 28 percent of the time, and that was before crushing a homer at 107.8 miles per hour.
Last season was nothing short of miserable for Heyward, who hit .230 and posted a career-worst .631 OPS. His seven homers were also a career-worst. He’s on pace for nearly 20 this season.
As for last season, Heyward has moved past it — the highs of a World Series run and the lows of a disappointing first season in Chicago.
“We don’t care about last year,” Heyward said.
While Heyward held a media session after Thursday’s game, a reporter asked if the “pre-2016 Jason Heyward” had returned. He chuckled while politely holding back what he probably wanted to say. Heyward’s demeanor hasn’t changed, from his arrival in Chicago after an eight-year, $184-million deal in December of 2015 through struggles of 2016 and now to early successes this season.
This offseason, Heyward traveled down to Arizona fresh off the championship celebration and began to work. He joined hitting coach John Mallee and assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske in reforming that troubled swing.
Now, Heyward can simply rely on his technique. If struggles hit this season — and there may be a point where that comes — he can fall back on that swing. Heyward brings the hands back, keeps the step easy and unleashes on the baseball.
In fact, he leads the Cubs with an average 89.1-mph exit velocity.
“That’s just something to say about putting consistent good swings on the baseball and see what you can do,” Heyward said.
“If that’s something to fall back on, there’s that. Just put good swings on the ball and see what happens.”
Heyward has produced plenty of good swings so far this season. Then came a stint on the disabled list earlier this month for a finger injury. He had to break from swinging the bat and heal.
When given clearance to swing again, Heyward kept his hands back and put his force into the ball. Nothing had changed after the layoff. It’s all about the muscle memory, and he has it down after all that work.
Heyward took home a Gold Glove in 2016 for the fourth time in his career. He played a key part in the Cubs’ championship run, and not just because of his speech during the World Series Game 7 rain delay. But the offense was missing all year long. Now, he’s driving the ball hard and all over the field.
It seems the Cubs finally have the Heyward they envisioned.