Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
MILWAUKEE — A year ago — check that, even just a few weeks ago — it was a matchup that would have had Chicago Cubs fans turning off their television sets: dynamic Milwaukee Brewers lefty reliever Josh Hader facing left-handed-hitting Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward.
This is the same Heyward who has been the subject of social media rants and sports radio tirades for the better part of his almost two-and-a-half seasons with the Cubs. But up stepped Heyward, fresh off an improbable, ninth-inning, walk-off grand slam — off another lefty — just a few days ago in a win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
But that was Adam Morgan, and this was Hader, one of the toughest relievers in baseball. The Brewers were leading 2-1 in the eighth inning, but the Cubs had the tying run at second base.
First place was on the line.
Coming into the game, Hader had struck out 70 batters in 35 innings, including a whopping 23 lefties in 35 at-bats. Lefties were hitting .057 off him, while Heyward was hitting .158 off lefty pitchers. How could anything positive happen for the Cubs?
“Just know the guy has good stuff, and he’s not going to give you a lot to hit in the zone, so if something is there, keep it simple,” Heyward said Monday after the Cubs’ 7-2 win in 11 innings. “Take what he gives you. Hard single to right.”
Heyward turned on a 95 mph fastball and drove it into right field at an exit velocity of 107 mph, the second-hardest hit ball off Hader this season, according to Statcast. Ben Zobrist came around to score.
For two seasons, that was a pitch Heyward never would have hit hard, but times are changing for him. One big hit might be a fluke, but several in a week could have a lot more meaning.
“His setup is entirely different,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And with that, he’s making a better pass at the baseball. He’s just set better. You can see how the ball is coming off the bat. It’s kind of snapping. There is no push in his swing. It’s all snap right now. That’s the difference.”
In layman’s terms, Heyward is (finally) using less arms and more hands. The Cubs have been waiting for this day. For good measure, he doubled home two more runs — again off a lefty — in a five-run 11th inning, helping the Cubs vault over the Brewers and into first place in the NL Central.
“Our guys are like loose cannons in the dugout,” Maddon said. “There are no tight butts. It’s kind of interesting to listen to the conversation, even in a tight game. They’re in the present tense, and that’s all I can ask for.”
The Brewers are 1-8 this season against their division rivals, and on Monday they lost a game in which Hader pitched for the first time this season (21-1). Heyward beating Hader was as unlikely an outcome as any you’ll see — or at least that was the case with the old Heyward. The new, handsy one is a different hitter.
“Timing is good, but when you use your hands, you don’t get body involved, and [I] can adjust mid at-bat and throw my hands at the baseball,” he said. “Trying to use my hands. After that, just able to focus on who you’re facing on the mound.”
His teammates know what Heyward has been through and can appreciate the way he keeps working in the face of adversity. It doesn’t matter if it lasts. It’s happening now, and it’s helping the Cubs win.
“He’s putting good swings on the ball,” Anthony Rizzo said. “He comes to the ballpark like a professional every day. When you see him get results like that, it’s fun.”
And it’s fun for Maddon and the Cubs when they get a total team effort in a victory. From little known reliever Randy Rosario (0.71 ERA) keeping the Cubs in the game to 37-year-old Zobrist providing a spark off the bench, the Cubs proved once again that their talent runs deep.
Meanwhile, after Hader was beaten by Heyward and Milwaukee suffered its eighth loss in nine games against the Cubs, the Brewers must be wondering what else can go wrong.
The teams have played playoff atmosphere baseball in the early portion of the season, with the Cubs coming out on top over and over again, this time led by the unlikeliest of offensive heroes.
“Monday night game, division teams, it’s a lot of fun,” Heyward said. “It’s electric. These teams play baseball the right way.”
“It feels good,” Rizzo added. “It’s fun playing here. The fans are into it. They’re engaged. These are tough games. Which way is the ball going to fall? This year, fortunately, they’ve fallen our way.”