Resurgent Jason Heyward delivers key blow against Josh Hader, Brewers

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.

Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports

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.”

http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/23766789/jason-heyward-chicago-cubs-get-josh-hader-milwaukee-brewers

Cubs, Brewers square off again with first place at stake

By Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE — An early June showdown awaits the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers this week, as they’ll renew their budding rivalry over the next three days with first place on the line. Just like a year ago at this time, the Brewers have dictated the standings from atop the NL Central. But unlike last season, the two-time defending division champions are making their move in early June instead of late July.

Trailing by just a half-game entering Monday night’s contest, the Cubs are playing their best baseball of the season, despite losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday. It was just their fourth loss in 16 games. The Brewers also lost on Sunday, marking their fifth defeat in eight June games, which has allowed the Cubs to make up some ground while setting up the early summer face-to-face at Miller Park.

“You can’t contrive it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the rivalry. “People that attempt to contrive a rivalry, I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. It’s an organic thing. You cannot force rivalry.”

Bad blood can raise tensions between division opponents, but if the teams are fighting to stay out of the cellar, does it really matter? You need more. These teams — solid in many facets of the game — have it.

“You have to have another good team,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said earlier this season. “We gave them a run [last season]. It wasn’t good enough.”

Normally, a matchup between teams in first and second place would mean a hostile environment for the visitors, but with the Brewers’ home stadium dubbed Wrigley North, it’s essentially a neutral field. For example, outfielder Ryan Braun is used to getting booed on the road, but in his own park? It happens all the time when the Cubs come to town.

The first time the teams met in Milwaukee this season didn’t exactly bring out the best in each fan base, as early April baseball rarely does. Only one game drew more than 40,000 fans, and one drew fewer than 30,000. The Cubs took three of four. Later in the month — with a little more interest — the Cubs swept the Brewers in a four-game series at Wrigley Field.

That brings us to the most obvious storyline heading into the series: The Cubs have already taken seven of eight from the Brewers. Is that a meaningless coincidence or a meaningful trend? Perhaps we’ll get some answers this week, but Milwaukee has one advantage. Any series in which Jon Lester does not pitch is a good one for the Cubs’ opposition, as his ERA (2.22) ranks third in the NL. In fact, the Brewers will miss both Lester and usually reliable righty Kyle Hendricks. But Jose Quintana boasts a 0.63 ERA against Milwaukee in six career starts, and he’ll face Junior Guerra on Monday in a juicy battle of middleweights. Eric Thames is expected to return from the disabled list, according to the Brewers’ website, which will give Milwaukee its own boost heading into the series.

The Cubs won seven of eight against the Brewers in April, but Milwaukee enters this week with a half-game lead in the NL Central. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Then there’s Josh Hader, the most dynamic reliever in the league. He didn’t pitch Sunday, meaning he should be fresh for the Cubs. There will be a nice cat-and-mouse game between Maddon and Counsell, as both managers have top-ranked relievers to deploy this week, but none is better than Hader, with his ability to get strikeouts (70 in 35.1 innings). Maddon surely will alternate righty and lefty bats in his lineup, as he usually does, to ensure that Hader won’t face several lefties in a row — not that it matters much. Lefties are hitting .057 off Hader, with righties hitting just .103. The notion of a late-game matchup between Hader and Anthony Rizzo sounds destined to happen unless the game is a blowout.

Perhaps that’s where the season series between the teams is misleading. Other than Game 1 on April 5 — an 8-0 win by the Cubs — the meetings have mostly been tight affairs. The Brewers simply didn’t hit when the Cubs swept them at Wrigley, but they’ve more than made up for it since. Milwaukee trails the Los Angeles Dodgers by one home run for the top spot in the NL, while the Cubs rank 10th in that category. However, the Cubs have the best OPS in the league, while Milwaukee is outside the top five. It’s hard to find an edge in the pitching matchup considering Lester isn’t throwing in the series, though both teams have plenty of good arms besides the ones already mentioned.

No matter what happens this week, it’s hard to see the Brewers beating the Cubs for the division title without faring better head-to-head. They survived a 1-7 start against their rivals 90 miles to the south, but could they survive another similar stretch? Is this the week the Cubs blow by Milwaukee, then carry on to take down the St. Louis Cardinals, establishing themselves once again as the team to beat? Or is this division destined for important games in September, like it had last year?

No longer is it early. No longer are managers and fans learning what their teams are all about. Both the Cubs and Brewers are good. Now we might start to find out who is better. If these three games aren’t enough, then perhaps the softball contest between the wives/girlfriends of each team, played at noon Tuesday outside Miller Park, will tell us something. That one is being played for charity. The ones at night and Wednesday afternoon will have no such connotation.

Will this be moving week in the NL Central? For Cubs fans, it’s six days of rivalry games to kick-start the summer. For Brewers fans, it’s a chance to test the first-place standing and find out if that 1-7 mark against Chicago is a fluke.

“They’re a good team,” Rizzo said the last time the teams met. “They’re hungry. You have two teams with high aspirations.”

And still do.

http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/23757698/chicago-cubs-milwaukee-brewers-battle-first-again

Brewers get Brad Miller from Rays for Ji-Man Choi

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — The Brewers have acquired infielder Brad Miller and cash from the Tampa Bay Rays for first baseman/outfielder Ji-Man Choi.

The NL Central-leading Brewers made the deal Sunday and assigned Miller to Triple-A Colorado Springs. He was cut by Tampa Bay on Thursday.

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

The 28-year-old Miller was hitting .256 with five home runs and 21 RBIs in 48 games for the Rays. Mostly a shortstop, he has started at every position in the majors except catcher and pitcher.

Miller hit 30 home runs for the Rays in 2016 but dipped to just nine last year.

The 27-year-old Choi hit .233 with two homers and five RBIs in 12 games for Milwaukee.

The Brewers sent Choi to Triple-A Colorado Springs earlier Sunday, one day after he hit a go-ahead, pinch-hit grand slam in the Brewers’ 12-3 win over the Phillies.

http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/23755972/milwaukee-brewers-acquire-brad-miller-tampa-bay-rays-ji-man-choi