ST. LOUIS — “Expect the worst.”
That’s Jason Heyward’s motto. No, really, it is.
Is the Cubs’ outfielder a real glass-half-empty type? No, it’s not that. A worrywart? No, it’s not that, either. Nor does it have anything to do with his well-documented struggles at the plate, which may or may not be a factor again in 2017.
This is all about catching baseballs, which the 27-year-old Heyward does better than just about anybody.
“I always try to tell myself to expect the worst,” he said, “and then I’m looking forward to going to run to get the baseball.”
There were wild plays and storylines galore in Tuesday’s 2-1 Cubs victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. A shutdown performance by Jake Arrieta. A painful and incredibly unlucky trip around the bases by Cardinals right fielder Stephen Piscotty. Two errors on one play from second-base wizard Javy Baez, who later sealed the game in the ninth inning with a defensive gem. A welcome RBI single by Heyward amid boos from fans at Busch Stadium, his former home. Save No. 1 for new Cubs closer Wade Davis.
And, of course, the play that left everyone buzzing: a leaping grab at the outfield wall by Albert Almora Jr. to rob Cardinals pinch-hitter Matt Adams of a home run.
“Great play,” Heyward said.
If only every game were so fun and compelling.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle, though, was the latest masterful defensive moment for Heyward himself. In the seventh inning of a one-run game, Matt Carpenter hit a screaming shot into the gap in right-center. Heyward — once timed by MLB Statcast to have a two-hundredths-of-a-second jump on the ball — reacted instantly, racing back and into a leaping one-handed catch.
Was it as impressive as Almora’s play? Put it this way: The degree of difficulty probably was quite similar. But Heyward makes things look so much easier than they are, it can be hard to tell.
“Carpenter hit that ball hard,” he said. “Just right place, right time. Expect the worst.”
Right place, right time? Please. This was a play most guys simply don’t make.
“It was just especially good to catch it,” he said. “I just try to tell myself to catch every ball. If it hits your glove, you would like to catch it. You know what I mean? Get there, you’d like to catch the ball. I just had to focus because it was one that I needed to jump for. Just trust it — trust your ability.”
That’s another of Heyward’s mottos — “trust your ability” — which essentially amounts to a freeing of the mind that enables a defensive player to make the kinds of decisive, all-out plays that blow our minds. A number of the Cubs have this no-think, all-do weapon in their arsenals. Baez certainly has it. Shortstop Addison Russell and catcher Willson Contreras sure seem to, as well. And Almora?
“I saw it right away in spring training in ’16,” Heyward said. “I saw him go out there and be fearless. He runs into the wall to catch the baseball and things like that, and that tells me he’s not thinking — in a good way.
“He’s not afraid of the big moment. He wants to be in the big moment. That’s kind of what this team is.”
Almora knocked on his wooden locker in the visitors’ clubhouse while describing his dream to “be with the Cubs and have a long career, God willing.”
Confidence is a real key for him now, as it is with any player. Almora’s hasn’t always been so high when it comes to hitting; lately, he has been focusing on having positive thoughts in that regard. With his defense, though, there are no issues whatsoever.
“I’m at the point where I’m really confident in whatever I’m doing defensively,” he said.
That’s Cub, as they say. Is there another team that makes defense as cool as this one does?
“We just have fun doing it,” Heyward said. “We understand it’s a big part of the game — and we don’t take it for granted.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.