'Ready to capitalize': Joc heats up, hits 2 HRs

May 26th, 2021

seeks the same even-keel attitude as a lot of athletes. But with the way he began this season offensively, particularly with a glaring lack of home runs, the results were difficult to ignore.

“I think you’re aware of it, just in the back of your head,” he said. “But you’ve gotta just trust your ability.”

Pederson’s abilities have led to four seasons of 25-plus home runs, three seasons with an OPS+ of 125 or greater, and an average exit velocity that consistently exceeds league average. And after a sluggish first month, which included an injury, he’s back to flashing the type of pop that makes him a valued asset for a playoff-hopeful team.

On Tuesday night, Pederson smoked a pair of home runs and a double to lead the Cubs past the Pirates, 4-3, at PNC Park.

In his first 29 games (101 at-bats), Pederson had homered just once. He hit his second of the year on Friday, and then doubled his sum again while facing Pittsburgh. First, Pederson hit a towering solo shot in the third inning to put the Cubs on the board (they’d trailed 3-0 at the time). Then in the fifth, Pederson dug out a low slider and sent it over the wall in center for a two-run shot, which tied the game. Both balls left the yard with an exit velocity in excess of 102 mph.

Oh, and he added a 101.8-mph double in the ninth inning for good measure.

Now in his eighth season, Pederson has homered in 5.1 percent of his plate appearances (MLB’s average in that span is 3.0 percent). But entering Tuesday, Pederson’s home run rate this year was only 1.6 percent.

He’s still hitting the ball hard -- his 92.1 mph average exit velocity and 50 percent hard-hit rate rank in the 87th and 86th percentile, respectively -- but his early results weren’t rewarding. He batted .137 with two extra-base hits in his first 16 games before a left wrist injury held him out for two weeks.

“I was hitting some balls really hard for a while and nothing was going in the air,” Pederson said. “Just some singles. But it is what it is. I didn’t want to go up there and try to do more and get away from what was being successful. Just trust that it’s gonna come in time.

“You can’t really force anything in this game; it kind of will tell you when it’s the right time to do it. Just gotta be ready to capitalize.”

And capitalize he has; in 17 games since his return, Pederson has a .369 average and seven extra-base hits. That’s quite a turnaround, and it begs the question: Has Pederson ever made a 180-degree turn like this in his career?

“Unfortunately, yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I go ice cold sometimes. Tough game.”

Pederson’s most memorable not-to-hot flip came in 2017, when the Dodgers sent him to Triple-A following a 2-for-41 (.049) tailspin in late July and August. He emerged for the final month, mostly as a bit player coming off the bench to pinch-hit. Then he took a prominent role on their National League champion team, setting fire to Astros pitching in the World Series.

“I would’ve been the World Series MVP,” Pederson said of his six-game performance, which included a 1.344 OPS. “I’d say that was pretty red-hot.”

That’s a memory that makes Pederson smile in hindsight. For here and now, though, he’ll try not to make too much of a few stellar weeks. But the Cubs sure appreciate his efforts.

“I feel like he has some of the more consistent at-bats since he’s been back,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He’s using all fields, hitting the ball hard, pulling the ball … I think this is that playoff-type player you see when he’s locked in. He looks really good right now, and swinging the bat as good as anybody.”