Chicago Cubs

Boden: Welcome to the crossroads of the Bears' season

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Boden: Welcome to the crossroads of the Bears' season

A year ago, the Bears celebrated Thanksgiving grateful to have a five-game winning streak that improved their record to 7-3, before feeling indigestion about the loss of Jay Cutler the rest of the season with his broken thumb.

They celebrated this year, also 7-3 under the unknown of when they'd get Cutler back from his concussion, with the knowledge in the back of their minds that whenever their No. 1 quarterback gets back out there, another blow anytime soon like the one that knocked him out against Houston would likely end his 2012 season for good.

At this time last season, they were undone by backup quarterback ineptitude (and a Matt Forte injury) as the offensive line finally stabilized after some early experimentation by exasperation.

But Phil Emery's trust (and belief?) in the staff he inherited placed offseason O-line improvements down the priority list behind stud wideout, backup quarterback and Forte insurance - from injury and contract. Now, here the Bears stand through 10 games with a line that seems to take two or three steps back with every step forward. And two new starters.

So will this Band-Aid (and the hoped-for health of Cutler) produce better than the 1-5 finish of last season? Can J'Marcus Webb and Chris Spencer (the same tandem that saw Clay Matthews zip past them for 3-12 sacks the last time they started together) keep Jared Allen without a sack for the third straight game? Allen had 3-12 sacks vs. Webb the last time these two squared off. Combine Allen with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, and those Vikes defensive ends have combined for 16-12 sacks this year. Just so Jonathan Scott's aware, too, as he makes his first Bears start, sliding in for Gabe Carimi.

However they get it done, these next two home games loom monumental for how the rest of the season may unfold. Minnesota and Seattle are both 6-4, a game behind the Bears, and on the NFC playoiff bubble. The former 7-1 Bears would put themselves on that bubble if they don't deliver setbacks to the Vikings' and Seahawks' postseason aspirations.

And that's not even considering the rematch with the Vikes in two weeks, followed by Green Bay, the lone home game in the final four of the regular season.

So does 7-3 turn into 7-5 if the Bears take the wrong path? Or 8-4 or 9-3 with the right one, no matter the obstacles that might be in their way?

Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said it about his offensive linemen Wednesday, but it really applies throughout the roster, as this team is starting to really feel some heat for the first time this season, coinciding with improved competition:

"At a certain point, a guy needs to grit his teeth, buck up and win a fight," Tice said this week.

These next two (three? four?) opponents will be fighting to keep playoff dreams alive. The Bears will need to approach it the same way. If not, "too late" often comes quicker than anyone sees it coming.

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

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USA TODAY

While 2017 has been underwhelming for other hitters, Ian Happ has become a reliable rookie fixture for Cubs

Go ahead. Be honest.

Did you really see Ian Happ coming this fast?

Obviously you knew he’d be here one day, another one of Theo Epstein’s much-ballyhooed first-round draft picks, a position player destined to fit snugly into the Cubs’ long-term lineup.

But Happ was drafted mere months before the Cubs made their breakout run to the 2015 National League Championship Series. He spent his first full season as a professional while the big league team marched to that curse-smashing World Series championship.

Though like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras before him, Happ has landed in the big leagues and become a fixture in the North Side batting order. He’s an everyday player who might not be tearing the cover off the ball on a daily basis, but it’s now hard to imagine the lineup without him.

“I’ve felt really good since I’ve been here,” Happ said earlier this week, “the way guys are super accepting and the way they’ve embraced me in the clubhouse, I couldn’t ask for more. Being with the team for the entire spring training, getting to know the guys, it made it easy for the transitional period and making me feel like I belong right away.”

Happ showed his stuff Saturday, playing a starring role in the North Siders’ narrow 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays. Happ was on base three times, drove in a pair of runs and scored twice, too. He drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, launched a game-tying solo homer in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on a Javy Baez base hit in the sixth.

Right in the middle of the action is where Happ’s been since he arrived in the bigs back in the middle of May.

It’s been a good thing, too. Because at this point in this odd season, this quest to repeat that has hardly gone according to plan, it’s possible that the Cubs aren’t in first place without Happ. A playoff spot is still nowhere close to a certainty with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals hot on the Cubs’ tail in the NL Central standings.

With the underachieving and in some cases injury-plagued seasons to date from the likes of Russell, Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, the reliability of Happ has made him, even if quietly, one of the key cogs on a team that is still in first place, even if they haven’t been able to pull away and lock down a third straight trip to the postseason.

And he’s doing all this with just 80 games of major league service time.

“I think the more experience you get, as you start to see different pitchers over and over again, you kind of start to see the way guys are going to pitch you, the way the game develops,” Happ said earlier this week. “The more experience you have with that, it kind of helps you to slow the game down.

“I think all the way up for me, once you move up a level, you have to adjust. Sometimes, it happens quick and sometimes it’s more of a process. I feel like I’ve had to make adjustments at every level and definitely this level, you’re making adjustments every day. The quicker you can make them, the better off you’ll be.”

As mentioned, Happ isn’t putting up some sort of jaw-dropping, send-him-to-Cooperstown kind of a rookie season. He's hitting .249 after Saturday’s two-hit day, and undoubtedly he’s had his struggles. In his last 21 games prior to Saturday, he hit .189 and punctuated that rocky stretch with a four-strikeout day Friday against this same Blue Jays team.

But his .819 OPS ranks fifth among NL rookies. It ranks fourth on the Cubs, lower only than Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Contreras. He’s also in the top five on the team in RBIs and slugging percentage. Saturday’s long ball was his 18th homer of his 80-game season. Extrapolate those numbers to the team’s 122 games on the season, and he’d have more than 25 dingers already.

Thrown into the major league fire, he’s doing all this while asked to be an everyday contributor for a team with World Series aspirations — or rather World Series expectations.

“It’s tough. It’s a new adjustment,” Rizzo said Saturday. “It’s a new everyday grind up here that’s different from the minor leagues. And he’s hit his bumps along the way, but he keeps adjusting, keeps virtually getting better every day. And it’s fun when you see his success pay off.”

“The game ebbs and flows all the time,” Happ said Saturday. “That’s why it’s a beautiful game and a terrible game at the same time. You’re going to have your good weeks, your bad weeks, good days, bad days. Being able to stay even and keep fighting through it is important.”

While the focus for the Cubs is on the present and winning the NL Central crown, this franchise’s championship window extends far beyond the end of the 2017 campaign. Happ will continue to be a big piece of that window staying open, and Maddon said that this rookie season will have positive effects far down the road.

“Developmentally, I think this year’s going to be a boon to him for next year, absolutely, getting this kind of experience,” Maddon said earlier this week. “Defensively, I think he’s really improved at second base. I think he’s very nice in the outfield. I think there’s actually more positions he can venture into, whether it’s first base, third base, other things that he can do that make him even more valuable.

“The moment he starts forcing pitchers into the zone, he’s got extreme power. He really does. He’s not tall, but he’s strong. The ball comes off his bat as hot as anybody out there. It’s just a matter of him understanding the major league game and what they’re trying to do and veteran pitchers trying to take advantage of young hitters, which they do often. You’ve just got to make sure you force this guy back over the plate.

“When he learns that, like these other guys, they’re going to be very good players.”

Surely the future is bright for Happ, as it is for many of the Cubs’ young players. But as it’s plain to see on a daily basis, there’s a lot of brightness right now, too. Happ might be a rookie, but he sure doesn’t act like it. And at times, with his play, he sure doesn’t look like it, either.

“I’ve felt comfortable here, I have for a long time, and I feel really great with this group of guys,” Happ said Saturday. “And winning baseball games is a lot of fun.”

If the Cubs are going to keep winning baseball games, expect Happ to play a major role.

Lucas Giolito's White Sox debut will be pushed back as club makes rotation changes

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USA TODAY

Lucas Giolito's White Sox debut will be pushed back as club makes rotation changes

Lucas Giolito's White Sox debut will be pushed back a day.

Originally scheduled to start Monday, Giolito will make his team debut on Tuesday now, manager Rick Renteria said on Saturday. Giolito will take Reynaldo Lopez's place in the rotation as he recovers from a strained back.

The White Sox also made some other pitching rotation changes.

Carlos Rodon and Carson Fulmer will be the two starters for Monday's doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins. Renteria said that Fulmer — who will be making his season debut — will serve as the 26th man and then head back to Triple-A Charlotte.

In 24 starts this season with the Knights, the 23-year-old prospect is 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA and 95 strikeouts.