How Ian Happ could force the issue and stick with Cubs

How Ian Happ could force the issue and stick with Cubs

ST. LOUIS – Ian Happ pivoted from his talking points when a reporter mentioned his reputation as a defender, flashing another side to the reserved, professional demeanor the Cubs noticed in spring training as he blended in with the defending World Series champs.        

“I don’t know where that came from,” Happ said. “Everybody does their scouting reports coming out of college and that was just something that caught wind and caught a little bit of helium.

“It’s blown up that I stink at fielding. So I’m not really sure how that came about, but I feel like I can play multiple positions well. And that’s what I try to do.”

Manager Joe Maddon brought it up during his media session after Happ made another strong impression in Sunday’s 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium: “He’s always been branded as a hitter, but he’s a lot more than that.”

The day after blasting a two-run homer off Carlos Martinez in his big-league debut, Happ got two hits off Adam Wainwright, made a sliding catch in right field and moved over to play center. That in-game flexibility as a switch-hitter and a second baseman is what the Cubs envisioned when they drafted Happ out of the University of Cincinnati with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft.

The last two pennant races have seen Theo Epstein’s front office aggressively promote prospects like Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, with Maddon’s coaching staff trusting them in key moments for playoff teams. So while the Cubs made this decision in response to a wave of injuries, Happ’s offensive upside and defensive versatility could force the issue again.     

“Absolutely, if he keeps doing (this), it’s hard to say that you don’t want him here any longer,” Maddon said. “There’s other ways to fit him in. But, again, all I want him to do is attack today. Literally, enjoy the moment. Don’t overthink it. Control what he can. Again, I don’t want to go psychobabble. But that’s what he needs to do.

“We know how good he is. We know what he means to our future. Go play, and let us figure out the rest. Of course, the team, roster-wise, is in a state of flux now, based on different guys being banged up. But all Ian has to worry about is to continue to do what he did in camp, what he’s been doing at Triple-A, and let us make that decision.”

Staying in character, Happ will try not to think about those big-picture discussions over developing every day at Iowa vs. being on call for an 18-19 team looking for a spark.

“Come to the park every day, try to help the team win,” Happ said. “That’s all I can do."

Wake-up Call: Comeback Cubs; White Sox lose eighth straight game

Wake-up Call: Comeback Cubs; White Sox lose eighth straight game

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

White Sox manager Rick Renteria 'surprised' Melky Cabrera hasn't been traded

Familiar problems for Fire in loss at New York City FC

After losing uncle, emotional Jon Lester pays tribute with Notre Dame rallying cry

Royals think White Sox have done 'phenomenal job' acquiring young talent

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

With Kyle Hendricks back in the mix, Cubs set rotation for Crosstown series with White Sox

What White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson is doing to combat second-year struggles

Blackhawks: Tommy Wingels fractures foot, will be ready for training camp

Freak of nature: Kris Bryant wows again with insane healing ability

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”