Keeping Ian Happ looks and sounds like an ‘easy’ decision for Cubs manager Joe Maddon

Keeping Ian Happ looks and sounds like an ‘easy’ decision for Cubs manager Joe Maddon

“Is it tough or easy?” is how Joe Maddon responded to a question about Ian Happ making the looming roster decision “tough” on the Cubs.

Maddon rarely shows a different side during his postgame media sessions, but the smirking manager did seem to be in a good mood after Thursday’s 9-5 win swept the Cincinnati Reds out of Wrigley Field. That night, Jason Heyward planned to test his sprained right finger at Class-A South Bend as a final step before getting activated from the disabled list.

This is assuming the Cubs haven’t already decided to keep Happ, who’s gone 6-for-17 with two homers, two doubles, five walks, five runs and four RBI through his first five games in The Show. 

“Of course, we have to have that discussion,” Maddon said. “He’s doing really well and my message to him when he came up was: Why don’t you just stay a while? Just stay as long as you need to or want to.

“We’ll have that conversation when Jason’s well. Hopefully, that turns out good today, and then there’s no reason that Jason has to be back tomorrow. We’ll just wait and see.

“Of course, Ian obviously…does not want to go anywhere.”

Happ’s long-term development isn’t a consideration for Maddon if the Cubs want to weigh more experience at Triple-A Iowa against the chance to contribute to the defending World Series champs in multiple ways.

“No, not at all,” Maddon said. “Just like Javy’s development wasn’t a concern. It just has a way of working itself out.”

While not as spectacular as Javier Baez, Happ is a versatile player who gives an open-minded manager different lineup options and in-game flexibility. Maddon focuses on the 25 guys who will maximize his chances to win that day – and not a prospect putting the finishing touches on his game in Des Moines.

“I’m just staying in the present moment,” Happ said. “My job is to come out here and go play hard and just try to get on base.”

Maddon signaled he liked the idea of keeping an eight-man bullpen, which could force Tommy La Stella back down to Triple-A. Maddon isn’t at all worried about finding at-bats for Happ, a switch-hitter who’s started at all three outfield spots and can play second base and maybe develop into a backup at the corner infield spots.

Maddon sees depth as an essential component to a team that played into early November last year, viewing sports science as a next frontier for the industry.

“There’s still the ability to balance it,” Maddon said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about the whole way – to not get anybody tired early. Look how good ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist) looked (Wednesday night). He had a couple days off – his back was a little bit tight – but he looked really refreshed.

“That’s a perfect example of when you give guys a couple consecutive days off and what it can look like. Not everybody can do that. If you don’t have the requisite talent on the bench to permit that to occur, you don’t want to do it. You’re always fighting against it.”

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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.”