Looking like he belongs, Ian Happ sparks Cubs in win over Reds

Looking like he belongs, Ian Happ sparks Cubs in win over Reds

Within two years of getting drafted, Ian Happ hit cleanup and started in center field for the defending World Series champs at Wrigley Field. The Cubs didn’t necessarily envision this scenario — adding Happ to a .500-ish team in the middle of May — but there might be no turning back now.

“He’s already in tomorrow,” manager Joe Maddon said late Tuesday night after bringing a glass of Big Smooth red wine into the interview room to celebrate his 1,000th win as a big-league manager. “That wasn’t difficult.”

Happ is making it harder on team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to stick with the original plan of using him as a short-term replacement while multiple Cubs rested and recovered.

Happ helped spark the Cubs during a 9-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, driving a 74-mph Bronson Arroyo pitch into the left-field bleachers for his second home run in three games since his promotion from Triple-A Iowa over the weekend.

“When you call someone up, you always have plans in pencil,” Epstein said. “Nothing’s ever written in ink. He’s feeling great at the plate right now. He tends to be streaky, so when he’s on a hot streak, it gets really hot and it lasts a long time.

“He’s got a great temperament. He seems comfortable up there already. I think spring training really helped him. His defensive instincts have improved tremendously from where he was in college. He looks more comfortable at a number of positions now, and that allows us to find a spot in the lineup for him more consistently, especially when guys are banged up.”

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A patient switch-hitter, Happ also drew two walks against the Reds and showcased his defensive versatility by moving over to left field — ideal qualities for a Maddon player and the front office that selected him out of the University of Cincinnati with the ninth overall pick in 2015.

“For me, being disciplined, swinging at strikes, swinging at pitches I can do damage on is part of the game,” said Happ, who’s gone 4-for-10 with a double, those two homers, four RBI, three runs scored and three walks during this audition. “Especially in that situation, first time being in Wrigley bumping like that, I felt good about the way I handled it. I felt good about the way I saw the baseball.”

The Cubs are starting to get healthy, with Kris Bryant returning to the lineup after getting the weekend off while dealing with an upper respiratory infection and early signs of pneumonia. Jason Heyward (sprained right finger) went through his normal pregame routine and hopes to be activated from the disabled list soon. Jon Jay (back spasms) is feeling better, while Ben Zobrist doesn’t expect his stiff back to develop into a DL situation.

All those issues opened the door for Happ, but Epstein didn’t sound ready to close it yet.

“We’ll just play it by ear, do the appropriate thing for the team and for Ian’s development,” Epstein said. “We weren’t anticipating an extremely long-term stay. But we’re going to read and react based on how he plays and what’s going on with the other guys and their health.”

 

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 
 
The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (left wrist inflammation), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (left hand abrasion) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

Whether or not the big trade for a frontline pitcher happens, there are still five-plus weeks left until teams feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said over the phone before an 11-1 win at Marlins Park. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

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“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”  

The Cubs (37-35) aren’t booking Schwarber’s trip to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell just missed hitting for the cycle while rookie Ian Happ (this year’s Schwarber) also went 4-for-5. Young catcher Willson Contreras blasted his seventh home run.

More importantly, Jake Arrieta looked more like himself, limiting the Marlins to one run across seven innings.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” manager Joe Maddon said. “The biggest thing for us to really do well is to pitch well, because you can’t anticipate scoring a ton of runs without this group involved. You shouldn’t. That’s a bad assumption on my part. So you probably have to take more chances defensively. Your pitching staff – you really got to try to draw out of them as much as you possibly can.”  

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”