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.”

 

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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.

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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.”