Who's the odd man out in Cubs roster crunch once Jason Heyward returns?

Who's the odd man out in Cubs roster crunch once Jason Heyward returns?

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Jason Heyward will rejoin the Cubs Saturday afternoon at Wrigley.

But whose spot will he take on the Cubs' 40-man roster?

The apparent choice is Tommy La Stella, who has already been sent down to Triple-A this season as part of the ongoing roster crunch at the big league level. La Stella intially refused a demotion to the minors late last season but has taken a different stance this year, playing in 12 games during his last stint with Iowa.

A week ago, Ian Happ would've been the easy call to go back down to Triple-A once Heyward returned. But the rookie — one of the game's top prospects — has been turned heads in his first week in The Show.

Happ has started six straight games since being recalled, hitting second twice before moving to the cleanup spot and providing protection to Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the lineup.

But would it be best to send the 22-year-old switch-hitter back down to the minors to play every day?

"Not if he's playing regularly in the majors...," Joe Maddon said Friday, smirking. 

Maddon conceded Happ is definitely not the kind of player the Cubs want to sit around with only 26 Triple-A games under his belt. But when the guy entered Friday's game with a .353/.500/.824 slash line, it's not hard for Maddon to find playing time for Happ.

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"Of course, [the roster decision] is very tough," Maddon said. "That's what happens when you're good — you have tough decisions. You have a lot of different options.

"The fact that Ian's come up and done so well makes it even more difficult. We'll try to figure it out and make our best guess."

However, it's not like La Stella is struggling, either. In a part-time role, the left-handed hitting infielder boasts a .318 batting average and 1.028 OPS, both the best numbers on the Cubs after Happ.

Heyward has been out since May 6 with an injured finger, but made a brief rehab stop in Class-A South Bend Thursday night and felt fine — "[the finger is] good enough."

Heyward went through pregame warm-ups and batting practice Thursday before singling home a run. It was also the first time he didn't wear a splint on his finger since first suffering the injury.

On the season, Heyward is hitting .253 with a .697 OPS, three homers and 17 RBI while continuing his run of stellar outfield defense.

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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.”