The San Francisco Giants again seem to be bringing out the best in the Cubs, or least maybe sharpening their game and shaking off the World Series hangover.
This isn’t as urgent as last year’s playoff series. It’s too early to tell if it will have the same impact as that four-game sweep in August 2015. And more than 25 percent into the season, the 2017 team has already gone through several stops and starts.
But the Cubs looked a little more like themselves on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, hanging on for a 5-4 win in front of 35,617 and validating the internal belief that this would only be a matter of time.
Kyle Hendricks again looked like a No. 2 starter in a playoff rotation, following up Jon Lester’s complete game with seven strong innings, limiting the Giants to two runs and giving him a 1.96 ERA in his last six outings.
Anthony Rizzo launched two home runs off Giant lefty Matt Moore, slamming balls off the video ribbon in right field and into the center-field bleachers. When Rizzo gets hot – that’s four homers in his last four games – the entire lineup can feel different.
Wade Davis showed he’s not a ninth-inning cyborg when Mac Williamson won a 12-pitch at-bat and lifted a two-run homer into the right-field basket. Until that ball flew over Jason Heyward’s head, Davis hadn’t allowed an earned run through 18 appearances in a Cubs uniform or a homer since September 2015. Davis (10-for-10 in save chances) is still the kind of dominant closer the Giants needed last October.
The Cubs are now 24-21 and a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Eddie Butler will try to win the series on Thursday afternoon and prove he belongs in the rotation long term, going up against ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija (1-5, 4.57 ERA) and a Giant team (20-28) that’s gaining no traction in the National League West.
Ian Happ will let Joe Maddon talk about his “defensive foot fetish” and entertain everyone during the press briefings. As a rookie on the team defending a World Series title, Happ believes he belongs yet still understands his place.
Happ’s locker is next to the media entrance to the Wrigley Field clubhouse, but the new guy isn’t here to banter with reporters and deliver money quotes about improved footwork, the way the Cubs manager did in his own colorful style.
“Sounds like Joe,” Happ said before Wednesday’s game against the San Francisco Giants. “I feel great about the way I’m playing the outfield right now and I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.”
That’s not to say that Happ views himself as a finished product less than two full years into professional baseball, with only 26 games on the Triple-A level and not even two weeks in The Show. But the Cubs clearly saw Happ – a first-team Academic All-American at the University of Cincinnati and a two-time Cape Cod League All-Star – as a quick study.
“You have to continue to get better,” Happ said. “It’s always a process. Once you settle, you’ll start to regress. Every day, I’m trying to get a little bit better.”
That attitude will go a long way with a veteran group and the young stars not that much older than Happ (22). Just listen to a three-time World Series champion, the reigning National League MVP and a Cy Young Award winner.
“He’ll figure it out – he’s an athlete,” Jon Lester said. “Obviously, the approach and the hitting (is already) there, so the other stuff, I’m sure, he’ll figure out on the fly.”
“He’s a stud,” Kris Bryant said. “He was ready out of spring training.”
“He’s not fazed by anything,” Jake Arrieta said. “He’s got a very good demeanor about the way he handles himself. That’s going to help him make the transition very quickly.
“He’s had some really nice at-bats. He can handle balls down in the strike zone. He’s able to lay off pitches east and west and balls up in the strike zone. He’s got a great approach. He’s going to be really good for us.”
Maddon admitted he was only nitpicking with Happ, who has answered some of the lingering questions about his defense and positioned himself as someone who can take on Bryant/Ben Zobrist responsibilities, moving all over the outfield, playing second base and backing up the corner infield spots.
“It doesn’t matter” where you see yourself, Happ said. “I’ll keep working on both. I’ll be prepared every day for wherever I have to be. But I just want to help any way that I can.”