Happ's handiwork, clutch pitching get Cubs back on track

Left fielder's crucial double play halts D-backs' momentum after Chicago's three-homer third

September 10th, 2023

CHICAGO – The Gold Glove that has in his possession might be for left field, but he came up with the Cubs as an infielder. The muscle memory and skills developed on the dirt don't just disappear because a player moved to the grass.

“Gotta remind some of these guys,” Happ said with a smirk. “They haven't seen me play infield in the big leagues. I did it.”

On Sunday afternoon, Happ issued an impressive reminder, using a slick catch and quick reflexes in left field to halt what could have been a game-changing push by the D-backs. Instead, the momentum stayed on the Cubs’ side and the ballclub picked up a much-needed 5-2 victory to salvage a win in an important four-game series.

  • Games remaining: at COL (3), at AZ (3), vs. PIT (3), vs. COL (3), at ATL (3), at MIL (3)
  • Standings update: The Cubs (77-67) are three games behind the Brewers (79-63) for first place in the NL Central. The Cubs and Brewers have split the season series so far, so the tiebreaker has not yet been determined. Chicago sits in the second Wild Card spot, trailing the Phillies (78-64) by two games and holding a two-game lead over the third-seeded D-backs (75-69). The Marlins, Reds and Giants are also in the hunt. The Cubs have won the tiebreaker over San Francisco, but lost it to Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Miami. They have gone 1-3 against Arizona with three games left in the season series.

“When two teams line up with similar records, it's going to be tough,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “One little detail here or there is going to push it the other way. I've never seen a waver from our group at all this season.”

One reason for the Cubs’ steadiness has been a foundation built around pitching and defense. Even as the lineup’s production comes and goes -- the five runs on Sunday were more than the previous three games combined (four), following an outburst of 39 runs in the recent four-game win streak -- that base should hold true.

It was present on Sunday, when Kyle Hendricks held the D-backs to two runs into the sixth and the relief corps finished the job. It was there when shortstop Dansby Swanson -- chasing a second straight Gold Glove Award -- charged in, plucked an Alek Thomas grounder with his bare hand and made a pinpoint throw to end the fourth.

“We made a lot of nice plays out there today,” Hendricks said. “It's something we've been doing all year.”

The foundation really stood out via Happ’s quick thinking in the fifth.

“Huge,” Hendricks said.

“Awesome,” said Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner.

“A big kind of inning-ender-for-their-momentum play,” Ross said.

The D-backs strung together three consecutive hits to open the fifth inning, scoring a run to trim Chicago’s lead to 4-1. A dormant Cubs nine woke up in a big way in the third inning via homers from Christopher Morel, Cody Bellinger and Swanson. That flurry was at risk of being flushed away.

With no outs and runners on first and second, Geraldo Perdomo lofted a changeup from Hendricks high over shallow left field. Happ hustled forward, shifting into a slide as the baseball dropped into his glove. Emmanuel Rivera, the runner on second, was just a bit too far off the bag, where Hoerner was set up like a first baseman.

“I'm always talking to [Happ] about ways we can get extra outs,” Hoerner said. “I like when he's aggressive with his throwing. I'm always ready for the ball with him. And I know he likes to throw behind runners and has a really accurate arm.”

In one smooth motion, Happ popped to his feet and came up throwing, unleashing the baseball like an infielder firing to first base.

“You don't lose that -- some of those little things that you've done your whole life,” Happ said. “It’s nice when you can show it off a little bit.”

With his right foot on the base, Hoerner made the catch just before Rivera could retreat in time. The Friendly Confines roared with approval. Hendricks then retired Corbin Carroll to end the threat.

“They're getting a little momentum there,” Hendricks said. “For him to come in, make the play and double a guy off at second, it really just shut down the inning.”

When the smoke cleared on the win, Hendricks’ performance gave the Cubs’ rotation a 2.14 ERA over the team’s past 17 games, dating back to Aug. 24. On the defensive side of things, Chicago headed into the day with 40 defensive runs saved, ranking sixth in the Majors in that category.

As the Cubs continue to plot a course to the postseason, that is the calling card that could carry them over the next few weeks, and potentially further.

“We're built on pitching and defense,” Ross said. “That's what we can bring every single day.”