Back at .500 with 6 straight wins, Cubs focused on push

July 28th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Ian Happ homered in his Major League debut in St. Louis. He was a part of the 2017 Cubs team that clinched the division at Busch Stadium in late September. The outfielder finished out the ‘19 season with a torrid stretch that concluded in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.

“I've had a lot of good memories in this park,” Happ said.

That includes another important moment a year ago.

“I was told I wasn't traded here,” he said with a smile. “Which was nice.”

The Cubs were in St. Louis at the Trade Deadline last summer, when swirling rumors about the futures of Happ and catcher Willson Contreras dissipated with no deals done. The landscape was much different on Thursday night, when the Cubs cruised to a 10-3 win in their rival’s backyard and reached .500 again (51-51) in the latest effort to convince the front office to add before Tuesday’s 5 p.m. CT Deadline.

Happ has since been locked in as a core piece via an extension that runs through 2026. Contreras departed via free agency -- netting the Cubs a compensatory Draft pick -- and signed a five-year contract with the Cardinals. The pair of '22 Cubs All-Stars were linked again on Thursday, but in a swift and violent way that changed the game’s direction.

Three batters into the night, Happ swung at a Miles Mikolas pitch and inadvertently struck Contreras in the head on the backswing. With his head bleeding, Contreras was forced to exit, giving Happ a quick "no hard feelings" hug before leaving the field.

“We played together for six years. We're good friends. A lot of love for him,” Happ said. “So, to see him go down and be bleeding from the head, it's obviously a scary moment. We texted a little bit after the game, and he's doing all right.”

Mikolas went high and tight with his next pitch, and then hit Happ on the backside with the following fastball. After a quick meeting between the umpires, Mikolas was ejected from the game. Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol was soon tossed, too. In a span of a few minutes, St. Louis' planned battery underwent a makeover.

It was a wild start to the game between two teams with a long, historic rivalry with plenty of wild chapters. But this Cubs team is on the kind of run right now in which such obstacles seem more like a curb than a hurdle. Chicago parlayed that scary moment into a three-run rally in the first and continued to add on runs throughout the night. Meanwhile, lefty Justin Steele spun another quality start.

“I think everybody in the locker room feels good with where we're at,” said Steele, who has an 11-3 record and a 2.87 ERA after his six-inning effort. “We're clicking. What we're doing right now, we feel like we can do this the entire season.”

With the Deadline looming, that is the message the players keep trying to send up to the Cubs’ offices.

The Cubs have won a season-high six games in a row, have rattled off eight wins in nine games (featuring a +36 run differential in that span) and are 25-15 since June 9. Chicago is .500 for the first time since May 12, and this is the third time in franchise history (also in 1968 and ‘96) that the team reached the break-even mark in a season after falling at least 10 games under, per team historian Ed Hartig.

That is an accomplishment, but no one around the Cubs sees a .500 record as cause for celebration.

“For me, it's insignificant,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It's about winning games. Break it down [by] month. We had a bad May [10-18]. [Almost] everything else has been above .500. And we're playing good baseball right now. That's the focus. We can't worry about the past and the losses and what the record was and could have been, you know?

“We look at the day to day and try to focus on winning. How are we going to win tonight's game?”

Steele insisted that the players are not focusing too much on the upcoming Deadline.

“I would say, if anything, we joke around about it,” said the pitcher. “We're all pulling on the same rope. We're trying to win ballgames. We feel like we're good at it. We like the group we have.”

And maybe after two years of rebuilding, and recent Deadlines defined by subtractions, there will be some reinforcements on the way.

“Things have turned out pretty well for me,” Happ said of the Cubs’ decision not to trade him last year. “I think this group is playing as well as we have since the break, and [we've] kind of putting ourselves in the conversation.”