Happ looks at home hitting leadoff: 'We want him up there a lot'

Cubs LF ties career high reaching base five times and walking to drive in crucial run

March 31st, 2024

ARLINGTON -- As the ninth inning developed on Sunday afternoon at Globe Life Field and the Cubs began gathering baserunners with the score in a deadlock, the temptation to slip out of a planned approach in favor of providing the heroic swing always exists.

“In that situation,” Cubs outfielder said, “it's really easy to try to do too much and try to hit a double or a homer.”

The North Siders held steady, and the result was a four-run outburst that led to a 9-5 victory over the Rangers, plus a bottle of champagne on manager Craig Counsell’s desk in honor of his first victory for Chicago. Happ was in the middle of everything, tying a career high by reaching base five times, including a crucial walk in that ninth.

Between his four hits and the go-ahead, bases-loaded free pass against veteran righty José Leclerc, Happ showed precisely why Counsell likes him in the leadoff spot. Especially in games featuring a right-handed starter, the new manager felt Happ’s keen eye and offensive ability was a fit atop the order.

“As much as anything, Ian's a good hitter,” Counsell explained on Opening Day. “The role of all our hitters is just to create offense. It's not just to get on base. It's just to create offense. And by definition, the guy that hits first is going to hit more than anybody on the team.

“So really, Ian leading off is just a nod to, like, this is a really good offensive player. We want him up there a lot.”

Leading off is not a new assignment for Happ, who has filled that role in multiple seasons over his years in Chicago. Last year, the Cubs' left fielder had 21 homers, 35 doubles and a .791 OPS, plus 99 walks and a .360 on-base percentage, but mostly as the No. 3 hitter. Early this spring, Counsell and Happ discussed a return to the top, and the outfielder bought in.

“We had a conversation about it,” Happ said, “kind of how he saw the lineup, what he wanted to do with it, and I was on board with him and his decision.”

In Sunday’s win, Happ churned out four hits, including a double in the fourth inning that scored two runs (helped by a Rangers error) to push the Cubs out to a 5-2 lead.

With one out and the game knotted 5-5 in the ninth, Michael Busch (walk), Nico Hoerner (infield single) and Mike Tauchman (walk) loaded the bases against Leclerc. After pinch-hitter Miles Mastrobuoni chopped into a fielder’s choice grounder -- leading to a forceout at the plate -- the stage was set for Happ.

“Great at-bats all over the ninth inning, for sure,” Counsell said. “Guys just being patient, kind of taking what was given to them.”

Leclerc got Happ to foul off a middle-in fastball and later worked to a 1-2 count with a slider that popped into the zone for a strike. From there, Happ had to move into protect mode, knowing that the veteran righty features a variety of options.

“He's a really good pitcher. He's been doing it for a long time,” Happ said. “He's got a deep mix. He's got five, six pitches. And so it's any pitch, any time. After I got down 1-2, it was just kind of trying to stay alive and get something I can handle.”

Leclerc came back with a four-seamer out over the plate that Happ was able to foul off. Happ then took a changeup that faded low and outside to the dirt, followed by a slider that broke too far inside to run the count full. Leclerc returned to his heater, which sailed high and outside for a free pass that gave the Cubs a 6-5 lead.

“That walk was obviously the big one,” Counsell said.

Next came Seiya Suzuki.

“I'm always focused on myself in the game,” Suzuki said via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita. “But when I saw Happ get those at-bats today and get those nice hits today, I hoped that I was Happ, too.”

Suzuki delivered a two-run single off reliever Jacob Latz to help break things open. The final touch was Happ scoring from second base on a base hit off the bat of Cody Bellinger. It was the type of offensive outpouring the Cubs had been waiting on all weekend.

“For everybody to have good at-bats there,” Happ said, “and put us in a position not only to go ahead, but to give Seiya a chance to drive in two, that's a big deal. I think as we get more comfortable, the lineup, you'll see a lot more of those at-bats.”