Higgins subs splendidly for Willson with go-ahead hit

Robbed by Hiura in 5th, backup catcher gets revenge off Hader in 9th

July 7th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- Josh Hader had just finished striking out two Cubs batters in a row when P.J. Higgins stepped to the plate in the ninth inning on Wednesday afternoon. The last time the catcher faced the Brewers' dominant closer, he also struck out, ending a game at Wrigley Field in May.

Higgins was able to push through the pressure of this latest meeting.

"Honestly, right there I was pretty calm," Higgins said. "I wasn't too nervous."

That was evident as Higgins pushed a Hader slider up the right-field line for a double, scoring Patrick Wisdom to lift the Cubs to a 2-1 win at American Family Field. It marked the fourth straight series victory for the North Siders, who have been leaning on some unsung players while a group of the team's veterans deal with injuries.

The path to Wednesday's win was paved by right-hander Adrian Sampson, who went 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball, holding his own opposite ace Corbin Burnes and holding down a spot in the Cubs' injury-riddled rotation. And on a day when All-Star catcher Willson Contreras was out with a left hamstring issue, Higgins more than did his part, too.

"It speaks highly of him that a lot of people in the clubhouse trust the guy," Sampson said. "And he's been doing his thing. Getting a hit off Hader in the ninth inning is a rare thing. And putting us ahead is very impressive. It's awesome to watch."

The spotlight has understandably been focused on Contreras, who is in the midst of a career year and is up against the Braves' Travis d'Arnaud for the starting role on the National League All-Star team. Chicago's backup is veteran Yan Gomes, who has bounced between catching and serving as the designated hitter, along with Contreras.

With other health setbacks around the diamond, the 29-year-old Higgins has been on the roster as a safety net of sorts for catcher, the infield corners and pinch-hit opportunities. Cubs manager David Ross remembers what it was like being in a reserve catching role in his own career, so he has an appreciation for how Higgins has embraced the job.

"It is a difficult role," Ross said. "And it is one that's probably a little bit easier for veteran guys to fall into than young guys. But I think early on, you saw [Higgins display] a real ability to handle a pitching staff, call a good game, work to have a quality at-bat, have contact.

"So, bringing the skill set that he kind of already had, and putting that into that role, it kind of fits easily. But it also takes a nice, strong mental person."

Higgins was a 12th-round pick by the Cubs in the 2015 MLB Draft and said he remembers having conversations during Spring Training with Ross long before he became the team's manager. That learning process continued when the catcher got a taste of the Majors in 2021 as one of eight backups used by the Cubs, but a right elbow injury prematurely halted his season.

While he was coming back from that setback, Higgins said he worked on adopting the right mentality and planning a daily routine for when the Cubs came calling again. If the playing time was going to be sporadic, he wanted to be sure he could still answer the bell.

"That's my role and I accept it. I'm all about it," Higgins said. "So, it's just making sure I'm mentally prepared and making sure I'm fully focused when I get into the box."

In 22 games with Triple-A Iowa this season, Higgins posted a 1.069 OPS. Combined with his 27 games in the Majors this year, all he has done is slash .360/.441/.547 in 161 plate appearances. And he has done that while navigating promotions, demotions, taxi squad stints and droughts between at-bats.

Going back to June 5, Higgins has started just six of the Cubs' last 27 games. In that span, he entered games in the sixth inning or later nine times and had one or no plate appearances in eight games. He has only started in 14 of his 27 contests with Chicago this season.

"Being able to have some of that in the Minor Leagues," Ross said, "not playing every day in the Minor Leagues, and then coming up last year and getting a taste of that, I think you find your routine. You find your strengths and how to prepare and stay ready for that role."

Higgins was ready on Wednesday, when he drilled a Burnes pitch to deep left in the fifth -- only to have Brewers outfielder Keston Hiura chase it down with a catch that led him to crash into the wall.

The catcher stayed ready in the ninth, when Patrick Wisdom stood on second after a walk and a stolen base.

"I was just looking for something up in the zone that I could handle," Higgins said, "and kind of put a barrel to it. I didn't quite barrel it, but a knock's a knock. I'll take that."