This Cub robbed his childhood hero of a homer

May 13th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PITTSBURGH -- In the ninth inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 win on Friday, left fielder made a play every outfielder dreams of: A home run robbery.

How did it feel to make the catch?

“I felt bad,” Happ admitted.

Not because Happ had any sympathy for his opponent. But the guy whose would-be homer he robbed was one of his earliest inspirations as a baseball player.

With a man on base and one out, longtime Pirate Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate to face reliever Adbert Alzolay. McCutchen debuted with the Pirates in 2009, when Happ was just starting varsity ball at Mt. Lebanon High School in suburban Pittsburgh. The two had shared the same MLB field before Friday, but never had they both been involved in such a key play as when McCutchen blasted a low sinker -- with an exit velocity of 104.5 mph -- to deep left field.

“McCutchen hit that really well,” Happ said. “It’s a really deep part of the ballpark over there, especially for left field. Just getting back to the wall as quickly as I could. It’s a short wall, but I was trying and I came down with it.”

The play was huge for the Cubs. It saved manager Craig Counsell from turning to his high-leverage relievers in what would have been a three-run game, and it gave a boost to Alzolay, who had been on an up-and-down roller coaster of results to begin the season. But it was bigger than just a baseball play for Happ.

As a kid who grew up in the southern hills of Pittsburgh, Happ would go to five to 10 Pirates games a year, often with his friends. He could get in for $9 and sit about anywhere in the stadium, and one of their favorite spots was the left-field stands.

They watched McCutchen take the league by notice in his rookie season, when he had an .836 OPS with 26 doubles, nine triples and 12 homers. When McCutchen ranged from center field to their side of the ballpark, it was often to make a great diving catch that brought him and his friends to their feet.

There were many players Happ could have named that he remembered making an impression on him from those Pirates teams. Freddy Sanchez’s hot hitting invigorated him, and Jack Wilson’s solid shortstop work gave him a model to learn from as he played shortstop (and closer!) in high school. But given the rough state of the team at the time -- they went 62-99 in McCutchen’s first season -- Cutch’s all-around greatness just felt different and made a long-lasting mark on Happ as he became a pro outfielder who is capable of making flashy plays like the one he made on Friday.

“He was a guy I grew up watching win MVP here, and I have so much respect for him,” Happ said. “He’s a phenomenal player who’s had a great career.”