CHICAGO -- Cubs fans have grown accustomed to seeing wizardry on the basepaths in recent years, but a lot of tricks were packed up and sent to New York when Javier Báez was traded to the Mets.
In an 13-10, 10-inning loss to the Rockies on Wednesday, Ian Happ not only found his inner El Mago on the bases -- pulling off a wild stolen base to set up a steal of home -- but he also launched a game-tying, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh that sent the nightcap of the doubleheader to extras.
“Happer's starting to show a lot of the signs that we've been waiting to see,” Cubs manager David Ross said earlier this week. “And hopefully he can continue that through the end of the season.”
Unfortunately for the Cubs, Happ's performance could not overcome a loss in which nine runs (seven earned) were charged to Chicago's bullpen. The defeat followed a 5-2, seven-inning win over the Rockies in the opener of a split twin bill.
It did not help matters that the Cubs had Happ -- sporting a .738 slugging percentage in his past 13 games -- attempt a bunt with two runners aboard in the ninth. He popped out to first baseman C.J. Cron for the first out and Colorado escaped the rest of the inning unscathed.
In the 10th, Ryan McMahon launched a go-ahead two-run homer off Cubs reliever Jake Jewell, who was the game's 16th pitcher.
To cap off a five-run outburst in the second inning, Happ bolted for second base with Rafael Ortega standing on third. As Happ neared the bag and Rockies second baseman Brendan Rodgers received the throw from catcher Elias Díaz, the Cubs outfielder stopped in his tracks.
With Happ out of reach, Rodgers took a few steps forward and turned his attention to Ortega, who hustled home on the play as soon as the ball left Díaz's hand. That move by Rodgers gave Happ a lane and he quickly ran and dove safely into second, avoiding the tag attempt.
In the Cubs' dugout, a smiling Willson Contreras jumped up and down with delight with both arms raised high.
“That was great,” Ross said. “That's something that we've worked on, we've talked about. We're trying to take advantage of certain opportunities, and these guys played it to perfection. We've had a couple of those this year that we've learned from, to be honest with you, in some moments. And we've talked our way through that, and they executed that perfectly.
“Nice job by Ian. Raffy read it right out of the catcher's hand, scored really easily, and then Happer staying there, staying alert, taking advantage of a miscue by the middle infielder to get on second base, still in scoring position. That was a nice job by those two.”
Colorado starter Germán Márquez followed with a strikeout of Patrick Wisdom to end the inning, but Happ and Ortega's double steal pushed the Cubs to a 5-2 lead that held until the fourth, when Connor Joe delivered a go-ahead grand slam off reliever Trevor Megill.
Ortega became the first Cubs player to steal home as part of a double steal since Billy Hamilton did so on Sept. 27 last year against the White Sox. Prior to that, Alfonso Soriano was the previous Cub to swipe home (as part of a double theft), on Aug. 22, 2008, vs. Washington.
Naturally, the last Cubs player to pull off a straight steal of home was Báez, who did so against the Tigers on July 4, 2018. Báez actually achieved that feat twice in '18. He also had a straight steal of home on June 3 that season against the Mets.
Happ’s showing in the nightcap -- one that also included an opposite-field single in the first inning -- gave him a .357 average and a 1.161 OPS over his past 13 games. Within that strong stretch, the outfielder has four homers, four doubles and 10 RBIs. Happ hit .147 with a .509 OPS in his previous 70 contests.
“I think that it's just trying to find a way to get on time,” Happ said earlier this week. “And the other part is kind of getting away from mechanics and just finding a way to be on time and trusting that when you're on time, you're going to have the ability to have success.
“There's a couple mechanical things that are kind of falling in place, but it's more just being on time and not missing some of those pitches that I was a click late for.”