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Cemented in leadoff role, Happ goes deep

@MLBastian
October 2, 2020

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant joked earlier this season that first baseman Anthony Rizzo told him that the leadoff spot in the Cubs' lineup was cursed. That job belonged to Bryant to begin this year, but he was eventually moved elsewhere.

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant joked earlier this season that first baseman Anthony Rizzo told him that the leadoff spot in the Cubs' lineup was cursed. That job belonged to Bryant to begin this year, but he was eventually moved elsewhere.

For Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Marlins on Wednesday, the state of Chicago's No. 1 slot was on national display. This year, Ian Happ worked his way up the order and into the lineup's top spot, and now he will serve as the tone-setter for as long as the Cubs' October run lasts. His bat stayed hot in Game 1; he singled in the third and opened the scoring with a solo shot in the fifth inning that accounted for Chicago's only run in the 5-1 loss.

Game Date Time TV
Gm 1 Sept. 30 MIA 5, CHC 1 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 2 MIA 2, CHC 0 Watch

"I know that, for us, it's been a little bit of a struggle for that position," Happ said on Wednesday. "And so, it's just being the one that takes the burden on and says, 'Look, I'm going to take the five [at-bats] every day. Let's find a way to score some runs.'"

Happ finished this season with a .239/.333/.486 slash line to go with a 119 wRC+ out of the leadoff spot for the Cubs. He hit .273/.351/.727 with four home runs in at-bats to start a game, and had nine homers, six doubles, one triple and 19 walks in 37 games overall as the No. 1 hitter.

On Aug. 18, Happ took over as the regular leadoff man, while Bryant dealt with injuries and subpar production. In that game against the Cardinals, Chicago's center fielder reached base four times, including a homer, single and a pair of walks.

"Find a way to get on base twice a day for the team," Happ said. "That's my goal every day."

The leadoff spot has been a revolving door in recent seasons for the Cubs, who cycled through 17 players at the top (in terms of games started) across the 2017-19 seasons. Happ was within that group, but his strong start to this 60-game season convinced manager David Ross to hand the keys over again.

"The trust factor is huge for me," Happ said. "Obviously, since the beginning of the year with Rossy, I've really appreciated that. I've really appreciated the opportunity and felt good about my ability to take the role on and perform in that spot."

Worth noting

• Happ serves as the Cubs' team representative for matters involving the MLB Players' Association. Ahead of the Wild Card Series, the outfielder was asked for his feedback on some of the changes this year. Happ said there will need to be more discussion about the playoff format, but praised other elements of the unique 2020 campaign.

"I think the [universal] DH probably first and foremost is something that I think both sides have liked," Happ said. "Probably the three-batter minimum [for relievers]. As a player, I think the extra-inning rule has been great for speeding up games. And the seven-inning doubleheaders, I think those have been great. I've liked a lot of those."

• Right-hander Adbert Alzolay impressed the Cubs this season, and especially in his final two outings. Over nine innings in those last two appearances, he struck out 15 and showed off an intriguing revamped slider, which alone generated 15 swings and misses.

"That's why we put him in the bullpen," Ross said. "He's got good stuff. That's why he made the roster. What he did throughout the season this year, he earned a spot down there."

• The Cubs opted to carry Josh Phegley as a third catcher for the Wild Card Series. Ross said that provides some insurance, given that the manager often uses Victor Caratini as a DH or pinch-hitter when he is not the starting catcher.

Quotable

"Watching baseball last night just gets you amped up for this time of year. You come in today, a little less breakfast than probably normal. Excitement, butterflies, nerves; all those things are good. It makes me feel young again on the back end of this season. That's natural. It's been a while since I felt this way. It's good." -- Ross

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.