CINCINNATI — With Ben Zobrist back in the lineup and Jake Arrieta on the mound, the Cubs had five of their seven 2016 All-Stars in action for Sunday’s 6-2 victory over the Reds. It gave them something they didn’t often have during a seasonlong 11-game road trip: the look of a team with big-time postseason chops.
It won’t be long before right fielder Jason Heyward and starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks, both rehabbing from injuries, return to the team, making it essentially a fully formed unit. If and when slugger Kyle Schwarber, demoted more than a week ago to Class AAA Iowa, reappears, it’ll only add to that.
With all their pieces finally in place, the Cubs — 41-41 as they head back to Chicago for six games before the All-Star break — will be widely expected to take off. The pitching rotation will be expected to gel. The offensive runs will be expected to come in bunches.
It’ll all be easier said than done, though. Yes, the Cubs are impressive collectively. But someone still has to pick up that “W” flag and lead the charge uphill.
Why not rookie Ian Happ?
Not exactly quietly, Happ has been the Cubs’ hottest hitter. His pair of home runs off Reds starter Tim Adleman and run-scoring single off Blake Wood in the sixth inning gave him his second four-RBI game on a road trip in which he hit .378. The 22-year-old led the Cubs in June with eight home runs and now has a head-turning 12 since his major-league debut May 13. That ties him with Schwarber for third on the team this season behind Anthony Rizzo (19) and Kris Bryant (16).
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s been a blast. I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Yet his production has been somewhat lost in the shadows of the Cubs’ underwhelming .500 performance to date. Happ, who starred at the University of Cincinnati, was a big local story here all weekend. Cubs fans, on the other hand, probably won’t be too fired up about what he’s doing until the wins start piling up.
“With all the great, great baseball players we have on this team,” Happ said, “I think the team success is definitely going to come.”
What happens when manager Joe Maddon has all his players back and healthy, and perhaps Schwarber, too? Will the switch-hitting Happ be able to continue in a prominent role?
“Very prominent,” Maddon said. “We’ve got to continually look at how to get him in there. He can do a lot of different things, second base, all the outfield positions. But he gives our [offensive] lineup a different look, no question.”
Back in spring training, Maddon observed Happ’s defense at second base and was unimpressed. Maddon referred to the Happ of March as “technically bad” with “hard hands.” Months later, Happ is solidifying his status with smoother play at second and reliable enough play in the outfield.
And that bat? It has too much thunder in it to be ignored.
“Honestly, I haven’t had a time yet where I felt like everything was clicking together,” Happ said. “I hope to get to that point this season. If I do, it could be really good.”
If he does, he’ll be as important a guy as the Cubs have.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.