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Year of reckoning for Cubs’ Ian Happ? ‘When I’m back, I’ll be back to stay’

Happ preparing for an at-bat last week against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

METAIRIE, La. — Ian Happ doesn’t try to pretend he wasn’t as angry — and maybe as explosive — as manager Joe Maddon suggested the day the Cubs sent him to the minors out of spring training last month.

Just how upset did the always composed, perpetually poised Happ get when he got the news, which shocked him and surprised many others?

He pauses just long enough for a grin to spread across his face.

“I don’t think we should get into it,” he says.

Happ, the No. 9 overall draft pick of 2015 who hit 24 home runs in part of a season as a rookie in 2017, toils in near-empty Class  AAA ballparks these days. He continues to work on reconciling his success (including an .801 big-league OPS) against a demotion to work on his left-handed swing.

Whether or not it was intentional, and regardless of how warranted it might have been, the front office made Happ the poster boy for team president Theo Epstein’s “year of reckoning” with the move.

For Happ, on this night, it means waiting out a rain delay to play in a park just outside New Orleans that has fewer than 50 people in the stands at game time — five of them scouts.

The Cubs offer no timeline for when last year’s Opening Day leadoff hitter might return, and Happ won’t let his mind wander down that rabbit hole. Considering David Bote’s early production and Addison Russell’s expected return from a domestic violence suspension next week, Happ’s road back only looks more clogged since he was optioned to Iowa.

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“I feel like I can contribute,” he says. “I’ve always felt that I can contribute to the big-league team and make an impact.”

That’s the thing. He has never stopped feeling like that, and he has had enough success in 257 career games over the last two years to back up his emotions.

But he also has 296 strikeouts in that span — five more than hits and walks combined. And the Cubs need more production from the switch-hitter’s left-side swing to use him the way they want in the lineup.

“He’s not alone. It’s happened to a lot of guys,” says Cubs teammate Kyle Schwarber, who went through a similar demotion after struggling in 2017.

Schwarber was one of a long line of teammates who offered support and told Happ to call anytime for anything while at Iowa.

“Obviously, he was upset. Who’s not going to be upset?” Schwarber said. “I was upset. I was embarrassed. But you’ve got to be able to accept the challenge and be able to keep moving forward and to have your mind set to what you want to do. So I think if he has the right mindset, he’ll be just fine.”

Happ, who’s encouraged by recent at-bats and a plan devised with hitting coordinator Chris Valaika, was hitting just .209 with 25 strikeouts in his first 67 at-bats entering play for Iowa on Wednesday night.

“There hasn’t been a process,” Iowa manager Marty Pevey says of Happ’s transition to the new reality. “Since he’s been with me, he’s been outstanding. He’s been all in, wants to get right, wants to get himself back to the big leagues.”

Happ says he’s focused on trying “to be successful and to better myself. That’s the only way you can turn it into a positive.”

If there has been another positive to the experience, it has been the support of teammates, he says with a hint of emotion in his voice, “to know that I’m still a part of that team.”

Happ says he has discovered a new level of belief in himself, though he seems certain to be changed by what he has learned about the business side of the game.

“It makes you more skeptical, for sure,” he says. “But I have a very strong belief that when I’m back, I’ll be back to stay, and I’ll produce and do what I’ve done my entire career.

“That’s how you have to think, how you have to feel — that when you’re up there producing, nothing can stop you. That’ll be the challenge when that day comes, whenever it is.”