PHILADELPHIA — Penciling Ian Happ into the three-hole everyday is a no-brainer for Cubs manager David Ross right now. The outfielder has turned into the hottest hitter in the game over the last month and is salvaging his 2021 season.
But there were times this season when that decision was not as simple.
Following the trade deadline, the Cubs had an overhauled lineup with several new players coming in. But when the team played its first game after the deadline, Happ was entrenched at the top of the order, hitting third.
“The first day [Ross] put me in a three-hole, I walked on the bus after the game,” Happ said Wednesday. “I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, I like that spot. Keep me there.’ And I’ve been there ever since.”
The team was limited on players and Happ’s seasonlong struggles at the plate were at a low point. He was slashing .176/.283/.316 and looked out of sorts at the plate, but everyday, there he was in the middle of the order.
“Is it easy? No, it’s not easy to continue to do that. Absolutely not,” Ross said of moving Happ to the three-hole. “But I have confidence in Ian. He has confidence in himself.”
Ross’ faith in Happ was quickly rewarded as he started to go on a red-hot stretch at the plate, rewarding his manager for sticking with him. Since Aug. 13, he is slashing a ridiculous .365/.400/.779 with 11 homers and 26 RBI entering Wednesday’s game. He was 0-for-4 in the 6-5 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday.
Happ is a confident player and whether his OPS is sub-.600 or over 1.000, he’ll always have the same demeanor. But even for a player with confidence in himself, having that trust from his manager could only help his mindset at the plate.
“I think just the confidence of being in the middle of the lineup, especially with Frank [Schwindel] hitting well and [Patrick] Wisdom hitting well [helps]. Being right in the middle of [the lineup], and really feeling like that’s a spot where I belong,” Happ said. “I could be a three-hole hitter in this league and be in the middle of an offense driving in runs . . . showing what I’m doing now is huge.
“Consistency is huge . . . for me, especially in how the year has gone to this point. Having that belief in myself that . . . at some point things are going to turn. Some of those hits are going to fall and things are going to start going my way and that’s kind of when it happened.”
There might not be many managers that would have kept a struggling hitter in the middle of the order, but the Cubs’ skipper gave Happ the nod. But while there’s always a bit of “gut feel” for managers, there were some signs of life before Ross ultimately came to make the decision.
“I think there were signs before he got hurt,” Ross said. “You’re like, ‘OK, he’s on pitches. He’s timed up. He’s not dominated in three pitches.’ When you start to see it come you’re like, ‘Okay, I can trust that.’ Hitting is hard, but I see a process and the ability to have an at-bat and a consistent good at-bat. When he was going really bad and he was getting multiple days off and I was trying to rest him to give him time to work on things, it was more of like, ‘OK, he’s broken right now, right?’
“We all get that way as players and some of the good ones probably have shorter moments of that. The hardest thing [about] becoming an everyday player is just the consistency and relying on that. Once [Happ] knew he was in the three-hole consistently, whether that was me doing it or just his confidence mentally, I think all of that played into and then he had some success and it’s like, ‘OK, now I go.’ ”