P.J. Higgins lifts Cubs vs. Nationals, keeps doing ‘something special’ with limited at-bats

Cubs first baseman P.J. Higgins provided the bulk of the Cubs’ scoring Wednesday with a two-run home run.

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WASHINGTON — Lefty Drew Smyly brought up the phenomenon to PJ Higgins after the Cubs’ 3-2 win against the Nationals on Wednesday. 

“I was kidding with him, every time he plays when I’m starting, he hits a homer,” Smyly said. 

Except, Smyly wasn’t really kidding. Higgins’ last three home runs have come with Smyly on the mound. On Wednesday, Higgins provided the bulk of the Cubs’ scoring with a two-run homer in the fifth inning, while Smyly held the Nationals to two runs through 5⅓ innings.

“I wish they’d pitch [him] more than every five days because then I’d get more opportunities,” Higgins joked. “But hey, that’s a good stat to have.” 

Higgins’ case is reflective of a larger theme as the season winds down. The opportunities are limited, with less than two months to go. And the trade deadline didn’t clear the same number of position-player roster spots as it did last year. But the Cubs want to see what they have in their younger players as they plot a path forward, eventually out of this rebuild. 

Out of playoff contention, the Cubs also have the flexibility to move pieces around to see who can capitalize on their chances. 

Look at Franmil Reyes. The Cubs claimed him off waivers from the Guardians a little over a week ago, hoping he’d be able to reclaim the success he’d had in previous seasons, and knowing that if he did, his power bat could help balance the Cubs’ lineup 

Not only has Reyes been on a tear, matching a career-high five-game extra-base hit streak with a pair of doubles on Wednesday, but he has been producing in big moments.

“I’m very proud because with this second opportunity, that’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Reyes told the Sun-Times this week. 

Reyes’ first home run in a Cubs uniform came in Cincinnati this past weekend when the Cubs were trailing by one. His two-run blast gave the Cubs the lead in a game they’d go on to win 7-2. On Wednesday, he scored the winning run, coming around from second on Yan Gomes’ seventh-inning single. 

Higgins was the other hero on Wednesday.

The Cubs trailed by one run in the fifth inning. Rafael Ortega drew a walk to lead off the frame, becoming just the third Cubs hitter to reach base. But by the time Higgins stepped up to the plate, there were two outs.

He worked a 3-2 count and fouled off a changeup and fastball before connecting with a high curveball. The home run gave the Cubs their first lead of the game. 

“It’s not easy at all, let me tell you that,” Gomes said of Higgins’ production with sporadic at-bats. “The biggest thing for him is he’s here ready to learn every day. And I think that helps his mentality. And when he goes out there, he’s not trying to do too much. But at some point, I think the league’s going to have to respect him. He’s a heck of a hitter, he’s a heck of a player, and every time he’s out there he’s putting up good at-bats.”

Higgins just so happens to play first base and catcher, and the Cubs are deep at both positions. But the fact that the club has kept him on the active roster since calling him up in late May reflects his knack for maximizing his opportunities.

He has reached base in nine of his last 10 games with a plate appearance. 

“He’s been swinging it all year,” Smyly said. “He’s a stud. Every opportunity he has, it seems like he does something special.”  

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