Cubs’ Cody Bellinger back from the IL, and now the real fun begins

He’s not yet up to speed in the outfield, so the immediate plan is for him to stay at first base.

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The Cubs’ Cody Bellinger hits an RBI double during the fifth inning of Thursday’s game against the Pirates.

The Cubs’ Cody Bellinger hits an RBI double during the fifth inning of Thursday’s game against the Pirates.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

As the Cubs keep hanging around in what looks like a winnable National League Central, any positive vibes are welcome. So it was a good day in the home clubhouse Thursday with Cody Bellinger back after almost a month on the injured list.

Bellinger was reinstated after going on the IL on May 19, retroactive to May 16. To make room for him on the roster, rookie first baseman Matt Mervis was optioned to Triple-A Iowa.

“He’s obviously a great player but is a big part of our team, personality-wise,” second baseman Nico Hoerner said before the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Pirates at Wrigley Field, in which Bellinger played first base and went 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI double in the fifth. “He brings a lot of confidence and just has fun playing the game.”

Bellinger was the Cubs’ center fielder and one of their most productive hitters when he ran into the fence in Houston while making a highlight-reel catch on May 15. He suffered a bone bruise in his left knee and initially feared it was something worse.

“I was honestly pretty scared at first when I felt it,” he said. “And then, as time went on, I was walking back to the dugout [and] I felt fine.

“Obviously, the days and weeks after that were pretty tender. The bone bruise — I was thankful that

it wasn’t anything too serious. It was just a pretty long process of waiting for it to heal. But I’m feeling good now.”

Bellinger had seven homers, 20 RBI and an .830 OPS in 37 games when he went down, and the Cubs have missed his production. Despite being out a month, he still entered Thursday tied for third on the team in homers and second in OPS, behind Christopher Morel’s .969.

With Bellinger out, Mike Tauchman has been a pleasant surprise while playing center and batting leadoff. Entering Thursday, he was hitting .364 at the top of the order and had a .415 on-base percentage.

Bellinger has noticed.

“Unbelievable, honestly,” he said. “Professional at-bat every single time . . . and [he’s] played unbelievable defense as well.”

That’s helpful going forward. Bellinger is ready to play again, but he’s not yet up to speed in the outfield, so the immediate plan is for him to stay at first base. That hasn’t been a potent spot in the Cubs’ lineup; offseason pickup Eric Hosmer already has been let go for lack of production.

It’s not a big disruption for Bellinger, who had played 262 MLB games at first before Thursday.

The biggest adjustment?

“Just getting the footwork down, the technique, reading the baseball into the glove,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of first base in my life, so I am still pretty comfortable over there.”

Getting Bellinger’s bat back — and eventually his glove in center — can do nothing but help the Cubs as they try to gain traction in the division.

But maybe just as important are some of the positives he brings that can’t be measured. Manager David Ross cites two: Bellinger’s work ethic and his personality.

“From Day 1, the knee’s hurt and he’s hitting off a machine and taking flips in a chair because he wanted to swing,” Ross said. “Goes back to Arizona to face minor-league pitching, is out there working and [shagging baseballs]. He told me they ran him to death. They put him through the ringer over there in his rehab process.”

Bellinger stayed upbeat.

“He was a cheerleader on the bench, which is so important and vaulable,” Ross said. “The swagger he brings around in a fun way is very good for our group.”

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