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Can Ian Happ return to form after mental break?


Ian Happ was back in the Chicago Cubs lineup Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates after taking a two-game mental break in Atlanta.

The switch-hitting left fielder had been struggling from both sides of the plate, hitting .219 with no home runs and nine RBIs from the left side and .219 with one homer and four RBIs right-handed. The slump was pronounced over 29 games since April 9, during which Happ hit .170 with one home, five RBIs and had a .520 OPS.

Despite injuries that already depleted the Cubs depth, manager Craig Counsell decided to sit Happ the last two games in the hope he returns to form against the Pirates.

“There is no guarantee (it’s) what fixes you,” Counsell said. “Ultimately it’s going to be swinging at good pitches and things like that. You do it because you come back today … and I think you’re in a better place and a little refreshed, especially mentally.”

In the second pitch of his first at-bat, Happ, batting lefty, lined a Jared Jones pitch off the right-field foul pole with an exit velocity of 110 mph, making his manager look prescient.

A mental rest is still a benching by any other name, and it’s a manager’s prerogative to write a lineup that gives him the best chance to win. Happ has been one of the clubhouse leaders since summer 2021, when President Jed Hoyer sent Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant packing, so benching him wasn’t taken lightly.

Asked May 8 about his slump, Happ conceded he had “been ahead on some offspeed pitches and even kind of ahead on fastballs,” so he was still “working through” his approach to find balance.

“It’s a long season and a little bit of a tough stretch,” he said. “Taking the walks and still getting on base, so trying to take the positives out of that and getting to a place where I’m hitting the ball hard.”

But Happ went 3-for-17 with no walks the next four games in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, prompting Counsell to make his move.

Former Cubs manager David Ross did the same thing last year with Seiya Suzuki, letting him sit and watch some games from the bench in early August after Suzuki went into a post-All-Star Game slump. Suzuki returned to the lineup Aug. 9 and hit .356 in 47 games the rest of the way, with 11 home runs, 37 RBIs and a 1.086 OPS.

Cubs left fielder Ian Happ waits to take the field for a game against the Astros on April 23, 2024, at Wrigley Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
Cubs left fielder Ian Happ waits to take the field for a game against the Astros on April 23, 2024, at Wrigley Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

It might have been Ross’ decision that got Suzuki back up and running, or perhaps he was just due to come out of his slump. Either way it worked, and Suzuki has not looked back. Counsell noted that Happ is not the first player to get a mental reset.

“It’s not a new strategy by any means,” Counsell said, laughing. “You see players and what’s going on. There are differences. There are guys that are just tired and just kind of need a physical refresh day. And then there is a struggling player, a player who’s not performing the way he wants to, and there are different reasons that you give guys days off.

“In this case it was just ‘Sit back and watch and get a littler perspective’ and then regroup and go after it.”

A four-game series against the Pirates at Wrigley Field could be a perfect time for Happ to regroup. The Pittsburgh native has typically excelled against his hometown team, with a .316 career average and .977 OPS.

The Cubs desperately need Happ to return to form with Dansby Swanson on the 10-day injured list because of a right knee sprain and Nico Hoerner nursing a left sore hamstring that sidelined him for the third straight start Thursday. Counsell said he hoped Hoerner would be ready to return Friday.

After starting hot, the Cubs haven’t hit consistently for nearly a month, wasting some strong pitching performances along the way. The starters’ 3.09 ERA on Thursday was third-lowest in the majors, but the Cubs were only 8-10 since April 26 after a 17-9 start, scoring three runs or fewer in 10 of those games.

“Scoring runs right now is hard, all across the league,” Mike Tauchman said. “It might not happen for a few innings but just consistently trying to grind out at-bats. We believe that we’re going to get something going and put some runs up. Our starting pitching has been nails for us.”

Tauchman has been one of the Cubs’ most consistent hitters and smoked a leadoff home run Wednesday in Atlanta that got the Cubs off the schneid quickly after back-to-back Braves shutouts. The Cubs went on to win 7-1 and finish the trip 3-3.

Playing at home against the same two teams could help fix the Cubs’ offensive problems — or make things worse. The Pirates started off the series Thursday with sizzling Jared Jones, perhaps the second-hottest rookie pitcher after Shota Imanaga. Then comes the rematch Friday against 2023 No. 1 draft pick Paul Skenes, whose 101-mph fastball makes him a must-see pitcher already in his second major-league start.

“Everybody throws hard,” Tauchman said. “He did a nice job (Saturday). Obviously it’s one of the better arms in terms of fastball velocity that you’ll see. I thought we did a really good job that day as an offense.”

The Cubs lost a series to the Pirates at Wrigley during the wild-card race in September, which prompted Ross to say “that’s not a good team that just took two of three from us — or our caliber of team, I believe.” Pirates manager Derek Shelton and some players took umbrage at the slight.

Ross is long gone, Counsell has arrived and the Pirates are still not a good team.

But at least they have some pitching, which should make for an interesting series.

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