The way pitchers have attacked Ian Happ follows a similar approach.
When the switch-hitting Happ bats from the left side, which has accounted for 73% of his plate appearances this year, right-handers like to test him with elevated fastballs. It’s a formula Chicago Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly has seen righties take with slugger Cody Bellinger.
Focusing on being on time for fastballs has helped Happ be able to handle the pitch and be able to take advantage of mistakes in the zone.
“Over the long haul, he knows that his swing is going to play out the way that it’s going to,” Kelly told the Tribune on Tuesday. “You can maybe look at the average and look at some of those things and see that it’s down, but if you look at some of the underlying numbers of the OPS and the slugging is starting to come back that those numbers, along with the walks, that he’s putting together a really good season.”
Kelly credited Happ for small adjustments he’s made in the last six weeks that are starting to convert into driving the ball more and an increase in home runs. A main emphasis has centered on his hitting position and posture: Putting himself into more of a square position and staying a little bit taller.
“He knows that over the long haul he’s going to be able to put up the numbers that he normally puts up,” Kelly said.
Happ and Seiya Suzuki combined to drive in all of the Cubs’ runs in their 5-3 loss to the White Sox on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. Happ’s two-run home run in the first inning off Sox starter Touki Toussaint briefly erased the South Siders’ lead. Suzuki ripped a solo home run to tie the game at 3 in the fourth.
Manager David Ross was ejected before the beginning of the top of the seventh for arguing about an uncalled balk when the Cubs batted during the sixth.
Right-hander Kyle Hendricks delivered a quality start, holding the Sox to three runs in six innings. Hendricks moved into eighth place in franchise history for all-time strikeouts with 1,140, passing Hippo Vaughn.
“That’s pretty cool. I had no idea, obviously, I try to pitch to contact, I’m not a strikeout guy, but I’ve been here for a little bit so anytime you’re in one of those lists, I mean, that’s unbelievable, especially in this organization,” Hendricks said. “So got to take it for what it is obviously, but I think you guys know me pretty well, I mean, I’m focused on winning ballgames and that’s really about it, just doing what I can for this group.”
The Cubs (61-58) were built on pitching and defense, both of which have continued to serve as their foundation for success in the postseason race. Their offensive production, featuring a deeper lineup since trading for Jeimer Candelario, remains the wild card.
Happ’s and Suzuki’s respective power potential — and the absence of it too often this year — can provide the boom the Cubs need down the stretch.
Over the last three weeks, the switch-hitting Happ has slugged five home runs and three doubles in 18 games. He’s also shown better plate discipline, drawing 11 walks to 12 strikeouts in that stretch. Happ’s improved power production is particularly important batting in the No. 3 spot with the frequency of Mike Tauchman and Nico Hoerner getting on base ahead of him.
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Happ’s current 18-game stretch has seen his on-base percentage start to climb again (.329) despite a .170 BABIP, the unluckiness of which is reflected in his .206 batting average.
“It’s just getting the ball in the air a little bit more, feeling more comfortable,” Happ said after Tuesday’s loss. “I think the right-handed homers are really nice. Getting one out lefty, feeling like that ball was really true in the air, started having a little bit better at-bats left-handed and producing.
“When the offense is clicking the way we are, we’re very comfortable getting on base and letting guys do what they do. That’s when we’re at our best on offense when we’re patient and we’re making guys work really hard like we did today.”
A more aggressive, confident Suzuki has emerged after Ross gave him a mental reset last week. In five starts since he returned to the lineup Wednesday in New York against the Mets, Suzuki is 7-for-19 with four extra-base hits, including two home runs, and four RBIs.
The 110.5 mph exit velocity on his home run Tuesday was Suzuki’s sixth-hardest hit ball with the Cubs.
“He’s been working really hard and happy to see him having that success, he’s hit balls hard all year right at people and a little bit on the ground,” Happ said. “So, if he starts elevating it he’s pretty dangerous.”
Added Hendricks: “To see it paying off and the confidence really skyrocketed and him having fun, that’s what we all care about in here so we know he’s going to be there down the stretch for us big time.”