Ian Happ

Outfield changes for Cubs as they unveil starting lineup for NLDS Game 2 against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Outfield changes for Cubs as they unveil starting lineup for NLDS Game 2 against Nationals

Get your pencils and scorecards ready.

The Cubs announced Joe Maddon's lineup for Game 2 of the NLDS, and it looks a little different from the starting nine Maddon trotted out for Game 1 on Friday night in Washington.

Here's how the Cubs look for Saturday's game against starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and the Washington Nationals:

1. Albert Almora Jr., CF
2. Kris Bryant, 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Willson Contreras, C
5. Addison Russell, SS
6. Ben Zobrist, RF
7. Javy Baez, 2B
8. Ian Happ, LF
9. Jon Lester, P

Almora and Happ replace Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward in the outfield, with Almora the new leadoff hitter after Zobrist was 0-for-4 at the top of the order in Game 1. Zobrist, however, remains in right field. Almora's season-long numbers against left-handers are terrific: He's hitting .342 with a .411 on-base percenatge and a .486 slugging percentage. Many of Happ's offensive numbers have actually been worse against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching this season, and he was 0-for-3 against Gonzalez when Gonzalez pitched against the Cubs earlier this season. Important to remember that none of the Cubs' starting outfielders got a hit in Game 1.

Meanwhile, the Nationals will send the exact same lineup against Lester that they sent against Kyle Hendricks in Game 1. With, of course, the new starting pitcher in Gonzalez.

1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Bryce Harper, RF
3. Anthony Rendon, 3B
4. Daniel Murphy, 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
6. Jayson Werth, LF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Michael Taylor, CF
9. Gio Gonzalez, P

One guy to watch is Wieters, who's had great success in his career against Lester, with most of that coming when the two were playing in the American League East. Wieters is slashing .314/.357/.412 with four extra-base hits and nine RBIs in 56 career plate appearances against Lester. Murphy homered off Lester in the 2015 NLDS, when Murphy tore the Cubs up as a New York Met.

Lester gave up four runs in 12.2 innings in two starts against the Nationals during the regular season.

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

Hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Ian Happ went to work at the team’s sprawling Arizona complex, meeting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines at a batting cage that November morning.

Surrounded by Cubs fans the night before, Haines had watched the epic Game 7 with Double-A Tennessee hitting coach Jacob Cruz at Culinary Dropout, a Tempe restaurant, the TV audience multiplying to around 40 million viewers. Together, they saw the organization’s first-round picks from 2014 (Kyle Schwarber) and 2013 (Kris Bryant) jumpstart the 10th-inning rally that would beat the Cleveland Indians and end the 108-year championship drought.    

Around 7:30 a.m. – while the Cubs were just beginning a World Series hangover that would last for most of this season – Happ and Haines talked about getting ready to win the next one and began early hitting before the Arizona Fall League action that afternoon.

Happ – the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft – is so driven to make it in The Show and focused on earning a ring that he doesn’t need to see the symbolism in that moment.

“That’s my goal,” Happ said. “It just happened to be the time that we were there.”

In terms of timing, yes, Happ missed the unbelievable ride last October, seeing Schwarber up close while he trained briefly in Arizona before his dramatic, post-knee surgery World Series return and getting glimpses of playoff games on an iPad in the dugout in between innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.

But Happ maximized his opportunity in the middle of May when the Cubs dealt with the types of injuries that would contribute to their first-half funk, promoting him after only 26 games at Triple-A Iowa. Happ made his big-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, launched a two-run homer 413 feet off Carlos Martinez and never went back to Des Moines.  

What the Cubs initially framed as a temporary solution became a key piece to the 92-win team that is about to face the Washington Nationals in a best-of-five National League Division Series.   

“Right away,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, starting in spring training, “the veteran guys really gravitated towards him. They loved the way he worked. They loved his intensity. It’s just a really serious demeanor. He fit right in with this group immediately. He had zero assimilation process, just because of the way he carries himself and the way he takes everything so seriously.”   

During three years at the University of Cincinnati, Happ made the dean’s list five times and earned a 3.68 grade-point average as a finance major. Happ’s father, Keith, a longtime U.S. Golf Association agronomist, died of brain cancer two years ago. Happ’s mother, Mary Beth, is a Ph.D-level dean/professor at Ohio State University’s College of Nursing.

[MORE: Jon Lester not conceding anything: 'We should win the World Series']

Except for the occasional faux TV interview in the dugout, Happ maintains the same game face. He plays with an edge, internalizing the idea that the Cubs drafted him because he would be on a faster track as a college hitter and could be marketed in a deal for pitching later.

The Cubs never traded Happ for a Jose Quintana or a Sonny Gray as manager Joe Maddon started him at second base, third base and all three positions across the outfield. Happ became the fastest player in franchise history to 20 home runs (89 games) and his 24 homers are the second-most all-time by a switch-hitting NL rookie (Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell put up 26 this season). Of Happ’s 68 RBI, 30 came with two outs. Of Happ’s 92 hits, 44 went for extra bases.

“He’s right in Joe’s wheelhouse,” Haines said. “He plays multiple positions. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s competitive. Winning is really, really important to him.”

So even if Happ’s name isn’t in Friday night’s Game 1 lineup at Nationals Park, there will be ways for him to impact not only this series, but make his mark in the playoffs as the Cubs try to become a dynasty.

“I think this team is going to be good for a long time,” Happ said in spring training. “It’s nice to be part of an organization that doesn’t feel like it’s a one-and-done situation. It feels like they’re building something here. And you’re going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come.”

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

Why doesn't Albert Almora Jr. play more?

It's a common refrain from Cubs fans lately, especially with the 23-year-old outfielder in a middle of a hot stretch that saw him collect eight RBI in three at-bats this week.

Almora came in as a reserve in all three games against the New York Mets earlier in the homestand and went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, a homer, eight RBI and three runs. 

Joe Maddon wrote Almora's name in Saturday's lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals, just his fourth start out of 15 games in September. He immediately made an impact, driving home the Cubs' first run in the fourth inning and igniting a two-run rally. He came through again in the fifth with a two-out RBI double and doubled again in the seventh as the Cubs cruised to a 4-1 victory.

The hot stretch helped push his overall season slash line to .299/.341/.442 (.784 OPS) in his first full year in the big leagues. Those numbers represent a bit of a jump from his minor-league line (.290/.322/.416 — .738 OPS).

Maddon has seen Almora's development in terms of using the whole field, being selectively aggressive and not missing his pitch. Almora swung at the first pitch each time up Saturday and had two hits to show for it.

"That was a really good matchup for Albert today and that's why we played him," Maddon said after the game.

So could Almora see more playing time over guys like Ian Happ, Jon Jay or Kyle Schwarber given his recent tear?

"Well, maybe he's doing so well because we're putting him in the right spots," Maddon explained. "There's always that thing, too. Happ had another big hit today; Happ's done really well. Jon Jay continues to do a lot of great things. Schwarber has gotta play also.

"Nice problem, trying to figure out the lineup every day. We'll try to make our best guesses on a daily basis and keep them all looking good and keeping them all fresh hopefully for the remainder of the season into the postseason. I love what he's doing."

All the talk about matchups is exactly why Almora isn't getting more playing time. Saturday marked the 10th straight right-handed starting pitcher the Cubs faced, dating back to Sep. 5 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Almora isn't strictly a platoon player, but there is a pretty wide gap in his splits — .346 average, .919 OPS vs. southpaws and only a .270 AVG and .700 OPS vs. righties in 2017. And that's including the last week, where many of Almora's big hits have come against right-handers.

Saturday's start against the right-handed Michael Wacha came by virtue of Wacha's splits — the Cardinals right-hander is better vs. lefties (.645 OPS against) than righties (.754 OPS against).

"My confidence is always at an all-time high," Almora said. "It has to be in this game because this is a game of failure. Even on days you fail, I try to take the positive out of things. I try to learn every single at-bat.

"Joe has his reasons and I'm not complaining. I'm putting my head down and I'm going to work. Whenever I get a chance, just try to do my job."

Almora obviously would like to play more (he's on pace for just over 300 at-bats over the course of a full year in the big leagues), but his mentality is team first.

"Absolutely. I've always said, it's not about me, it's about the Chciago Cubs," Almora said. "And obviously we trust Joe to do whatever he's gotta do to put the best nine out there every day to win games. When I'm just given my opportunity, I'm just trying to go out there and help the team win.

"It's not in my control. I could go to bed killing myself thinking about what's going on, but nah, man, it's not about me. It's about the team winning games and we're doing it right now. We just gotta keep it going."

Almora also hasn't jumped off the page defensively the way many thought he would. In 584 innings in center this season, he's at -1 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs, which is slightly below average. By comparison, Ian Happ has accrued +2 DRS in 330.1 innings in center and Jon Jay is at -4 in 302.1 innings. By Baseball Reference's metric, Almora has 0.0 defensive WAR this season, meaning he's been exactly average. 

Defensive metrics aren't end-all, be-all and there's still no truly perfect way to measure a player's value on defense, but the peripheral numbers don't point to a huge impact from Almora defensively.

The Cubs entered the 2017 season with a plan on platooning Jay and Almora in center field, with the occasional game for Jason Heyward there, moving over from right. But Maddon admitted Happ's emergence has changed things quite a bit and Almora's been the one who has seen more of a negative impact in playing time.

The Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race and Maddon has already said it's time for performance, not development, so the guys that are having success — like Tommy La Stella, for example — will see more playing time down the stretch.

That being said, the Cubs don't plan on carving out more playing time for Almora than he's had to this point. Happ and Jay will still see time in center field and the Cubs will still pick spots and play matchups to maximize Almora's talents.

"His confidence level's up right now," Maddon said. "He's been doing a great job. ... We've been able to match him up even more and right now, his success is very high. So when you look at it, I'm certain from his perspective, as a young player, he'd like to play more.

"But his time's coming to play more. What he's doing right now is really obviously benefitting himself. He's naking a nice name or mark for himself."