ST. LOUIS – During spring training, Cubs officials talked up Ian Happ as someone who could help the team this season. May 13 still would have sounded extremely early for his big-league debut.
But things haven't gone exactly according to plan for the defending World Series champs and Happ might be the spark the Cubs need now. A wave of health issues forced the shorthanded Cubs to promote Happ from Triple-A Iowa and put the elite prospect second in their lineup and in right field at Busch Stadium.
"This is one of those situations where you might wake up tomorrow and not remember what happened," Happ said before Saturday's 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. "You just got to really slow everything down, enjoy it and be in the moment."
There's no chance Happ forgets this day, from his hard slide into second base drawing an interference call – and teeing up state-of-baseball rants from Joe Maddon and Jon Lester – to the Carlos Martinez slider he launched 413 feet over the bullpen in right-center field for a two-run homer.
Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft – looked like more than just a short-term solution while their regulars rest up and recover. As a switch-hitter who can move around the infield and the outfield, Happ profiles like an ideal Maddon player.
The manager delivered this message to Happ: "Enjoy the moment. You deserve to be here. I don't know if it's going to be a week or the whole season. I have no idea. But don't worry about that. Just go play."
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With so many question marks on the roster, the Cubs optioned reliever Felix Pena back to Iowa and waited for medical updates. Reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant is battling a stomach illness. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell is working through a sore right shoulder. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist is feeling a nagging stiffness in his back. Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward is on the disabled list with a sprained finger on his right hand. Back spasms knocked outfielder Jon Jay out of Friday's win over the Cardinals after one inning.
The scouting-and-player-development machine the Cubs promised to build has now rolled out first-round picks from the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 drafts onto the 25-man roster: Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Happ.
"You just got to go out and play baseball," said Happ, who also struck out and drew a walk against Martinez and should have notched his first hit on a fifth-inning play that was ruled an error on Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter. "I'm here to help this team win and do everything I can.
"That's kind of been the M.O. of the team for the last few years, guys coming up and helping the club."
What had been a surplus of position players could also make Happ a trade chip by the July 31 deadline as the Cubs search for pitching help. Happ certainly marketed himself in the Cactus League, hitting .383 with five homers and a 1.191 OPS and working hard to erase some of the doubts about his defensive fit.
That sense of momentum carried over to Iowa, even with a detour to the disabled list with a sprained left thumb. Happ put up a .298 average, nine homers, six doubles and 25 RBI through his first 26 games on the Triple-A level.
"He made an awesome impression on everybody," Zobrist said. "He's got power. He's patient as a hitter. He's a strong kid and he can hit, so I think he's going to help us. I'm excited for him to help us."