If the Cubs’ leadoff spot was a question at any point this season, it isn’t anymore.
With Kris Bryant’s return from a wrist and finger injury Tuesday, manager David Ross dropped the former MVP into his long-familiar No. 2 spot, ending the Bryant Era in Cubs leadoff history.
Switch-hitting Ian Happ — the Cubs’ MVP five weeks into a nine-week season — remained in the top spot, where he had filled in for Bryant and produced a .406 on-base percentage and 1.104 OPS in 15 starts before Tuesday.
Happ then led off the series opener in Pittsburgh with a homer and added a sixth-inning single.
“There may be some instances where I mix it up, but right now I’m going to ride that for a little bit and see how that goes and continue to show confidence in Ian,” Ross said. “He’s done a really good job with me moving him around, really from nine to six or seven and to the top. He’s done phenomenal in every spot that I’ve moved him. And the quality of at-bat continues to stand out to me.”
Ross, who declared Bryant his leadoff hitter during spring training before the COVID-19 shutdown, suggested Tuesday that was not intended to be a long-term solution for the trouble spot for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler departed as a free agent after the 2016 championship.
“That’s always been in the back of my mind whenever [Happ] started getting back to who we thought he was and who he thought he was,” Ross said. “That was the ultimate goal for me, to move him back to the top. He’s there, done a really good job, and we’ll continue to monitor that.”
Happ, who led off the 2018 season with a homer to start a brief run as the leadoff man in his second year in the majors, is one of 19 hitters the Cubs have used in that spot since Fowler.
During the last homestand, Bryant said he would welcome a change if Ross chose to keep Happ at leadoff, saying he and Anthony Rizzo had joked about Bryant’s early struggles there this season: “Rizz was saying the leadoff spot here’s cursed.”
After two hard-hit outs, Bryant singled in the fifth to start a three-run rally upon his return Tuesday.
Moving Bryant down a spot meant Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras all moved down to 3-4-5-6. And newcomer José Martínez, acquired in a trade Sunday from Tampa Bay, was in the lineup as the designated hitter, batting eighth.
“Getting KB back and plugging him in at the 2-hole starts knocking everybody down, and it just gets really deep,” Ross said. “It makes it tough on the opposing team.”