When Ian Happ singled home the winning run for the Cubs in the 11th inning Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, pitcher Tyson Miller almost immediately tweeted from the Cubs’ alternate site in South Bend:
“Happ’s gotta be a contender for NL MVP right?”
Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mookie Betts might have something to say about that.
But for anyone who didn’t already notice Happ was putting together a pandemic-shortened season to rival the MVP-level production of teammates Kris Bryant in 2016 and Javy Báez in 2018, take another look at the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Cardinals.
Two days after his MVP run flashed before his right eye — when a foul ball bounced off the plate and back up into the eye — Happ returned to the top spot in the Cubs lineup and homered on the second pitch he saw through the scratched cornea.
Four innings later, he homered again — at which point he briefly took over the top spot in the National League in OPS.
This is the kind of season it has been for Happ, by far the Cubs’ most productive hitter in a lineup full of former All-Stars that include 2016 MVP Bryant and 2018 runner-up Báez.
It’s hard to imagine where the first-place Cubs might be two-thirds of the way through a 60-game season without Happ or the surging Jason Heyward, who’s also putting together career-high rates of production (.967 OPS).
Neither could help the Cubs avoid a doubleheader sweep by the Cardinals at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
But Happ, in particular, has been an elite offensive performer from the start of the season, picking up where his strong finish to 2019 left off following a humbling and lengthy demotion to Triple-A out of spring training.
And all of a sudden, with three weeks to play, the hitter that manager David Ross considered his “X factor” before the season started can put himself into serious MVP consideration if he continues to perform well enough to lead the Cubs to a division-winning finish.
That much was apparent in some of the reaction to Happ leaving Thursday’s game in Pittsburgh — when more Cubs than just Happ saw the season flash before their eyes.
“It’s scary, especially with Happer and how he’s carried us this year,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said after that game.
And if his team-leading production for one of the best teams in the league all season didn’t put him in the midseason conversation for postseason honors, consider that 4-2 loss to the Cards in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader.
He not only provided both runs for the Cubs on a day he peered through a puffy right eye socket, but the rest of the team combined to go 4-for-24 against Adam Wainwright and Giovanny Gallegos with four singles and seven strikeouts.
“It’s pretty evident that he can see,” Ross deadpanned. “So that’s nice.”
Happ, who rescued the Cubs’ leadoff spot after Bryant’s early struggles and injuries, is hitting .310 with 12 homers and a 1.093 OPS after Saturday's games.
“I told the coaches in the offseason that for me this guy is going to make a big difference,” Ross said of watching the way Happ finished 2019 and talking to him over the winter, “that if he has a good year we’re going to really roll.”
A lot has to continue to go right for the Cubs and Happ for the “X factor” to pay off with postseason accolades of any kind, team or individual — not the least of which includes beating the Cardinals with somebody besides Yu Darvish pitching.
Not that Happ wants to talk about the MVP any more than Darvish (“I don’t care about that”) wants to talk about the Cy Young.
“I’m just part of the machine here,” Happ said. “I just want to do my job here. I’m happy to be on a first-place team that’s playing good baseball.”
So hold that thought for now.
And keep a close eye — scratched, puffy or otherwise — on the final 20 games.