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Ian Happ delivers instant impact as Cubs roll out another top prospect

Ian Happ delivers instant impact as Cubs roll out another top prospect

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."

Kyle Schwarber makes Cardinals pay for Yadier Molina’s hidden-ball trick as Cubs win series in St. Louis

Kyle Schwarber makes Cardinals pay for Yadier Molina’s hidden-ball trick as Cubs win series in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – Yadier Molina looked all around home plate and couldn’t find the ball as pinch-hitter Matt Szczur ran to first base after whiffing on Brett Cecil’s curveball in the dirt for strike three. Hands on his hips, the Gold Glove catcher couldn’t help smiling after realizing it somehow got stuck in his chest protector.  

Welcome back to the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, where late-game crazy happens. As the young Cubs shredded their “Lovable Loser” label and grew up into World Series champs, they became a relentless team that pounced on the smallest mistakes and capitalized on the random bounces. In some ways, it mirrored The Cardinal Way and how momentum could keep building and building at Busch Stadium.

[GIFs: Strangest play ever helps fuel Cubs comeback]

It all came crashing down on the Cardinals in the seventh inning on a brisk, sunny Thursday afternoon, Szczur reaching base on that hidden-ball trick, ex-Cardinal Jon Jay drawing a walk and Kyle Schwarber doing the damage that turned him into a Mr. October before his first full season in The Show.

Schwarber launched a first-pitch fastball that traveled 404 feet and stayed just inside the right-field foul pole for the go-ahead, three-run homer. Amid a raucous celebration inside the visiting clubhouse after a 6-4 win, Schwarber heard someone yell out: “You made it past Game 3!”

“And then we all went crazy,” Schwarber said.

Schwarber got carted off Chase Field during Game 3 last year with what was supposed to be a season-ending injury. Major surgery on his left knee that reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL didn’t stop him from hitting .412 with a .971 OPS in the World Series, cementing his legendary status around the Cubs.  

This time, Schwarber flicked his bat and admired the flight of the ball after jumping Cecil, the lefty reliever the Cardinals handed a four-year, $30.5 million contract after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The early returns on the Schwarber leadoff experiment: 3-for-10 with a .500 on-base percentage and a season-opening series win in St. Louis.  

“There are a lot of lineups that are probably bunting right there with their leadoff guy in that situation where he goes deep,” said pitcher John Lackey, who batted eighth and lasted six innings after a three-run first. “But our guy’s trying to hit it in the seats.”

What makes a ball stick to a chest protector like that?

“You’d have to ask somebody else,” said Lackey, who played with Molina for a season-and-a-half in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t know anything about sticky stuff.”

Molina called it a “dumb question,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when asked if he put something on his catching gear.

“I didn’t know if they came out with Velcro on the protector or it’s just like a fuzzy baseball,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not sure what happened. It was definitely Velcro-d to his chest. And it helped us, yes.”

Schwarber – an emergency catcher who might have to wear a brace on his left leg for the rest of his career – offered this theory: “Catchers like to put pine tar on their leg guard for extra stick to throw the ball to second base, things like that, get feeling. So maybe it might rub off some if he overloads and it just stuck? You never know.”   

“Probably Tuf-Skin, sticky spray, something like that, maybe pine tar,” said Jason Heyward, who played with Molina on a 100-win St. Louis team in 2015. “Never seen that happen. We joked about it next time I came to the plate. We had a saying when I was over there – ‘Never seen it’ – that definitely came into effect.

“You think you’ve seen it all – and then baseball shows you that you haven’t seen it all.”

That’s the beauty of this game, the helter-skelter moments in this rivalry and the intensity and unpredictability with a talent like Schwarber. On Opening Night, Schwarber had a horseshoe hanging down from his locker, a memento from the Clydesdale he hit in the butt during a batting-practice show in spring training.  

By the time Schwarber showered and changed into jeans, a gray hoodie and cowboy boots, the horseshoe had been packed into his bag for Milwaukee. Even the uber-talented, supremely confident Cubs will take all the luck they can get, because the rest of Major League Baseball is coming for them now.  

“I turned around the horseshoe, too,” Schwarber said. “I turned it up so I could make it through.”



Cardinals manager Mike Matheny took a thinly-veiled shot at the Cubs and Joe Maddon

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny took a thinly-veiled shot at the Cubs and Joe Maddon

MESA, Ariz. - Joe Maddon and the Cubs cornered the market on T-shirts last year.

They even had their own T-shirt provider (Korked baseball) that supplied the apparel for all of Maddon's phrases, from "Try not to Suck" to "Embrace the Target" and on and on.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny certainly was aware, especially as the "Try not to Suck" shirts were banned from Busch Stadium in St. Louis last year for being too vulgar (which created a stir in its own right).

So when asked by St. Louis media Wednesday about the Cardinals' 6-0 record at home in the Grapefruit League, Matheny joked, "I think we have T-shirts somewhere that say something about winning at home."

Upon just reading the quote, it doesn't seem like that much of a shot at the Cubs, but St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold draws the parellel between Matheny's comment and the Cubs' affinity for T-shirts:

No, the Cardinals don't actually have T-shirts about winning at home.

I pointed out to Matheny that it was a double poke and gave him a chance to walk back either prongs of it. The media was there, obviously, but the Cubs -- maybe he didn't mean the them. He's got a few players selling T-shirts this season, so maybe it was just a statement on a T-shirt culture.

He just grinned.

Now, the Cardinals were just 38-43 at Busch Stadium last season, a big part of the reason why they finished 86-76 and 17.5 games behind the Cubs.

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Ex-Cubs leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler is among the current Cardinals with T-shirt deals in place, as he's revealed over the last few days:

https://twitter.com/DexterFowler/status/839573542853201920 https://twitter.com/DexterFowler/status/839339044156821504

Maddon shrugged off any Cardinals-Cubs drama about the T-shirts, simply saying, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Maddon also said he would buy Cardinals T-shirts if it helps out any chartiable organizations and took the opportunity to pitch KorkedBaseball.com once again.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have some new T-shirts this year:

And their apparel is not limited to just shirts:

Of course, this all comes almost a year to the day that "Try not to Suck" made its debut: