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Before Wednesday’s game against the White Sox, Cubs manager David Ross heaped praise on his productive left fielder.
“The MVP of our group probably would be Ian Happ for me,” the third-year manager said when asked what he’d thought of Happ’s improvement this season.
Happ went into Wednesday hitting .304 with an .859 OPS, he’d been striking out and walking at career-best rates, and he’d just generally had an impressive presence at the plate.
“Obviously, right-handed, much-improved. The home run off Max Fried (on April 26), going the other way, multiple hits to the other side early on in the season from the right side,” Ross said during the same pregame presser. “And obviously, his continued patience at the plate from the left side and driving runs in, taking his walks. He’s been a real staple to the middle of our lineup and a really big piece for us.”
In the bottom of the eighth with the Cubs trailing by 1 and runners at the corners (until a stolen base put both in scoring position) with two outs, Happ stepped to the plate. The Cubs had failed to score Patrick Wisdom from third base after he’d gone first-to-third on Nick Madrigal’s base hit with nobody out, but considering the kind words Ross had for Happ before the game, there could hardly have been a better option to hit for the Cubs in that situation, right?
Happ took a changeup from Matt Foster for strike one, laid off back-to-back balls, and then fouled off another changeup. With a 2-2 count, a base knock would give the Cubs the lead that David Robertson (as far as his work has shown this season) likely would’ve closed out in the ninth.
Instead, Foster ran a fastball by Happ at the bottom of the zone for a called strike three, ending the threat and ultimately ending in a two-game sweep.
It was a frustrating close to a frustrating two-game set for the Cubs, one in which they were swept on their home field by their crosstown rivals. The club did finally find a power surge in the second inning, as Nico Hoerner went deep for a two-run blast (his first home run since Opening Day) and Patrick Wisdom followed him with a solo shot two batters later (giving him sole possession of the team lead with five). However, it’s what could have been if a couple more things had gone the Cubs way that leads to the frustration.
Had the wind around Wrigley Field been blowing just a bit harder, two fly balls by José Abreu and Leury García may have may have stayed just a bit further toward the field of play and ended up in gloves instead of the baskets hanging over the brick walls.
“Really, just two mistakes, I think, that they didn’t miss and took advantage of,” Kyle Hendricks said.
Additionally, another two runs may not score had the Cubs not put on the shift. In the fourth, it was Gavin Sheets who took a 67.5 mph dribble to left field and knocked in the tying run. In the sixth, it was AJ Pollock who sent a blooper to shallow right, where a regularly-placed Nick Madrigal probably would’ve had a better chance to get to it but instead couldn’t get it in his glove after a long run from behind second base.
“The Sheets one the inning before and then Pollock right there. That’s executing pitches and getting what I want,” Hendricks said. “That’s just baseball. Can’t control the result. I just got to keep making pitches like that, and I’ll be where I need to be.”
“It’s frustrating,” Madrigal said. “The shift works a lot of times. There are a few times it doesn’t work, and that was one of the times it didn’t work. If we’re in normal position, we probably get that. It’s just part of baseball, again. It’s one of those things. It just was out of my reach. I felt like I had a pretty good read on it and just came up a little bit short.”
That right there is all four runs that led to another Cubs loss, this time in a 4-3 defeat that finished off a quick two-game sweep to the White Sox. If things, go right for the Cubs, if the balls fall the other way, they’re looking at a series split. Instead, it’s another series loss for a team that hasn’t actually won a series since Opening Weekend against Milwaukee.
Not that the Cubs did themselves a ton of favors on this night. They struck out 12 times tonight, with five (including Happ’s) coming of the looking variety. That came in addition to the 12 total punch outs of which six were looking in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday.
In fact that’s become a trend in the batter’s box for the North Siders. Over the last five games, they’ve struck out 60 times. Of those 60, 18 came on called strike threes. That’s 30% of their strikeouts over five games coming by watching strike three go by — and yes, that’s as a big a number as it seems.
“I think the product of who we are, we’re going to have more looking called strikes,” Ross said pregame. “If you’re going to command the zone, you’re going to strike out looking more than if you chase. That’s just kind of how that works.”
Yes, the Cubs are still taking some command of the zone by working plenty of walks (9.8% walk rate is No. 5 in baseball, per FanGraphs). That does force opposing pitchers to work in the strike zone more often, but the Cubs aren’t doing as great a job of doing much when pitches are making it in the zone. Their zone-swing percentage is just 66%, the fifth-lowest in the majors. Their called-strike percentage is 17.9%, the fifth-highest in baseball.
It’s one of those areas where the Cubs will have to adjust to the way pitchers are attacking them. When opponents are hitting the edges of the strike zone, Cubs hitters’ approaches will have to be tweaked to ensure they aren’t letting strike threes go by at this rate.
So sure, the numbers in the win-loss column would look better had a couple of things went the Cubs way on Wednesday. You would be able to say that about plenty of games over a 162-game season. But watching strike three go by has become something of an alarming trend within the Cubs’ offense lately, and until they adjust their approach at the plate, it would be shocking to see opposing pitching not look to exploit each and every time out.
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