Chicago Cubs lineup shuffle: Why Ian Happ is hitting leadoff, and center field options

PHOENIX — Ian Happ is not unfamiliar with hitting in the Chicago Cubs’ leadoff spot.

In his seven big-league seasons, Happ has made 81 starts atop the Cubs’ lineup, his third-most common batting order position. He’s batted first in the last two games, his first time in the No. 1 spot since 2021.

Manager David Ross likes the consistency in the switch-hitting Happ’s at-bats and his ability to work counts. Ross also wanted to break up some of the lefties and move Mike Tauchman lower in the order. It gives the Cubs a different look as the offense tries to break out of its funk.

“Just the way Arizona’s bullpen is constructed and with (Jeimer Candelario) being out it just lengthens our lineup a little bit and leaves less clear pockets for righty-lefty,” Ross said.

Happ is tied for 11th in the majors averaging 4.19 pitches per plate appearance. He entered Sunday with a .358 on-base percentage, which puts him right behind Cody Bellinger (.359) for the best on the team and 27th among qualified big-league hitters.

“Right now you’re doing anything you can to help the team win,” Happ said. “Guys that hit leadoff consistently and do it every day, I think it’s one of the most impressive things in the game. You look at what Dexter (Fowler) did for years, like, it’s so impressive to be able to go out there every single day, take five or six at-bats and have a .380 on-base percentage. It’s unbelievable.”

The offense again fell short Sunday in a 6-2 loss, cementing a dreadful 1-5 trip. It marked the first time the Cubs were swept since June 27-29 versus the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Cubs got a break starting Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks and Jordan Wicks against the Diamondbacks and not having to face Zac Gallen or Merrill Kelly, but the offense didn’t do enough. The Cubs (78-72) have lost five straight games and 8 of their last 10. They’re off Monday before their final homestand against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Colorado Rockies.

The Cubs are barely holding onto their playoff position, now tied with the Miami Marlins for the final National League wild-card spot.

Ross continues to rely on the more experienced players on the roster, both in the starting lineup and bullpen, as the Cubs try to hold onto their playoff position. Tauchman started all three games in center field against the Diamondbacks with Pete Crow-Armstrong entering Saturday’s game as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning. He was pinch hit for in the 12th inning with one out and runners on first and second.

When writing out the lineup and weighing his options, specifically in center field, Ross looks at what a younger player does well and the type of pitch mix that plays into their bat path. Crow-Armstrong gives the Cubs elite outfield defense but the offensive side of his game is clearly still a work in progress (0-for-8, four strikeouts, one walk). There is a trade-off the Cubs consider.

“I try to lean on some of that past information and then my gut — a lot of times I lean on veterans and veteran presence,” Ross said Sunday. “There is a commitment to the guys that put us in this place for me to ride it to the finish line and having those complementary pieces help where they can.

“Pete in particular can really go get it, can steal us a big bag, can go get it in center field. He’s still got some things to learn and he’s going to have a great career. But having guys handle moments is going to be important for that, and I trust the guys that have gotten us here and been in the big moments this year for us already.”

Third baseman Nick Madrigal was not in the lineup Sunday after departing Saturday’s 13-inning loss because of right hamstring tightness. He felt better Sunday morning and going into the series finale could be available to pinch hit. Ross didn’t anticipate a need for the injured list with Madrigal describing the issue as cramping and tightness. But “with his history, we don’t want to take a risk” to start him Sunday, Ross noted, especially with an off day Monday.

Cody Bellinger started Sunday after getting hit on his hand in the 10th inning, though it was ruled and upheld during replay review that the pitch hit the knob of his bat, resulting in a soft lineout to Arizona’s pitcher. Seiya Suzuki has been dealing with right hand soreness, prompting him to get moved to the Cubs’ designated hitter spot before Friday’s game. He started the last two games in right field.

Adbert Alzolay played catch for the second consecutive day Sunday while Jeimer Candelario was cleared for low-impact activity, including glove work.

“It’s the time of year that everybody’s grinding,” Ross said. “We have had some guys go down trying to push through like the (Michael) Fulmers and Adberts and Candy, missing some of the boys right now but you see (Saturday) night, they fight hard. They’re putting it all out there on the line.

“All these guys are just grinding the best they can and that’s what you do. You do it throughout the year and now is no different. There’s even more at stake now.”