3 takeaways from the Chicago Cubs’ series win over the San Diego Padres, including Ian Happ’s versatility and better starts to rest the bullpen

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The Chicago Cubs figured the margin for error would be slim with their former teammate on the mound.

San Diego Padres right-hander Yu Darvish’s start Wednesday represented the first meeting between the two sides since the Cubs traded the 34-year-old in the offseason. The two runs the Cubs managed off Darvish were enough, with the decisive run in their 3-1 victory scoring on Anthony Rizzo’s double play in the seventh inning. Wednesday represented only the second time in 12 starts the Padres have lost with Darvish on the mound.

Sergio Alcántara tacked on a solo home run in the eighth as the Cubs secured the series win.

“We’ve had little moments like that that can’t be understated, all year where guys are just getting big hits,” manager David Ross said.

Following Thursday’s off day, the Cubs will host the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field where the ballpark capacity returns to 100%. The Cubs won’t see the Padres again this year unless they face off in the postseason; they went 5-1 against the Padres in 2021.

Here are 3 takeaways from the series.

1. A strong performance salvages the West Coast trip — and puts the Cubs back on track.

Losing three of four games in San Francisco to kick off the Cubs’ two-city West Coast trip was not the momentum they were hoping to ride as winners in 14 of their last 17 games before hitting the road.

Dropping the series opener Monday against the Padres had the potential to derail the Cubs. The West Coast trip kicked off a stretch of 21 of the Cubs’ next 29 games on the road. They’ve shown resiliency since recovering from a slow start and, so far, overcoming injuries as unheralded players and young pitchers are getting an opportunity.

“Winning the series on the road against these guys after we swept them at home (last week), that was really big,” right-hander Jake Arrieta said Wednesday.

“That says a lot about our team, having had a lot of guys banged up and guys coming and going and being able to pick up for the guys that are out of the lineup for an extended period of time. We’ve had a lot of guys do some really great things for us and this series was no different.”

Five of the Cubs’ next six series oppose teams with winning records. Going 3-4 on their West Coast trip isn’t a setback after their strong finish in San Diego. But it doesn’t get easier from here.

2. Ian Happ’s team-first attitude gives the Cubs additional defensive flexibility.

An old position became familiar again for Ian Happ in the series finale in San Diego.

Happ started at second base for the first time since Sept. 12, 2019 — which also oddly came against the Padres at Petco Park. He told Ross last week he could play in the infield and do whatever was needed to help the team.

Happ took ground balls at second and got some work in ahead of his start. With Javier Báez (hand) banged up during the Padres series, the limited options up the middle presented an opportunity for Happ to return to a spot he’s comfortable playing.

“That’s the kind of player he is,” Ross said this week. “We’ve got a lot of those guys. (Kris Bryant) we talk about moving around, doing what’s best for the team, Happer same thing.”

Ross didn’t rule out Happ getting time at second beyond Wednesday, noting the health of the team and balancing personnel and his options will play a role moving forward.

Depth and defensive versatility have been a key factor en route to the Cubs’ climb up the standings despite injuries. Happ’s willingness to move between center field and second base can help Ross put together the type of lineups the team continues to get healthy.

3. Better starts provide glimpses of consistency and give the Cubs bullpen a break.

The Cubs bullpen remains a strength of the first-place team, but their effectiveness is at risk from being overworked.

Heading into Thursday’s off day, Cubs relievers have combined to throw 243 ⅓ innings this season, fourth-most in the majors. Even so, the bullpen’s 2.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) ranks third best in baseball. Ross rightfully trusts his relievers, especially when they are charged with maintaining a lead as the bridge from when the starter exits to the end of the game.

Right-hander Adbert Alzolay’s blister on his middle finger forced him to leave Monday’s series-opening loss before recording an out in the fourth inning. It could have carried bigger implications for the final two games of the series with how Ross might have opted to manage his bullpen arms. But Zach Davies delivered one of his best starts of the season — six shutout innings with only one hit allowed in Tuesday’s 7-1 win — and Jake Arrieta followed with five innings in Wednesday’s victory, holding San Diego to one run in the process.

“(Yu) Darvish is really good, he’s tough to beat every time he’s out there so I had to limit damage,” Arrieta said.

The Cubs need more consistency and value from their starting pitchers, whose combined 1.0 WAR is last in the big leagues. Before Arrieta went five innings Wednesday, the rotation had averaged 4.9 innings per start this year with six teams, including the Padres, averaging fewer; the best rotations are at 5.3 IP/GS or higher.

Davies’ quality start has been too infrequent for the Cubs. Their below-league average Quality Start% (31%) shouldn’t be overlooked. Strong performances from Davies and Arrieta to close out the series in San Diego against a lineup that boasts a couple notable hitters is encouraging.

“The starters really cleaned it up right there on the back side of this road trip and gave us some nice innings and able to give the bullpen a little bit of rest there,” Ross said. “That was huge.”

Now they must carry the performance into their weekend series against the Cardinals. The Cubs have already played more games than last season and there are still 3½ months left. They can’t afford to burn out their best relievers because they aren’t getting enough quality innings from the rotation. It starts with the Cubs’ veteran starters.

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