Spring Training Notebooks

Spring Training Notebook: Cubs’ final tune-up before opener, plus new leadoff hitter

4 months agoAndy Martinez

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MESA, Ariz. — Craig Counsell didn’t feel a need to provide a Hollywood-esque speech as Spring Training wound down on Tuesday.

That’s just not his style — and never will be.

“I won’t make things up when I don’t have anything,” Counsell said. “Today’s always been like, we got a game left and Shota [Imanaga has] a job to do today in this last step of prep. Most of the guys will just play really quickly and then it’s a travel day.”

It doesn’t mean he isn’t excited start playing games that matter, though.

“This is an exciting day in that we’ve kind of finished the first step and we get to go to play in games that count and that’s a lot of fun for everybody,” he said. “And [we] get onto a plane as a team together and it’ll be fun.”

The Cubs treated the final game of spring as the last tune-up for players. Counsell started players who wanted a few final at-bats to prepare for the season and kept players like the red-hot Seiya Suzuki out of the lineup.

Suzuki has been the Cubs’ hottest hitter this spring, hitting .459 with 6 home runs, 12 RBI and a whopping 1.593 OPS. He had a 2-home run game on Monday against the Cardinals and looks primed to build off the final two months of last season.

“I think he’s having a great spring and he’s just in control of his at-bats, no question about it,” Counsell said. “I’m not surprised by it. I think he’s really good hitter. I think the last two months [last season], it felt like he turned a corner in a comfort away as much as anything.

“He’s very confident right now. It’s clear.”

Opening Day leadoff hitter

Counsell hasn’t really indulged in lineup discourse this spring. When asked about lineup principles, he’s defaulted to emphasizing he wants his best hitters getting the most at-bats and for every batter to put together a competitive plate appearance.

But he did say who his leadoff hitter would be on Opening Day.

During Tuesday’s game against the Cardinals, Counsell shared with Cole Wright and Rick Sutcliffe that Ian Happ would be his leadoff hitter when the season begins in Texas on Thursday.

“Yeah, Ian will lead off on Thursday,” Counsell said. “He’s gonna hit at the top of the lineup. His skillset and the people around him, I think it’s a good spot for him. This is a guy that walked 99 times last year, which in today’s game, a really, really impressive number.

“So getting on base for guys like Seiya and Cody [Bellinger] is a great recipe for scoring runs for us.”

It’s a role Happ has manned before, starting 81 games as a leadoff hitter in his career. He had a .344 on-base percentage last year and has the makeup of a solid leadoff hitter.

“Whatever he thinks is the best lineup construction, I’m open to it,” Happ said earlier this spring. “I don’t think you’re gonna see the same lineup run out there for the first 10 games of the season. There’s probably gonna be some figuring out exactly what this looks like with our group and with Couns as a manager. But wherever he wants me to hit, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Imanaga’s final tune-up

Imanaga struck out 6 over 3-plus innings of work in his final start before Monday’s home opener at Wrigley Field. The lefty allowed 4 runs, 3 unearned, on 8 hits and a walk. The line was a little misleading, though.

In the 1st inning, Paul Goldschmidt reached on a fly ball to center field that Bellinger peeled off on. It would have been a bang-bang play at the wall, but being Spring Training, Bellinger played it a bit safe. Goldschmidt scored two hitters later on a single from Nolan Gorman. 

In his last outing against minor leaguers from the Giants’ organization, Imanaga had trouble finding the feel for his slider. Tuesday, he felt like he did a better job of using the pitch. 

“Today, the results might’ve not been what I wanted, but in terms of the slider effectiveness, I was able to get strikeouts on the lefties, so in terms of that, I think it went well,” Imanaga said through interpreter Edwin Stanberry. 

Next Up

The Cubs will travel to Texas to open the season against the defending World Series champions. Justin Steele will start for the Cubs in his first Opening Day start.

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