By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma—

CHICAGO (CBS) – The ball flying to the left-field corner, Ian Happ put on the jets. He sprinted out of the box to first, turned the corner to second and rounded toward third.

Happ was gunning for a triple and the cycle. He pulled into third base standing, but there was only one problem. He had instead flown out to left field, as third base umpire Stu Scheuerwater politely informed him.

There went Happ back to the dugout, where teammates were smirking and laughing away at his expense.

“(John) Lackey and (Jon) Lester both said they’d fight me if I stopped at second, so I had to get there,” Happ said after the Cubs’ 17-3 pummeling of the Pirates on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field.

Ever since he arrived in May, the rookie Happ has given the Cubs plenty of reason to smile. He now has 20 homers and 51 RBIs in 89 games along with an .848 OPS on the season.

Wednesday night saw Happ hit his 20th homer, making it a franchise-record six Cubs hitter to reach that number on the season.

Happ, who turned 23 this month, was the Cubs’ 2015 first-round pick and became the latest prized prospect to arrive in the big leagues ahead of schedule. He has fit right with the core of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and more.

“We got a lot of good hitters here,” Happ said. “A lot of young guys that have learned a lot and are putting good swings on the baseball. Especially on a night where we get 20 hits as a team and score 17 runs, a lot of good ABs.”

Happ is certainly included in that company. While his success has come with that sweet swing, the Cubs have also seen his growth with strike-zone awareness.

Though Happ had played just 26 games in Triple-A, the Cubs brought him to the big leagues in a pinch when injuries caught up to them in May. It was expected to be a short stint until Happ proved he belonged. He forced the Cubs’ hand and earned a place in the majors.

Adjustments are still coming for the switch-hitting Happ – the kind he would have been making in the minors. The production at the plate has been strong, but it has also come with a 30.0 percent strikeout rate.

Cubs hitting coach John Mallee has worked with Happ’s right-handed swing and helped him foster a more disciplined two-strike approach from the left side. It’s all part of the growth of a young prospect ahead of schedule.

“The only thing left right there for him is to truly organize the strike zone,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “When he gets out of the chase mode, there’s no telling what he can do.”

Though there have been humbling moments for Happ, his production at the plate has been steady the entire way. Maddon appreciates a switch-hitter who can play all three outfield positions along with second base. If not for the outstanding season of Cody Bellinger in Los Angeles, one could make a strong case for Happ as NL Rookie of the Year.

In a season with injuries and inconsistencies, where would the Cubs be without Happ?

“Give him credit,” Maddon said. “He’s such a good runner, multiple positions, strong. He’s just young, though, and is going to keep getting better.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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