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Solid September gives Cubs’ Bryan LaHair confidence he belongs

Carlos Corporan Bryan LaHair

Carlos Corporan, Bryan LaHair

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Updated: January 8, 2012 1:15AM

SAN DIEGO — The Cubs made a point of playing their “kids’’ lineup Monday night with the season in its gloaming.

Some of the staff considered it a sign of regular lineups to come in the near future, possibly next year.

But the big question it raised for one press-box wag from San Diego was, “How many of these guys are prospects.’’

To which another from Chicago responded: “Well, Starlin [Castro].’’

And just when a few more names seemed to be coming, the conversation ended.

Yet right in the middle of the lineup — which produced two hits in a 2-0 loss to the Padres — was the Cubs’ minor-league player of the year, a guy who led all minor-leagues with 38 homers and with two more since a September call-up is just three behind Jose Bautista for tops in professional baseball this year.

It’s hard to consider Bryan LaHair, 28, one of the “kids’’ in that lineup. Unfortunately for the first baseman-outfielder, not many in the game have accused him in recent years of even being a prospect.

But LaHair is working on a case for a big-league job next year, and he has at least a few believers.

“That was the same thing I heard when I was put on waivers,’’ said former Cubs prospect Casey McGehee, who at 26 was claimed off waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2009 season and quickly emerged as a rookie of the year candidate, then backed it up with another good season last year and this year is headed to the playoffs.

“They said I was one of those in-between guys — 4-A or whatever — so I can definitely relate to what he’s going through,’’ McGehee said. “But I don’t care who you are, you put up the numbers that he put up at AAA this year [also .331 and 109 RBI], it’s not an accident. Clearly, the guy can swing the bat.

“A guy like that gets a chance, you never know what happens.’’

That’s the idea for LaHair, just to get a real chance — something that’s hard enough to get as a 39th-round draft pick (2002), much less a second chance with another organization after a rough 2008 debut season with Seattle.

“I’ve been preparing for a return the last two years,’’ said LaHair, who signed with the Cubs as a minor-league free agent before last season. “So I’ve been doing a lot of visualization. And finally when I got here, it’s been almost like I’ve been here the last two years because I’ve been thinking about it too much.’’

He has certainly looked comfortable, making his Cubs debut with a torrid first week that has earned him regular playing time all month — batting third in the order all three games in St. Louis over the weekend with Aramis Ramirez out of the lineup.

“He’s getting some base hits and doing some things, obviously,’’ manager Mike Quade said. “But his at-bats, his takes, his pitch counts that he’s running up — he’s doing a lot of good stuff. Even if it results in a line drive to right for an out. That’s been, to me, the most impressive thing about him.’’

Even as LaHair has cooled over the last week, he still has been in more deep counts than anyone on the roster this side of Carlos Pena.

In fact, his 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, entering Monday’s game, would have led the Cubs and ranked third in the National League if he had enough PAs to qualify (Pena was fifth at 4.10, the only Cub in the top 30 in the NL).

LaHair also has raised his profile by handling outfield duties in most of his Cub starts, giving the Cubs options in not only playing him now, but evaluating him for the future.

“He’s not going to light you up with his speed, but he’s going to do the right thing, it looks like,’’ Quade said. “And he’s going to get the balls and handle himself well.’’

“I’m playing for a future,’’ said LaHair, who knows the Cubs aren’t the only team watching him finish this month. “I hope it’s here. But at the end of the day, I’m playing for a future in this game, and hopefully, it’s in the big leagues.’’

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