SAN FRANCISCO — Javier Baez made it feel like the playoffs more than the 63-degree temperature at first pitch, the Halloween colors all around AT&T Park and a San Francisco Giants franchise holding auditions and playing for the future.
October is Javy Time after last year’s breakout performance, which started Game 1 with the Johnny Cueto quick pitch he drove into the Wrigley Field basket and became a blur of highlight-reel plays. The rest of the baseball world began to see what the Cubs already understood — a sixth sense for tagging, freakish range and arm strength, a fearless attitude running the bases and so much swagger.
Baez became the game-changer during Monday’s 5-3 win, again stealing the show on a night where Metallica played the national anthem, Joe Montana watched from the stands, Jake Arrieta showed flashes of Cy Young Award stuff and Barry Bonds waved to the crowd on the 10th anniversary of breaking Major League Baseball’s all-time home-run record.
Baez didn’t exactly burst out of the batter’s box and admired this one for a moment in the second inning, a natural reaction to watching lefty Matt Moore’s 93-mph fastball soar out to right-center field.
“I was in the on-deck circle — I see Javy,” Arrieta said. “Most hitters kind of take a look, kind of assess the situation and then go from there.
“But he’s a tremendous athlete. I knew we were going to have a chance to have him get all the way around the bases, based on the kick. And this is a strange park. There are certain spots in the outfield. If the ball hits off the wall, good things can happen like that.”
Baez turned on the afterburners in between first and second base when he saw the ball slam off the angled wall and ricochet away from Carlos Moncrief, who made his big-league debut in late July for a last-place team that lost its identity and might now have the worst outfield defense in the game.
Third base coach Gary Jones still knew Moncrief had a “cannon” and calculated that sending Baez would be worth the risk with two outs in a scoreless game and the pitcher up next.
“I thought he ran hard the whole way,” Jones said. “I just try to read the situation. You try to play certain scenarios in your mind before they actually happen. And then when they happen — because you’ve already played it in your mind — it kind of slows down on you a little bit.”
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Moncrief hustled after the ball and unleashed a strong one-hop throw that bounced up while Baez dove low headfirst under the tag from Giants catcher Buster Posey.
“That guy may have the best arm I’ve ever seen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s Bo Jackson arm stuff right there. That was that good. That was Bo good. I’ve always thought Shawon Dunston and Bo Jackson. Shawon Dunston on the infield, Bo Jackson on the outfield. And I think Moncrief is among that group. It’s incredible.”
Baez stretched out in the dirt for a moment before slapping hands with Jason Heyward — who scored from first base — and getting back up to his feet with a big smile on his face.
“That’s everything I had,” Baez said.
“He told me after that he drank too much water, so he was a little heavy,” Jones said. It became the first inside-the-park homer for Baez since “Little League, I guess.” It marked the first by a Cub since Anthony Rizzo last season and only the 10th since this magnificent stadium opened in 2000.
“Everybody was really excited (in the dugout) — I was just tired,” Baez said. “I was trying to catch my breath for a few minutes.”
It’s hard to picture a more dynamic No. 8 hitter who can play Gold Glove-level defense at second base and seamlessly move over to replace an All-Star shortstop while Addison Russell is on the disabled list. With that mad dash, the defending World Series champs are now 59-52 and up 1.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. The Cubs and Baez are coming for October.
“Everybody’s got me as a really exciting player,” Baez said. “I’ll take it.”