Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.
That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.
“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”
Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.
This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.
“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”
The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.
“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.
“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”
Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.
“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.
“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”