Cubs: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense


Cubs: Javier Baez making a playoff statement with his defense

PITTSBURGH — The question isn’t so much whether or not Javier Baez belongs on the playoff roster. It’s becoming whether or not the Cubs can afford to keep him out of the lineup.

Baez is that good defensively, the kind of unique talent that could help the Cubs beat Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-run wild-card game where every play matters.

Baez finally forced the issue after not making the team out of spring training, taking an extended leave of absence after the death of his sister in April and fracturing his finger on a headfirst slide in June with Triple-A Iowa.

If the Cubs wanted to acquire a frontline pitcher like Carlos Carrasco or Tyson Ross at the July 31 trade deadline, they probably would have had to give up Baez in a deal with the Cleveland Indians or San Diego Padres.

“You still heard a lot of things,” Baez said before Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates. “But I was trying to get better every day and learn something from the game every day.”

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It seems like Baez was humbled by last season’s audition with the Cubs (95 strikeouts in 52 games) and a difficult year from a personal and professional standpoint. Something had to change for a natural shortstop with contact issues and an aggressive swing that can look out of control at times.

The Cubs gave Addison Russell the night off on Wednesday and moved Baez back to shortstop at PNC Park, where these two contenders will likely meet again on Oct. 7 in the National League’s wild-card game.

There will be room for Baez somewhere if he’s playing like a Gold Glove third baseman. Just listen to manager Joe Maddon describe the way Baez charged a chopper and made a barehanded play to rob Michael Morse during a 2-1 Game 2 win in Tuesday’s doubleheader.

“Outstanding,” Maddon said. “Almost like the old Brooks (Robinson), Graig Nettles kind of a thing where you look at the ball and then you throw it to first base accurately without any stress.”

Baez had been tough enough and versatile enough to play some catcher at Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., where he developed into the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft.

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And Maddon doesn’t doubt that Baez could play anywhere in the outfield now, though the manager doesn’t see the point in moving such a gifted infielder off the dirt.

“I feel good at third base,” Baez said. “I thought it was going to be weird, but I’m seeing the ball off the bat really good.”

Baez — who still writes and eats left-handed and uses that as his dominant side — believes that helps him react with the glove and get into such an easy defensive flow.

“When I was little, I used to do everything left-handed,” Baez said. “All my brothers and my cousin played shortstop. They just wanted me to play short and made me right-handed. I was swinging lefty in high school and it hurts my back, so I stopped.”

A young player with Gary Sheffield bat speed also appears to be more under control at the plate, hitting .302 in his first 13 games as a September call-up. But Maddon believes pitching and defense wins championships, which means Baez is a wild card in the team’s plans.

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.