Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

Historic defense a game-changer for Cubs in postseason

"Defense wins championships" is more of a football slogan, but the Cubs believe it applies to baseball, too. Throughout the 2016 season, the Cubs have posted historically good defensive numbers, to the point where they may be the best fielding team in baseball history. Now with October baseball in full swing, the Cubs are hoping that defense can carry them to the promised land.

Jake Arrieta vs. Madison Bumgarner should be a classic pitching matchup in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, the San Francisco Giants trying to avoid elimination on Monday night at AT&T Park. Focusing on run prevention, manager Joe Maddon went with a defense-first type of lineup as the Cubs took a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five battle, inserting elite defender Javier Baez at second base and moving Ben Zobrist to left field with offensive-oriented outfielders Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan on the bench.

"Defense wins championships," pitcher Jon Lester said. "The quarterback gets all the glory, but at the end of the day, if you're allowing a bunch of points, it doesn't really matter.

"Our defense has been unbelievable all year with guys bouncing around different positions. You got Javy playing second, which was kind of different for me. I'm used to seeing him at third and [Kris Bryant] in left. So, Joe does it again, you know what I mean? It's crazy."

The Cubs did commit three errors in Game 2 on Saturday night at Wrigley Field, but one was a catcher's interference called on Willson Contreras and the other two came on the same play when Bryant bobbled Bumgarner’s grounder and then compounded his initial mistake by throwing the ball into the visiting dugout. Neither player came around to score.

With runs at a premium in the postseason, it puts defense squarely in the spotlight. For the Cubs, their historic efficiency at turning batted balls into outs has a trickle-down effect, helping give the pitching staff an air of invincibility.

"I feel like any pitch, any ball that's hit into play, the play's gonna be made," reliever Carl Edwards Jr. said after making his postseason debut in Game 2. "It takes a lot off of me and all the other pitchers knowing we don't have to go out there and constantly try to strike out everybody and waste pitches.

"We can go out there with confidence and know if the ball is put in play, the play will be made."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have a handful of players who could easily win a Gold Glove this season - Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Bryant and Baez. But guys like Bryant and Baez may not given how much they've moved around the diamond. Maddon has pushed the idea of a new super-utility Gold Glove just for Baez, while MVP candidate Bryant played 69 games in the outfield this season.

"That's a testament to our guys," Lester said. "They go to different positions, they don't complain about it. 'KB' came up as a third baseman and look what he's done - he's played first, he's played left, he's played center.

"These guys don't complain. They just know it's for the greater good of the team and they go and play different positions. It seems to always kind of pay off for us. And I think it makes those guys better, too.

"It makes our team obviously better. But I think it makes them better just being versatile and giving us different looks, different lineup matchups and stuff like that."

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez doesn't have the words to describe Javy Baez.

But then again, that's not what he does.

Analytical breakdowns aren't his game — incredible, heart-stopping physical feats on the baseball diamond are.

On a night at Wrigley Field that felt like one of the October battles of the past between the Cubs and Dodgers, Baez once again wowed and awed.

It wasn't just that ridiculous juke move at first base, though that will undoubtedly go down as one of the top MLB highlights of the year — if not THE top highlight. 

During Tuesday night's 7-2 Cubs win, Baez turned five different ground balls into outs...from the outfield grass. One such play nabbed Cody Bellinger by a split second at first base to end a bases-loaded threat in the eighth inning. 

And there was his seventh homer of the season — his first at home, surprisingly — to give the Cubs some more breathing room as he continues to hit the ball with authority the other way. He now has 15 hits in his last 33 at-bats and 9 of those knocks have gone for extra bases (5 doubles, 3 homers and a triple). 

But back to that play at first base — how did he do it?

After pausing for a few seconds, Baez shrugged and said, "I don't know," before trying to find the words to explain what was going through his head in those few seconds as he was hurtling down the basepath:

"I just saw him really close to the line," Baez said. "Usually on that play, you go around [the base] like it's a base hit. I think if I would've kept going, he was going to run me over because he's a big dude. 

"I saw a play — Billy Hamilton did it like 3 or 4 years ago. I saw it and that was the first thing that came to my mind — to stop or see a reaction and he couldn't stop. I know I didn't leave the line. It was everything good."

It's the last part that's most amazing. 

Here's the play Baez was referencing, from July 11, 2014:

So as he's running down to first base, he has the wherewithal to dip into his encyclopedic cache, pluck out the perfect play from his memory and execute it in glorious fashion...all in a matter of maybe a second-and-a-half.

"I think we all feel his energy all around the place — not only on the field, but in the clubhouse," catcher Willson Contreras said. "We call him The Mago for a reason. I love this guy. To me, he has the best instincts in the game. What he did today was just awesome. That's one of the best base hits ever."

Joe Maddon said he and the Cubs coaches were comparing Baez to legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers in the dugout for that juke move.

"That's him playing on a playground in Puerto Rico somewhere," Maddon said. "That's what I love about him. There's no fear in his game. His game is a game and he sees things in advance and he's fearless. He could strike out three or four times in a row and that is not going to impact his fifth at-bat."

Just about every week throughout the season, Baez shows the baseball world something it's never seen before. 

From his lightning quick tags to his swim move slides to hitting bombs left-handed during batting practice to his rocket arm that has been clocked as high as 98 mph on the infield — even he has to surprise himself every now and then, right? Especially like this play Tuesday night?

"Nah, not really," he said, smirking. "I think if it's in your mind, it's possible. I see a lot of things that people can do and they don't realize it. I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

If you ever want to know what makes Baez "El Mago," read that last sentence again:

"I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

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Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

During the 4th inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, LA right fielder Cody Bellinger took a 92 mile per hour fastball from Jose Quintana and sent it right back his way at 96: 

After a quick (maybe unintentional?) grab, Quintana calmly tossed the ball in his glove a few times before walking off the mound without even a grimace.

It was just that kind of night for Quintana, who pitched 7 strong innings while allowing only two runs on four hits and striking out seven. He’s now gone seven innings in three straight starts, all Cubs wins - two of which were against teams that currently sit in 1st place.

“We needed that kind of performance tonight,” Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “They have a very difficult lineup to navigate and he was once again on top of his game. Great focus - he kept coming back with good pitches. Really the curveball was very pertinent tonight and then he had some good changeups to go with the fastball. He’s pitching.”

Quintana flashed an impressive amount of control while working through one of baseball’s toughest lineups. After walking six batters through his first two starts, Quintana has now only walked three since. 71 of his 114 pitches -- the most thrown by any Cubs pitcher this season, per team notes -- went for strikes. 

“I feel great,” he said after the game. “I know I’ve been throwing the ball really well the last couple of starts. All my stuff’s worked really good.”

“This year he’s been really good,” Willson Contreras added. “He’s using all his pitches which he didn’t do last year very often. I think he has his mind in the right place right now, and we’re in a good place.”

Quintana’s offspeed repertoire was firmly on display all night. Per Statcast, after throwing two changeups to Dodgers leadoff hitter Enrique Hernandez, he didn’t show the pitch again until the 4th. On the night, he threw the change up 12 times; the Dodgers failed to put a single one in play. 

“We’ve been in these types of situations and conversations since Spring Training,” Contreras added. “I saw him working out his change up in [there], which is good. He was a little harder than 84, but today I think was one of the best games he threw with the change up.”

Through 28 innings pitched this season, the lefty now sports a sub-3 FIP (2.89) and is striking out over 11 batters per nine innings. Some pitchers that have a higher FIP include David Price, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. 

“He’s absolutely pitching right now,” Maddon added. “Where in the past I thought he would just pretty much rely on his fastball. He’s becoming a pitch maker.”