Javier Baez is already becoming a breakout star in October, the national writers and TV networks recognizing what the Cubs saw coming, from the Gary Sheffield bat speed to the Manny Ramirez moments to the natural feel of a great point guard.
The embrace-the-target Cubs view this as nine wins away from immortality, up 2-0 in a National League Division Series and the San Francisco Giants now teetering on the edge of elimination. Even on a team loaded with MVP candidates and Cy Young Award contenders, Baez is someone you can’t take your eyes off now.
That West Coast flight after Saturday night’s 5-2 victory at Wrigley Field would have felt so much different without Baez, the type of kid who got the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck before even getting drafted. Facing October legend Madison Bumgarner on Monday night at AT&T Park doesn’t seem quite as daunting anymore, all the pressure shifting onto the even-year Giants.
“We don’t mind who’s pitching,” Baez said as waves of reporters moved toward his locker. “We got to make them throw the ball over the plate and do our job.”
Baez reacted to a Johnny Cueto quick pitch on Friday night, the wind slowing down a ball with 107.4 mph exit velocity that landed in the basket atop the left-field wall as the clutch eighth-inning homer in a 1-0 win. Baez admired that one as if it was about to drop onto Waveland Avenue, but his swagger shouldn’t completely overshadow the dedication to his craft, how he toned down the leg kick and streamlined his swing.
“If he had his foot in the air – no chance,” manager Joe Maddon said. “No chance. The ball would have been by him by the time the foot ever got on the ground.”
Baez found himself in the middle of the action again in Game 2, drawing a five-pitch walk against ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija and hustling from second base on Kyle Hendricks' single into shallow center field to score during a three-run flurry in the second inning. By the eighth inning, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland buzzed a pitch inside, perhaps trying to send a message, before striking out Baez looking.
Oh, and in the sixth inning, Baez took his time watching his line drive that bounced off the left-field wall, which forced him to dive headfirst into Giants second baseman Joe Panik, getting called out on a replay tag challenge.
“Next time, no matter how hard I hit it, I’m just going to try and get out of the box as soon as I can,” Baez said. “If the ball is gone, I’m just going to keep running hard.”
The Cubs once held back Baez – the first draft pick in the final year of the Jim Hendry administration – in extended spring training to make sure he better understood how to develop a routine and become a professional. That was 2012 – the first stage for Theo Epstein’s construction crew – back when no one knew how long it would take for the Cubs or Baez.
“He always saw the game ahead of everybody else,” said Brandon Hyde, the first-base coach who used to work as the organization’s farm director and minor-league field coordinator. “He just knew the game better. He’s got a different clock in his head.
“This guy’s a different base-runner than everybody else. This guy’s defensively seeing things that nobody else on the field is seeing. We said it back then: ‘The best tagger I’ve ever seen.’
“Those kind of things were brought up in meetings four years ago.”
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Baez’s name also came up in trade rumors over the years as the Cubs tried to figure out what to do with their middle-infielder inventory and how to stock up on pitching. The Cubs now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender who can move all over the diamond while flashing 20-homer power and remaining under club control for five more seasons.
“I didn’t like the idea of him being traded,” Maddon said. “The biggest things left for him were probably: Cutting down on mental mistakes and getting his foot on the ground sooner.
“Now if he were 27 or 28, maybe that might not happen. But (he’s 23 right now). He’s a very open kid. He’s accountable. He’s very coachable. But he’s also very instinctive.
“That’s the part that you got to be careful with, because I’ve always said: You never want to coach instincts out of an athlete. So as you’re taming the part that creates the mental mistakes, you don’t want to interfere with that vision that he has for the game.
“It’s really delicate. He’s going to keep getting better. This is just the beginning for him.”
Which is a scary thought for the rest of the NL as the Cubs build more and more muscle memory in October.
“I’ve just been learning how to slow the game down,” Baez said. “In big moments – with how loud the crowd is – I’ve been learning how to control the game.”
While still being a little out of control, the creativity, improvisation and flair for the dramatic making Baez a great character in October.
“He can do anything he wants on the field,” Hyde said. “That’s how athletic he is. Now he’s a big-leaguer playing big games on national television, so everyone’s seeing it firsthand how this guy impacts the game in so many different ways.”