Javier Baez returns to Cubs with something to prove


Javier Baez returns to Cubs with something to prove

If the actual potential to make a difference matched the buzz on Twitter, Javier Baez would have already been here before this September call-up.

Baez has been compared to too many transcendent hitters over the years – Gary Sheffield! Manny Ramirez! Giancarlo Stanton! – that people have lost perspective. And the Cubs have been doing just fine – now 19 games over .500 – without Javy Being Javy.

In a season where the Cubs aggressively fast-tracked Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber and accelerated their youth movement, Baez had to wait until the rosters expanded on Tuesday for his first at-bat at Wrigley Field.

“I’ve been watching all the good things that’s been happening here and trying to get my mind right to be here,” Baez said before a 5-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

Baez is still a fascinating talent for Cubs fans and the Chicago media – and an intriguing player for Joe Maddon’s coaching staff and Theo Epstein’s front office.

“That kid’s going to be an All-Star,” said Ramirez, the hitting consultant who recently spent time with Baez at Triple-A Iowa. “You just got to be patient, like with anybody who comes up in the big leagues. It’s going to take some players time to adjust. Some of them take longer. Some of them are just faster.

“But above all, that kid can hit. He can run. He can field. I haven’t seen guys like that often. We’re just happy to have him, because he’s going to be a special player.”

[MORE: Schwarber finds his groove again as Cubs pull out much-needed win]

A crowd of 33,756 started cheering and clapping when Baez walked up to the plate in the second inning (and struck out swinging at Anthony DeSclafani’s slider).

Baez had a chance to break a tie game wipe open with two outs and runners on the corners in the sixth inning, but he hit a soft groundball up the first-base line. He also advanced a runner to third base with a flyball to the warning track in the eighth.

Maddon wouldn’t really say if Baez had a chance to become the everyday second baseman: “Yes and no. I’m going to try to utilize everybody.” The manager did double-switch Addison Russell out of the game and put Baez at shortstop. Baez said he even brought his outfielder’s glove “just in case.”

Back in spring training, Maddon thought the Cubs could carry Baez on the Opening Day roster because of his defense, speed and baseball IQ. Just when it looked like Baez might be playing his way into the team’s plans again, he fractured a finger while trying to steal a base in early June.

Physically, Baez looks much more like a streamlined middle infielder than the bulked-up player you saw last season.

Mentally, Baez is in a different place after taking an extended leave of absence following his sister’s death in April.

“It’s been a really tough year for me and my family,” Baez said. “That’s made me really patient.”

Baez said he got a different perspective while swinging with one hand during his time on the disabled list and the Cubs would love to unlock all that offensive potential.

“Javy’s put in a lot of work,” Epstein said. “He’s been really focused (on) keeping his approach under control, keeping his front foot down, limiting or even eliminating the leg kick.

“That’s been a process for him. It’s something that was gradual. He would embrace it, at times. Other times, he’d fall back into habits of a bigger leg kick and a bigger swing and a more violent approach. But gradually and over time, he’s become more consistent with it.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Baez has something to prove after striking out 95 times – with nine home runs – during last season’s 52-game audition.

Whether or not this is a new Javy – and there are times where it seems like the Cubs have a lot of voices around their hitters – Baez batted .324 with 13 homers, 61 RBI and a .911 OPS in 70 games for Iowa.

“It started to become second nature to him,” Epstein said. “When he can keep his front foot down and under control and limit that leg kick, everything gets more under control for him in the box.

“He tends to have a more reasonable swing, get better pitches to hit and it’s been really effective for him. He’s seeing results, too, which is huge.

“You can have coaches convince you something is the right way to approach a situation. But if you get results, that creates a real confidence that goes with it.

“We think he’s in a good place. He’s earned his way and worked his way into this position to come up and contribute to a winning team.”

Baez said he was so excited that he got to Wrigley Field around 1 p.m. for a 7:05 start.

“I think he’s ready,” Ramirez said. “Like everything in life, you’re going to go through some bumps, but you got to keep moving.”

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

Yu Darvish emotional after Cubs lose another tough one: 'I'm so frustrated'

With their postseason hopes fading by the day and the Cubs needing him most, Yu Darvish delivered on Sunday.

And yet, the game ended in a far-too familiar way for the Cubs: with a 3-2 loss, the Cubs’ fifth-straight one-run defeat — and third since Thursday when they were tied or leading in the ninth inning or later.

“If you just play back the tape, it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Also, the games against Cincinnati. For the last six, this is really wash and repeat. Of course it’s frustrating."

Darvish was extremely emotional postgame, as evidenced by a mud stain spread across his locker resulting from an anger-laced throw of his cleat. He pitched well — 8 1/3 innings, three earned runs, 12 strikeouts and no walks — only running into trouble in the ninth.

“I’m so frustrated, you can see it, right?” he said, looking back at his locker. “We have to win, especially today, but we lost.”

The 33-year-old right-hander was rolling heading into the ninth, which started off with pinch-hit triple by Jose Martinez that hit off Albert Almora Jr.’s glove, despite a valiant diving effort.

“It sucks that we couldn’t win that game,” Almora said. “I really wanted to make that play there. Can’t catch them all, but I tried.”

For what it’s worth, Craig Kimbrel didn’t pitch Sunday because he was unavailable, though Maddon said he would’ve stuck with Darvish even if his closer was available.

"I was happy at that point, but right now everything just….There’s no words right now," Darvish said.

That’s neither here nor there, though. What matters is that the Cubs lost another game that they seemed to have in their grasp, only to see it slip away late. They're now eliminated from NL Central contention, and their elimination number in the Wild Card race is three.

Even Maddon struggled to explain the series, one where the Cubs played quite well but only saw their playoff hopes take a big hit.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “You look at it, how did that all happen? How did we lose all those four games? They were just one runner better than us every night and they were really evenly matched. That’s all I will concede.”

Although Darvish admitted he feels responsible for Sunday’s loss, Maddon spoke highly of the right-hander, even comparing how he's pitched to what Jake Arrieta did during his tenure with the Cubs. 

“I saw Jake pitch really well and win a Cy Young, but this is equivalent of all of that,” he said. “The stuff, command of his stuff. [Darvish] absolutely deserved a better fate.”

Whether you think that Maddon was being too hyperbolic there or not, there’s no doubting that Darvish looked excellent for majority of his outing on Sunday. Baseball is a game of inches, something the Cubs experienced firsthand this weekend.

“They got us. They got us,” Maddon said. “Give them credit for that, but we did not leave anything on the field, man.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull discuss the Cardinals sweep, Yu Darvish taking the loss so hard, and what to look for over the final six games of the year.

01:00 - Reaction to being swept by the Cards

03:30 - Darvish taking the loss really hard

05:30 - This is the Yu Darvish Cubs fans thought they were getting when he signed with the Cubs

07:00 - Almora's miscue in the 9th inning of the loss

08:00 - It feels like the end of an era

12:00 - Is this the end of an era for the Cubs?

16:00 - Surprised Rizzo was available on the field for the entire Cardinals series?

20:00 - There is no one thing you can look to that didn't work this season

22:00 - What do you want to see over the final six games?

25:00 - Seeing a cornerstone being helped off the field for a second Sunday in a row

29:00 - How much will we see the injured guys on the field?

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast