Javier Baez touched home plate and pointed to the sky, the jet-engine noise filling Wrigley Field as he ran through the gauntlet in the home dugout, hopping up the stairs and raising his arms for a curtain call.
Baez had just crushed John Lackey’s 94-mph fastball out toward the right-field bleachers on Tuesday afternoon, firing back at the St. Louis Cardinals and showing off the natural power the Cubs saw in his boom-or-bust potential.
As darkness fell on the North Side, a crowd of 42,411 and a national-television audience watched the Cubs clinch their first postseason series ever at Clark and Addison, where they’ve only been playing for a century.
After everything that’s happened, what a way for Baez to step up in this National League Division Series, delivering a signature moment with that three-run homer in the second inning, helping the Cubs close out the Cardinals with a 6-4 victory in Game 4.
“It’s been a tough year for me, but life continues,” Baez said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m living my life, living my dream.”
Baez felt the emotional letdown when he didn’t make the team out of spring training, and he took an extended leave of absence after his younger sister, Noely, died in early April. That’s why he pointed to the sky after the biggest at-bat of his life.
“She’s always with me,” said Baez, who has her name scripted onto his glove. “And I’m always with her.”
Responding to what might have been a crisis for another playoff team, the Cubs swapped out one first-round pick for another at shortstop, leaving a three-time All-Star shortstop at second base. That wealth of young talent shows why a rivalry that’s lasted 123 years might never be the same again.
Addison Russell got an MRI on his tight left hamstring on Tuesday morning, and manager Joe Maddon didn’t sound all that optimistic his rookie shortstop would be available for a Game 5 that’s no longer necessary.
The test results weren’t immediately available, but Maddon knows Russell’s game revolves around lateral movement and quickness. Maddon also reasoned Russell wouldn’t have walked off the field in the fourth inning of Monday’s Game 3 win — after hustling for a triple — if he didn’t feel something. So there was Baez starting at shortstop and playing next to Starlin Castro, possibly for the foreseeable future.
“I have all the confidence in the world in him,” Maddon said. “He’s an outstanding defender.”
Maddon lobbied for Baez to make the Opening Day roster, believing his speed, instincts and take-charge attitude would make up for the severe swing-and-miss issues exposed during his 95-strikeouts-in-52-games audition last year.
Theo Epstein’s front office inherited Baez, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and believed he needed more time to develop at Triple-A Iowa.
You got the feeling this administration never would have drafted Baez out of Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., not having enough information on a quiet kid who played different levels of competition, not knowing if he would become the next Manny Ramirez or stall as an A-ball player.
Baez then fractured his left ring finger while sliding headfirst into second base during an Iowa game in early June, another setback that left him waiting for a September call-up.
“You just got to play it through,” Baez said. “You just got to keep going.”
To get a front-end starter like Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) or Tyson Ross (San Diego Padres) at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs probably would have had to give up Baez as a starting point in either deal.
Those trade rumors started from the moment the Cubs dealt Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland A’s, making Russell the centerpiece to last year’s Fourth of July blockbuster.
“I don’t think you can have too many shortstops,” Maddon said. “It’s almost like (how) you can’t have too many pitchers, because they can do so many other things. They’re really good athletes. Even if it comes down to playing them in the outfield, that’s possible, too.
“Shortstops can move almost anywhere. That’s the thing. That was one of the old scouting adages: Scout up the middle and sign those guys, because they normally can move to corners.”
The Cubs might need all their shortstops to win a World Series. Baez has always been a baseball gym rat, but he toned down his act, showing a more serious sense of purpose and harnessing that out-of-control swing. Whatever happens next, he will just keep riding this wave of momentum in an unreal Cubs season.
“We know what we can do,” Baez said. “And we’re going to keep doing it.”