Javier Baez steps into starring role for Cubs to help finish Cardinals


Javier Baez steps into starring role for Cubs to help finish Cardinals

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.”

[MORE CUBS: Bring on the NLCS: Cubs slug their way past Cardinals]

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.”

[MORE CUBS: Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder left speechless after Cubs win NLDS]

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.”

[MORE CUBS: Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum]

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.”

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Cubs map out next steps for closer Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel is one step closer to joining the Cubs bullpen.

According to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, Kimbrel will join Triple-A Iowa and make his first appearance on Tuesday, against the Sacramento River Cats.

While the Cubs officially signed him on June 7, Kimbrel has yet to pitch in actual games. The 31-year-old has been in a condensed spring training program at the Cubs' Arizona complex, throwing live batting practice on both Thursday and Saturday.

The Cubs haven't revealed an official timeline for Kimbrel to join the 25-man roster, as they are basing things off of how he feels. The expectation is he will pitch in about five games with Iowa before joining the Cubs. However, both Theo Epstein and Kimbrel acknowledged how the goal isn't to rush the closer back into MLB action.

"We're not gonna rush it," Epstein said. "It's gonna be tempting to get him here as soon as possible, but we're trying to plan this thing the right way so that he could be in a position to succeed not just immediately but in October. That's gonna be our guiding principle as we go."

"We sat down and put a gameplan together — something to work off of," Kimbrel said. "But at the end of the day, it's based off how I recover, how I get ready. This isn't about getting back on the field as fast as I can. This is about being the best that I can be in October and down the stretch and doing what I came here to do for this team."

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Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

Yu Darvish and Cubs pull off dramatic comeback win over Dodgers

There were some added stakes to Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Darvish made his first start at Dodger Stadium since his infamous Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series, looking for a great effort in front of a fan base that had their up-and-downs in terms of their relationship with him. He (maybe) took a small jab at the Dodgers before the game had even started, telling the Los Angeles Times that he wasn't worried about being booed because “the Dodgers don't have many fans here in the first three innings, so maybe it will be on the quieter side.”

Well Dodgers faithful certainly got the message and made sure to let Darvish hear it.

However, Darvish got the last laugh on Saturday night. He pitched a stellar seven innings. Over those seven innings, Darvish gave up 1 ER on 2 hits and also notched 10 strikeouts.

Darvish has been hitting his stride as of late, maintaining a 2.96 ERA over his last four starts.

All of that being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions of Darvish’s teammates. His great outing helped keep the Cubs in the game, but the gutsy performances of Anthony Rizzo and Pedro Strop are what won the contest.

Dodgers All-Star relief pitcher Kenley Jansen had a 10-game scoreless streak coming into Saturday night, but one swing of Rizzo’s bat was all that was needed to restore balance to the everlasting battle of pitcher versus hitter. After Jansen hit Kris Bryant with a pitch to put him on base, Rizzo activated “clutch mode”, mashing a 400-foot bomb out to right field.

Though small, Saturday night’s homer gives Rizzo a three-game hitting streak, perhaps forecasting that things are trending  upwards for the first baseman as the Cubs look to close out the series against the Dodgers with a win on Sunday night. And not to be left out of the fun, Pedro Strop came in to face the Justin Turner, MVP hopeful Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Matt Beaty to nail down the save.

Never afraid of high-pressure moments, Stop came through big time.

Strop got a ground out from Turner, struck out Bellinger and Beaty in his 15-pitch save effort. This was a much-needed win for the Cubs, who have well-documented struggles on the road. As they look to split the four-game set with the Dodgers on Sunday night, the Cubs can be pleased with their fight this week.

Saturday’s win over the Dodgers was the Cubs first win of the season after trailing through six innings, as they were 0-23 in such situations prior to the victory. Amid a season that has been fraught with injury and general roster construction concerns, it was wonderful to see the Cubs pull out a tough win lead by the much-maligned Darvish and the never-quit attitude of his teammates.