Cubs

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

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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.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 9th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Get ready for an onslaught of Sammy Sosa homers and highlights coming nearly every day over the next month-plus.

After a slow start to his historic 1998 season, Sosa really started heating up in late May. He sent his 9th ball into the bleachers on May 22, beginning a run of 25 longballs in roughly five weeks of action leading up to June 30.

Sosa's 9th homer actually came off Greg Maddux, a solo shot with two outs to give the Cubs an early lead in Atlanta. Chicago reliever Bob Patterson wound up blowing the game wide open late as the Cubs stumbled to an 8-2 loss.

Maddux, meanwhile, tossed 8 stellar innings, allowing only 5 hits and 2 runs - including the 440-foot homer to Sosa.

Fun fact: The Braves leadoff hitter that day was none other than current NBC Sports Chicago baseball analyst Ozzie Guillen, who was in the midst of his first season in the big leagues not in a White Sox uniform.

Fun fact No. 2: Atlanta's No. 2 hitter in the game was Keith Lockhart, who is now a scout in the Cubs organization.

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

Cubs vs. Indians: Which team is better positioned to get back to the World Series in 2018?

It's been nearly 19 months since the Cubs and Indians played what may go down as history as the most important baseball game ever.

Game 7s are always instant classics just because of the win-or-go-home aspect, but the added bonus on that early-November day in 2016 was the fact either one of Major League Baseball's longest championship droughts was going to end. It was just a matter of whether it would be the Cubs' 108-year history or the Indians' 70-year.

Obviously we all know how that played out and for the first time since holding a 3-1 lead in that 2016 World Series, the Indians are returning to Wrigley Field for a brief two-game set beginning Tuesday night.

We're only a little over a quarter of the way through the 2018 campaign so the playoffs are a long way away. But could these two teams be destined for another date in the Fall Classic?

Let's examine the current positions:

STARTING PITCHING

The rotation is the easiest place to look for championship teams. It's really hard to survive a month of high-intensity postseason baseball without a stable of workhorses (even in today's changing world of shorter and shorter outings). 

On paper in spring training, these looked like two of the top rotations in baseball. It hasn't played out that way for the Cubs, though there is clearly reason for optimism with the way Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish pitched over the weekend in Cincinnati.

But the Indians rotation has been absolutely incredible, even including Josh Tomlin who was just bumped to the bullpen with a 7.84 ERA. The Top 4 starters in Cleveland can go toe-to-toe with any in baseball, as Corey Kluber (2.36 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), Carlos Carrasco (3.65, 1.07), Trevor Bauer (2.59, 1.12) and Mike Cleveniger (2.87, 1.16) would create plenty of issues for the opposition in a playoff series.

The rotation is the true strength of the Indians and while the Cubs still boast a starting 5 that could potentially hold its own against anybody in baseball, this one has to go the way of Cleveland.

Edge: Indians

BULLPEN

When you feature Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, it'd be easy to look at that and chalk it up as a Cleveland victory in the bullpen category, but things haven't been so great for the Indians of late.

Miller can't stay healthy and even when he is on the mound, rough outings have dragged his overall numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) down. We're not used to seeing Miller's ERA even start with a "2" let alone a "3" so this is definitely a cause for concern. Allen, meanwhile, has only blown 1 save in 7 chances, but he also has a 3.32 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, which would be his worst numbers of any season since his rookie year of 2012.

The rest of the Cleveland bullpen is a complete mess, with Zach McAllister (7.16 ERA), Dan Otero (7.47), Tyler Olson (6.08), Nick Goody (6.94) and Matt Belisle (5.06) all struggling.

The relief corps has been an area of major strength for the Cubs in the first quarter of the season. Only Luke Farrell has an ERA above 5.00 in that Cubs bullpen and four different pitchers boast ERAs under 2.00 — Brandon Morrow (1.13), Steve Cishek (1.71), Pedro Strop (1.35) and Brian Duensing (0.61). 

The Cubs' main trick will be managing the workload for all these guys to ensure they don't run full-speed into a wall as they did late last season. But for now, the Cubs bullpen is head and shoulders above the Indians.

Edge: Cubs

OFFENSE

This is the toughest area to evaluate between these two teams.

The Indians' offense is incredibly top-heavy with Francisco Lindor (.933 OPS), Jose Ramirez (.985) and Michael Brantley (.936) providing probably the best Top 3 in an order in baseball. Brantley wasn't around for that 2016 World Series and has missed so much time the last few years with health woes, but he's back and as good as ever right now.

Beyond that, Cleveland is still searching for help. With Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer on the disabled list, the Indians outfield was so desperate for help they had to add Melky Cabrera to the mix as well as needing to rely on 37-year-old Rajai Davis.

Edwin Encarnacion will probably heat up at some point overall, but he's still on pace for close to 40 dingers. Jason Kipnis has been atrocious and Yonder Alonso has also underwhelmed. There's not much in the way of offensive help coming, either, until Zimmer and Chisenhall are healthy.

The Cubs feature a Jekyll and Hyde offense that sometimes looks like the best lineup in the game and at other times, causes their fanbase to pull out hair in frustration. But that's also the way the game has gone in general right now.

That being said, Kris Bryant is making a serious case as the best player in baseball, Willson Contreras is making a serious case as the best catcher in baseball, Albert Almora Jr. is making a serious case as deserving all the Cubs' at-bats in center field and Javy Baez is making a serious case as the starting All-Star second baseman this summer, currently leading the National League in RBI.

Even Ian Happ has utilized a recent hot streak in Cincinnati to bump up his season numbers (now boasting an .870 OPS) and soon-to-be-37-year-old Ben Zobrist has a .382 on-base percentage.

Once Anthony Rizzo gets back to being the hitter we all know him to be and Addison Russell starts depositing baseballs into the bleachers on a regular basis, you'd figure the Cubs offense would stablize.

There's too much potential and talent here to finish anywhere but Top 3 in the NL in runs scored, which cannot be said about the Indians in the AL.

Edge: Cubs

DEFENSE

Another area where the Cubs have been up-and-down, but once again, there is too much talent and potential here not to give Chicago the edge.

Zimmer's return will greatly improve the Indians' team defense and Lindor is still great, but Cleveland still can't match the Cubs' potential Gold Glove contenders at 5+ positions (Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Almora, Jason Heyward).

Edge: Cubs

INTANGIBLES

Both teams have some awesome veteran leadership and even the younger players are plenty battle-tested.

Terry Francona and Joe Maddon are two of the best managers in the game, but Francona may have a longer leash in Cleveland. Maddon's honeymoon period on Chicago's North Side ended the day the Cubs won the World Series, oddly.

The jury is still out on the new Cubs coaching staff, too. Chili Davis looks to be making an impact with the Cubs offense at times and his strategy of using the whole field and limiting strikeouts will take some time to really show strides on a consistent basis. The Cubs pitching staff is still walking FAR too many batters, but that's hardly Jim Hickey's fault.

Both teams should be plenty hungry all summer long as they were bounced from the 2017 postseason in ways that left poor tastes in their respective mouths.

But we'll give this edge to the Indians simply because they are still searching for that elusive championship, so maybe that drive will give them a leg up on the Cubs.

Edge: Indians

OVERALL

The Indians are 22-23, but actually sit in 1st place in the woeful American League Central.

The Cubs are 25-19, yet duking it out with a trio of other teams in their own division.

As such, the Indians' road TO the playoffs seems much, much easier as we sit here in the week leading up to Memorial Day. And the ability to cruise to a division title will allow them to rest and conserve their energy for October, while the Cubs will probably not get to coast to the NLDS like they did in 2016.

That rest and relaxtion may give the Indians an edge, but as of right now, this Cubs roster looks to be better equipped to win it all.