Cubs

Maddon: Javy Baez knows his time is coming with Cubs

Maddon: Javy Baez knows his time is coming with Cubs

Nothing Javy Baez does surprises Joe Maddon anymore.

The Cubs manager even thinks Baez could pick up switch-hitting if he wanted to.

Maddon has been talking up Baez since the beginning of spring training 2015, pointing to the youngster's speed, defense and baseball IQ as gamechangers even if he's still developing and maturing at the plate.

Baez was once THE prospect in Chicago, the must-see "next big thing" when he came up in August 2014. 

Since then, we've seen guys like Addison Russell, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber leap over Baez on the development path.

It's not like Baez was left behind, though. A finger injury and the passing of his sister derailed much of his 2015 season and another finger issue delayed his 2016 debut.

But Baez is getting work all over the diamond as a super-utility guy, having already played every infield position plus left field this season. 

The 23-year-old turned in an impressive showing in Thursday's series finale with the Dodgers - hitting a homer, driving in three runs and playing spectacular defense at second base, including a diving catch in short center field.

Of course, Maddon isn't shocked by Baez's recent success.

"Honestly, no," Maddon said. "The way he's accepted [his utility role] is really - I shouldn't say I'm surprised with, but I'm pleased with. He's really accepted it well.

"When he doesn't start the game, you go down there and give him a high five before the game and he's smiling, he's engaged. You know he's gonna be ready that night. He's just doing it properly.

"So that's the part that I'm really pleased with because I know if he has that kind of mindset, he's gonna play like you're seeing him play right now."

The Cubs are in a different spot right now than Baez's first go-round with the big-league club. 

There's no guarantee Baez will ever find a home at a particular position in Chicago, but he could settle into third base and push Bryant to the outfield full time.

Or, Baez could just stick in the Ben Zobrist-type utility role that Maddon loves so much.

"I think he knows that his time's coming," Maddon said. "He's gonna be a starter. He knows that. He knows even if he doesn't start tonight, he has a pretty good chance of getting on the field at some point.

"So all those different factors, he's really dealt with perfectly, actually."

Baez is on pace for only 306 at-bats this season and he's admitted it's tough to get going at the plate.

Even with Thursday's performance and a stretch in which he's gone 5-for-14, Baez still entered play Friday with just a .253/.295/.384 slash line, good for a .679 OPS.

He's admitted it's hard to stay locked in at the plate while not starting every day.

"I'm keeping my approach every time I come to the plate," he said. "When I'm not playing, I hit in the cage during the game to stay warm in case I get in the game."

Baez has talked to Zobrist about how to react to the ball when switching positions so often. 

The young utility guy feels comfortable in his work defensively and has gotten used to playing third base one day, second the next and shortstop the next.

Baez said he's fine with playing all over the place and doesn't have a favorite position right now. He's made sure Maddon knows he will be ready to play wherever whenever.

With the defense down, Baez has started to shift his attention to his plate approach lately.

"I focus more on offense right now," Baez said. "I think it's one of the hardest things in the world. I'm pretty good at defense, so I'm just letting that take care of itself."

Maddon thinks Baez's unselfish play personifies where the entire Cubs team is at right now, entering Friday a season-high 22 games over .500.

"I'm not surprised with anything with him or the whole group right now," Maddon said. "Our guys are just out to win. That's it. 

"They don't care who gets the credit or who gets it done that night. We're just out there to win it and it's beautiful to watch."

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

With no move on the horizon, Carl Edwards Jr. still the key to Cubs bullpen

As currently constructed, the biggest X-factor in the Cubs bullpen isn't Brandon Morrow or even Pedro Strop.

It's Carl Edwards Jr. 

Maybe that all changes in a couple weeks if the Cubs join the Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes or acquire an impact arm via trade. 

But the season is only about one-quarter of the way completed and Theo Epstein admitted Monday it's probably too early to see any major deals take place. So right now, it's Edwards that looms as the potential key to the much-maligned Cubs bullpen.

Edwards was called on in the seventh inning to protect a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, but managed to get only two outs before leaving with runners on second and third. Brandon Kintzler came on to face Andrew McCutchen, who promptly singled home both runners, saddling Edwards with a blown save. He has now allowed 9 earned runs in 7.1 innings on the season.

"Getting Carl right is large," Joe Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "If we get Carl right, that really fills a big gap right there."

Many have drawn the parallels between the 2019 Cubs and the 2016 Cubs and like that World Series team, this year's squad seems destined to acquire a closer (or at least a high-leverage impact reliever) this summer.

In 2016, Hector Rondon had a successful run as the team's closer, but it was pretty clear the Cubs needed an impact arm at the back of the bullpen to make a World Series run and they got it in the form of Aroldis Chapman.

It's too early to talk about World Series runs right now, but it's once again clear that the Cubs would be best served making an impact addition to the bullpen.

The Cubs got good news on the Morrow front Monday as he threw from flat ground and reported everything OK, but the 34-year-old has already suffered one setback in his recovery and at this point, he's a complete unknown. The Cubs can't bank on him returning at all this year and have to approach the situation with the idea that any contribution Morrow lends to this bullpen is a bonus.

Strop could be nearing a return after throwing a successful bullpen Monday. But his health — especially with his now-problematic hamstrings — will obviously be a big factor in the overall success of the bullpen, as we can see right now with the way this unit has been set up in his absence. 

With both Morrow and Strop down, Steve Cishek has been the next man up in the closer's role, but he was asked to work 2.1 innings Sunday night to close out the Cubs' win in Washington and was thus unavailable for the series opener against the Phillies.

So Brad Brach got the call for the ninth inning Monday night at Wrigley Field and wound up getting charged with the blown save. The Cubs then lost the ballgame the next inning when Kyle Ryan served up a home run to Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto.

That bullpen breakdown led to another round of sky-is-falling panic in the fanbase, calling for relief reinforcements like Kimbrel.

The Cubs are tied for second in baseball with 9 blown saves, though they actually came into Tuesday's game with the second-best bullpen in the league (2.72 ERA) since that rough 2-7 start to the season.

But now this unit has become a big concern once again. Getting by without Morrow is one thing, but between losing Strop to the IL and Edwards still not performing up to his potential, suddenly this bullpen is on some seriously unstable ground.

"This year to this point, we've lost some games late that we normally haven't lost in the past," Maddon said. "If we had just pitched somewhat up to our standards, our record would be crazy good right now. But I like the stuff that we have, I like the resiliency that we have. Like I said, Carl's a linchpin to this and I think Stroppy is, too."

Even with the shaky moments from the bullpen and the fact they're onto their backup backup closer (or is it the "backup to the backup closer?"), the Cubs still entered Tuesday's game with a 27-18 record and in first place in the National League Central.

They've managed to do all that with very little in the way of contribution from Edwards, who has the best stuff and the highest ceiling of any pitcher currently on the roster. 

The Cubs already sent Edwards down to the minor leagues for a month to fine-tune his mental and physical mechanics and though the 27-year-old has been back in the big leagues for the last couple weeks, he's still not quite himself.

Prior to Tuesday's hiccup, Maddon thought Edwards might be getting close to that level — he was dialing his fastball up to nearly 96 mph Saturday as he retired the only two batters he faced on 11 pitches.

"He threw well the other day," Maddon said. "[On Saturday], the fastball was better, better command of it, better finish on it. I think with Carl, it's just a confidence thing. I just gotta keep putting him out there. He has a couple successful moments and I think he can turn it around.

"But stuff-wise, I saw the better velocity, I saw the cut and I saw the really good curveball."

Sure, adding Kimbrel or another proven, high-leverage arm would give the Cubs a better bullpen. 

But no such move appears to be on the horizon and Morrow's future is still a giant question mark, so the Cubs have to work with what they have and Edwards pitching like he's capable of would change the entire complexion of the bullpen.

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