Cubs

Setback for Javier Baez while Cubs await Matt Szczur decision

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Setback for Javier Baez while Cubs await Matt Szczur decision

PHOENIX – When asked about Javier Baez, Matt Szczur and the looming roster decision, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went with a time-tested cliché: “The game has this cruel way of making its own decisions.”

Baez experienced another setback this week while trying to come back from a thumb injury, getting hit by a pitch that buzzed the extended earflap on his helmet during a game in extended spring training. That makes it unlikely he will be ready for Monday’s home opener at Wrigley Field. 

“I doubt it right now,” Maddon said, making the prediction before Kyle Schwarber’s hard-to-watch outfield collision during Thursday’s 14-6 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. “(Javy’s) not really progressed a whole lot. There are still some things going on.”

Baez, who has been working out at the team’s complex in nearby Mesa, described it as a “scary moment,” posted the video on his Instagram account and promised “will be back soon.”

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Maddon didn’t know if Baez – a versatile infielder/outfielder the Cubs hope can become the next Ben Zobrist – would be available for the six-game opening homestand against the Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies.

Maddon framed it as a matter of Baez taking it slow and needing to get more at-bats – and not an issue with the left thumb contusion that kept him off the Opening Day roster.

That opened the door for Szczur, the former Villanova University football/baseball athlete who’s out of minor-league options and making a strong impression as a role player who can pinch-run and be a defensive replacement in the outfield.  

While his Wildcats won the NCAA tournament, Szczur is trying to play his way off the bubble, showing some pop by going 3-for-5 with a double, homer and four RBI during a two-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.       

“I’m going to say it over and over again: We’re here to win,” Szczur said. “Coming off the bench or starting, I’m going to help the team win any way I can.”

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

'The Javy Baez Show' hits the All-Star Game, with El Mago taking his place among baseball's best

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked not long ago how special Javy Baez is, Joe Maddon brought up another name: Jon Lester.

To paraphrase the Cubs’ skipper: When a player with the experience of Lester is raving about Baez, you know he’s something special.

It doesn’t take a lot to realize that Baez can do things on a baseball field that few others can. The man nicknamed “El Mago” is pulling a new rabbit out of his hat each and every game, it seems, leaving even those the closest to him consistently wowed.

And, yeah, Lester thinks pretty highly of his Cubs and National League All-Star teammate, saying Monday that Baez is the best infielder he’s played with during his big league career, now in its 13th season.

“I think he is, probably, the best infielder I’ve ever played with. That speaks pretty highly,” Lester said the day prior to the Midsummer Classic in D.C. “I’ve played with some pretty good ones: (Dustin) Pedroia, Mike Lowell, (Adrian) Beltre at third. These guys are pretty special defenders and players, and I think Javy’s athleticism makes him above and beyond those guys.

“How athletic he is, how he’s able to control his body. There’s times in the game where you feel like it’s almost going backwards for him it’s so slow. And the stuff he’s able to do at the plate, defensively, you guys all see that. He’s a special player to watch. I’m just glad he’s on our side and we get to do it every day.”

Baez’s breakout campaign has him in the MVP discussion at the season’s midway point. And he’s one of the stars of these All-Star festivities, a participant in Monday’s Home Run Derby and the NL leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. While Cubs fans and observers have watched it all season long — Cubs teammate and fellow Derby participant Kyle Schwarber dubbed it “The Javy Baez Show” on Monday — these two days will put Baez on the national stage, one of the game’s biggest.

“I’ve seen him do some amazing things the past few years,” Reds second baseman and NL All Star Scooter Gennett said. “He couldn’t do anything that I’d be surprised (by). That’s just Javy doing some — what do they call him, ‘The Magician’ or whatever? — just doing some magic stuff. Nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen enough to be like, ‘Man, he’s extremely blessed and a really good baseball player.’”

“Javy is an electrifying player to say the least,” Houston Astros pitcher and American League All Star Gerrit Cole said. “Probably the most impressive thing outside of Javy’s glove work, which is just kind of magical in its own … I got to see him when he first came up and he knows how that first stint went in the major leagues and how he’s adjusted since he’s been there. And that’s probably the most important thing. He’s very flashy, he’s very flairy, which is great, is exciting, is attention grabbing. But his skill work and his talent is really what shines through, and he’s just a wonderful player and tough out.”

Though he paused, seemingly to take in the fact that Lester had such high praise for him, Baez himself said comparisons don’t mean much. It’s not a surprise from someone who has established himself as a unique talent not just in the current generation of ballplayers but perhaps throughout the game’s history.

“There’s a lot of comparisons with me. I just try to be myself, to be honest, out there, off the field, too,” Baez said. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to be them. I play the way I play because I do me. I do it the way I think. … I’m not trying to show anybody up. That’s the way I play, just me being me and trying to do the best for my teammates.”

The numbers and the highlight-reel plays have thrust Baez into the realm of baseball’s very best. His inclusion in the All-Star Game isn’t a surprise, it’s a necessity.

Baez said he’s hoping to learn a lot from this experience, and Lester, at his fifth All-Star Game, said the lesson should be a simple but important one.

“The biggest thing is — when I got my first All-Star Game, it makes you feel like you belong. It’s like, ‘I am pretty good,’” Lester said. “So I think to get rewarded for your hard work, to get to be able to do this, I think it’s kind of like the little pat on the back. Like, ‘Hey, good job.’ For me, it was like, ‘Maybe I am pretty good.’ It was like the big, eye-opening thing for me the first time I got to do this.

“Hopefully they (Baez and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras) see that, hopefully they feel like they are two of the best in the game and that just carries over to their game.”

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

Where Cubs and White Sox players will bat in All-Star lineup

The 2018 MLB All-Star Game lineups are out for the American and National League, and one former White Sox pitcher makes history.

Javier Baez, in his first All-Star appearance, was tabbed to lead off for the NL. Catcher Willson Contreras, also in his first Midsummer Classic, will hit ninth.

As for the White Sox, starting first basemen Jose Abreu is the lone Sox representative. He will bat eighth for the American League.

For both the AL and NL, the starting lineups look like this.

In a repeat of last year’s starting pitching matchup, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and former Sox ace Chris Sale will oppose each other for the second consecutive season.

For Sale, this marks his third straight season starting the Midsummer Classic—a feat that hasn’t been done in over 50 years.