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ST. LOUIS — The Cubs are playing against Dexter Fowler, so you just had to know the leadoff spot would become a storyline somehow.

It manifested in Joe Maddon's lineup alterations for Friday's series opener against Fowler and the Cardinals.

Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez were never going to stay at the top of the Cubs order forever.

Neither guy profiles as a tablesetter at this point in their careers, mainly due to their lack of patience — 8 combined unintentional walks in 207 plate appearances.

Which is why Maddon decided to bring things back to "where they should be" in Friday's 3-2 loss with Ben Zobrist leading off, Almora hitting sixth and Baez hitting eighth. The new lineup featured the usual 2-3-4 of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras.

After providing a spark atop the order for roughly a week, Almora and Baez combined to go 2-for-24 in the last four games on the latest homestand. 

"We scored 14 runs over the last 7 games," Maddon said. "Don't be decived by the 5-2 [record]. We have to do better setting the table, we got to really get Rizzo and Bryant up there as often as you can.

"...[Almora and Baez] provided the energy we were looking for, absolutely, but long-term, I think it's gonna be wise to bounce them back in the order and not just rely on them there."

Almora and Baez once again provided that energy Friday, though this time from the bottom of the order. Both players singled in the Cubs' ninth-inning rally against Cardinals closer Bud Norris and eventually came around to score on a single by Tomma La Stella and a groundout by Zobrist.

 

Zobrist singled to lead off the game, but also struck out looking in the fifth inning, failing to put the ball in play to score Baez from third base with only one out.

Maddon hasn't had the luxury of setting the lineup this way for a while with Zobrist on the disabled list due to a back issue to end April. But the Cubs manager telegraphed this change earlier in the week at Wrigley, mentioning several times unprompted how he likes Zobrist in the leadoff spot.

Almora and Baez sat in the top two spots against the two Colorado lefties Monday and Wednesday and Rizzo resumed duties as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time" for one game Tuesday, just to loosen things up.

Against lefties moving forward, Maddon acknowledged Almora and Baez will both get their chances atop the order as usual.

But against righties — which the Cubs face in all three games this weekend in St. Louis — look for more Zobrist as Maddon's new "you go, we go" guy.

"This is what it should look like — not by me, by anybody who would evaluate the group and were with them every day," Maddon said. "It's totally emotionless. There's no emotion involved with this. You just gotta try to figure out what to do at the right time. So it's the right thing to do."

Zobrist's insertion into the lineup meant no Addison Russell Friday with Baez playing shortstop. Down the road, Maddon still has a lot of work to do to figure out how to get enough playing time for everybody.

If Zobrist plays nearly every day against righties, is it at second base with either Baez or Russell playing shortstop? Is Zobrist in the outfield with either Almora, Kyle Schwarber or Jason Heyward on the bench? Where does Ian Happ fit in?

Maddon and the Cubs don't have those answers right now and things will inevitably change with the lineup on a daily basis given rest, etc. Nobody's expecting Zobrist — who turns 37 later this month — to be playing every single day.

Moving forward, however, could the 24-year-old Almora and 25-year-old Baez eventually wind up back at the top of the order even against right-handed pitchers?

Not if they don't start accepting their walks.

Baez drew 30 walks in 508 plate appearances in 2017, but 15 of those were intentional. He has 4 intentional walks in 2018 and only 2 uninentional. Over his career, nearly a third of his walks are of the intentional vareity (23 of 70).

Baez's career walk rate of 5.1 percent is buoyed by those intentional free passes.

Almora has been a bit better in that regard, but it's still not where the Cubs would like it to be. He sports a career-high 6.9 percent walk rate in 2018 and has drawn 29 unintentional free passes over 527 career plate appearances.

 

"These guys are young yet and hopefully they're gonna understand that," Maddon said. "Why do scorpions bite? It's their nature. Why do young guys like that swing? Because it's their nature.

"How do you change that? You gotta talk, talk, talk, talk. You might get better at it, but I don't know if you're ever gonna get it to the point where you're gonna be in love with that number. But I think you can get better at it. In the meantime, you gotta be patience. That's just the way it is."