Blowing bubbles is a confident man’s game. Would someone without vibrato attempt such a leisurely task while swinging at a 96 mph fastball? Surely not.
That’s exactly what Javier Báez did in the Cubs’ 3-0 win against the Reds on Tuesday, driving in the third run of the game.
After slumping for much of the season, Báez had begun to bat like a true cleanup hitter in September. Thanks to Cubs manager David Ross’ consistent approach to setting a lineup, Báez was still in the heart of the batting order when his swing came around.
“There’s times and thoughts where you want to do something different,” Ross said. “But our success is going to be with those (core) guys if we’re (going) to get where we want to go. So, I think showing belief in your players and confidence in them and continue to teach and work is the key when there’s uncertainty.”
So much about this 60-game season during a pandemic is uncertain. But Báez’s spot in the batting order isn’t. He’s hit third or fourth in the batting order all year.
Báez went on a four-game hitless streak in mid-August. A week later his batting average had dropped below .200. But still, Báez remained in the three-hole, behind Anthony Rizzo.
“They knew that they weren’t going to pitch to Rizz,” Báez said, “because they had to pitch to me (next), and I was pretty much an easy out, and I wasn’t seeing the ball very well. But it’s about trying. It’s about trying and getting better every day.”
It meant something to Báez that Ross seemed to understand that.
Ross’ lineups haven’t been entirely immobile. Center fielder Ian Happ, for example, has hit in every spot in the lineup besides No. 2-4. But even he has been in the leadoff spot since filling in for an injured Kris Bryant in mid-August.
“It does help when you understand the way that the guys behind you are going have at-bats,” Happ said, “So, it kind of changes the way that you're going to have at-bats too.”
When Bryant returned from the injured list last week, Happ held onto the leadoff spot and Bryant slotted into the two-hole. That moved Rizzo and Baez each down one spot, but it kept Bryant, Rizzo and Báez hitting one after another as they had for most of the year.
Kyle Schwarber, Willson Conteras and Jason Heyward have generally hit after those three, but not necessarily in that order. Then, the bottom third of the order has seen plenty of movement, as is the case with many big-league teams.
“I feel like I keep writing the same order, the same names,” Ross said, “because I believe in them and they have their track record.”
Báez lived up to that track record Tuesday. After going 3-for-4 at the pate the day before, Báez stepped into the batters box with one runner on first base and two outs. The Cubs were up 2-0, thanks to a two-out triple by David Bote the inning before. But so early in the game, that wasn’t a comfortable lead.
Then, on a 3-2 count, Báez smashed a fastball up the right field line. By the time Nicholas Castellanos fished it out of the right-field corner, Báez was already headed to third base for an RBI triple.