The Cubs’ chances of putting the game away were looking bleak. They had runners in scoring position, but the last two batters had struck out, and Javier Báez had two strikes on him.
“You can’t ever count that guy out, man,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
El Mago poked a curveball into left field for a walk-off single.
“It was actually a good pitch,” Báez said, “I just got to it.”
Báez’s fingerprints were all over the Cubs’ 3-2 extra-innings win over Cleveland on Wednesday. And his walk-off hit may not have even been the most jaw-dropping of his magic tricks.
“When you get these late walk-off-type wins, it just feels really good,” Ross said. “It’s nice momentum going into the off day.”
Just in time for the last week and a half of the regular season.
It’s no secret that Báez has struggled at the plate this season. He’s had three multi-hit games in September, showing flashes of the hitter he can be. But for this series, Cubs manager David Ross swapped him (.206 batting average) and Willson Contreras in the batting order to put Contreras’ hot bat in at cleanup.
Báez responded with a solo homer in the Cubs’ 6-5 win on Tuesday and a pair of base hits on Wednesday. He said he’s been seeing the ball well, which is good news for the Cubs and their upcoming playoff run. But just as promising was the way Báez impacted the game when he wasn’t hitting.
The score was tied in the top of the fourth inning, with one out and Indians designated hitter Franmil Reyes on first, when Jordan Luplow hit a line drive to Báez.
The shortstop shuffled to his left to make the catch. Reyes turned to dive back to the bag, but Báez’ quick transfer and bullet of a throw just barely beat him to end the frame.
“I really feel like he’s played really good defense for us lately,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of balls hit at him, some hard balls, in-between hops. He’s been as smooth and clean as we could ask.”
Then, in the bottom half of the inning, Báez scored the go-ahead run, after an unconventional journey to third base.
Báez couldn’t have been happy with the groundball he hit to shortstop Francisco Lindor. He’d set the Indians up for an easy double play. Lindor flipped the ball to second baseman Yu Chang to force Contreras out at second.
Then, Báez worked his magic. Chang’s errant throw flew past first base, and Báez turned and flew toward second.
“I get on base, and I just improvise,” Báez said.
He was rounding second before Contreras could head to the dugout. So, Contreras shuffled along the base path next to Báez.
Báez blew past him and safely into third.
“He’s probably more in tune than anybody we’ve got with just the baseball feel out there,” Ross said, “and paying attention, and never takes his eye off the ball, and always expecting bad things to happen. I love that about him. I love watching that guy play baseball.”
Báez eventually scored on a Cameron Maybin single. Thanks to that run, the game headed into extra innings even after a solo homer from Cleveland’s Oscar Mercado.
Báez’s magic show wasn’t over yet.