Consider the Cubs’ starting middle infield in Saturday’s 6-5 win over the San Diego Padres to be comprised of two extremes.
On one end of the spectrum was Addison Russell, who started at second base. Russell was doubled off second base on an Albert Almora line drive in the second inning — a ball hit hard enough where, had it fell in for a hit, he wouldn’t have scored. There was no spinning Russell drifting far enough off second base to be doubled up; it was simply bad baserunning.
Russell, too, was thrown out at home on an Almora ground ball in the fourth inning. He appeared to lose a pop fly in the sun, too, which fell in for a double in the third inning.
Manager Joe Maddon was willing to excuse the pop-up double — “The sun ball, there’s nothing you could do about that,” he said — but sounded frustrated with Russell’s far-too-frequent baserunning gaffes.
“He’s gotta straighten some things out,” Maddon said. “He has to. There’s no question. I’m not going to stand here — he’s got to, we’ve talked about his baserunning in the past.
“… The baserunning, there’s some things there — we’re making too many outs on the bases and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team.”
Russell’s mistakes were part of a larger sloppy showing by both teams. As Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler put it: “No lead was safe. It was really just who was going to survive and not make so many mistakes.”
Javier Baez ensured the Cubs would survive by not merely avoiding mistakes, but by coming up with two massive plays.
Baez’s three-run home run in the fourth inning gave the Cubs’ the lead for good, and he fell a triple short of the cycle. He’s homered in consecutive games, and Maddon senses the 26-year-old is emerging from a slump that dropped his OPS to .853 after Wednesday’s game, his lowest mark since the small-sample-size landscape of mid-April.
But it was Baez’s masterful tag in the bottom of the ninth inning that captured most of the attention around Wrigley Field, reminding everyone in the dugouts and stands just how incredible “El Mago” can be.
Craig Kimbrel walked Wil Myers to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, and after budding superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. inexplicably bunted (he popped out), Myers took off to steal second base. Kimbrel sailed a fastball high and inside, and Victor Caratini’s throw was well to the left of second base. Myers appeared to have the base stolen until Baez gloved the ball and rapidly snapped a tag onto Myers’ left leg:
Javy Báez has 👀 in the back of his head! pic.twitter.com/arH1KMYUjs— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) July 20, 2019
”We needed a play made, and he made it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s what he does.”
Baez’s home run increased the Cubs’ win expectancy by 35.7 percent; his tag on Myers upped it that mark from 83.3 percent to 96.5 percent. This is why the Cubs’ mantra, even when Baez is in a lull, is to let Javy be Javy.
One player can’t carry a team forever — Baez had his best season as a pro in 2018, only to see the Cubs crash out of the Wild Card game, of course. But it’s hard to not think about the kind of plays Baez can conjure up when the Cubs need them the most in 2019’s playoff race.
After all, stuff like that tag on Myers — the Cubs have come to expect that from Baez.
“You saw a lot of plays today, they weren’t baseball plays,” Maddon said. “The game is clamoring for baseball players who know how to play this game, and he’s one. He is one. He’s got the biggest hard drive, the most RAM, he’s got everything going on every day.
“He sees things, he’s got great vision. Technically, he’s a tremendous baseball player. He’s going to make some mistakes, like everyone else does, but what he sees and sees in advance — it’s like the best running back, it’s the best point guard you’ve ever seen. It’s all of that. As a shortstop, that’s what he is.
“… We needed him to be that guy today and he was. And again, it’s not overtly surprising.”