Cubs

The main lesson Javy Baez learned during an incredible game actually came from a popout

The main lesson Javy Baez learned during an incredible game actually came from a popout

It's been one hell of a week for The Most Exciting Player in Baseball.

Javy Baez got engaged, put his name in the Cubs history books and helped his team win a handful of games with highlight-reel plays at bat, on the bases and in the field.

It's Javy's world. We're just living in it.

How does he feel about an epic performance in the first two games of the Cubs' 2018 slate at Wrigley Field?

"I'm excited; look at my face," he said, smiling in front of the cameras.

But after hitting a pair of homers for the second night in a row (and becoming the first Cub to do so since Alfonso Soriano in May 2008) Wednesday, Baez actually spent more time talking about his seventh-inning popout than his two dingers.

"You know what I really got out of today and what I learned?" Baez asked a gaggle of reporters that crowded around his locker for the second time in a 29-hour span. "How ugly I looked when I got out today on that fly ball. I tossed the bat really high, I didn't run to first base.

"One of my teammates came up to me and he said it in a good way and he said, 'You learn from it.' After I hit that fly ball and tossed the bat really high, I was kinda mad about it. Not because of the fly ball, just the way I looked for the kids and everybody that follows me.

"That's not a good look. So I learned that from today."

To be fair, even when Baez pops out or swings out of his shoes, he's still a delight to watch play the game. 

The bat-throw and reaction he referenced made more than a few people in the Wrigley Field press box giggle. All those wild, crazy, out-of-control swings-and-misses that result in Baez falling to his knee or on his back? Fans eat that stuff up.

Especially when he's going like he is now.

Over the last week, Baez has turned heads with his prowess on the bases in Milwaukee, tallied a Little League homer thanks to a ball that bounced off the back of his head, flashed the ever-popular #JavyTags and collected 5 extra-base hits and 9 RBI.

The free-swinging infielder has even drawn 5 walks in the last 6 games, thanks in large part to other teams intentionally placing him on first base.

And then there's the dropped-third strike in the sixth inning Wednesday when he reached first base, advanced to second on a groundout, stole third and then broke on contact when Tommy La Stella hit a grounder to the drawn-in Pirates infielder. That run gave the Cubs a lead they did not relinquish in a 13-5 victory.

"He knows how to play the game of baseball," Joe Maddon marveled after the game.

Baez is a self-proclaimed slow starter, yet will wake up on April 12 with a .714 slugging percentage and 1.086 OPS through 11 games.

He credits that success with all the areas of his game he's worked on, from improving his focus when he's at the plate and blocking out all the noise to trying to stay within himself.

"I'm gonna swing hard most of the time, but it's something I can control," Baez said. "I'm trying to stay under control, but it's really hard for me. As long as I stay under control, I'll be really good."

How good can he be if he starts consistently using the whole field and stops trying to hit every ball onto the rooftops across the street from Wrigley?

"As he matures as a hitter, I have no idea what he's gonna do because he is one of the most exciting players in the game right now," Maddon said.

Maddon and his coaching staff have always made sure not to coach the Javy out of Javy. They don't want him to lose any of the incredible instincts that make him so great defensively or as a baserunner.

That freedom has allowed the real Javy to shine through, and we may just be scratching the surface of the complete player he can be.

"Just gotta be you," Baez said. "A lot of people put a lot of pressure on themselves and you're gonna make mistakes, but you gotta make them to learn."

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader." 

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

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USA TODAY

Bryce Harper jokes that Tony Romo knows where outfielder will sign in free agency

Is it possible that the best quarterback in Sunday’s AFC Championship was not on the field, but instead in the broadcast booth?

CBS analyst and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was the talk of Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots and Chiefs. Romo consistently predicted plays before they happened, much to the delight and amazement of those watching the game on television.

MLB superstar Bryce Harper even chimed in on Twitter. Harper, who is still a free agent, jokingly tweeted that he called Romo to learn which team he will play for in 2019.

Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes delivered an instant-classic game on the field. However, Romo’s performance in the booth deserves recognition and should be remembered as well.

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