LOS ANGELES – Without Javier Baez, the Cubs would still be hearing about 1908 and feeling the suffocating pressure from not winning a World Series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers brought the best out of Baez during last year’s National League Championship Series, when his co-MVP performance showed the rest of the country what the Cubs already knew about his game-changing instincts, highlight-reel defense and unique style.
That’s why manager Joe Maddon will keep giving Baez the benefit of the doubt, even with his second baseman stuck in an 0-for-17 slump to start the playoffs and the Cubs struggling to generate any consistent offense.
“Javy loves this time of the year,” Maddon said before Sunday’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. “Javy’s been that guy throughout his minor-league and even major-league career who can be awful for a couple days at the plate, and then all of a sudden be spectacular, so I always have that in my mind with him.”
The Cubs have scored 10 runs combined in five playoffs games, plus nine in the thriller that eliminated the Washington Nationals from the NL Division Series. One of Maddon’s takeaway moments from that epic game: The Baez arm strength beating Trea Turner’s speed to home plate in the first inning.
Maddon believes defense wins championships, likes Ben Zobrist as a left-handed pinch-hitter/defensive replacement off the bench and realizes Ian Happ is still near the end of his rookie learning curve.
“The backup quarterback’s always the most popular guy in the building,” Maddon said. “Listen, Ian is very valuable in the role that we have him in right now. But among the guys that are on the field today, if you want to argue against Baez just because of his hitting, I’ll take it.
“But we’re not sitting here right now if (Javy) doesn’t make that play in the first inning on that groundball to second. I think he’s the only second baseman – or one of the few in all of baseball – that could have thrown Turner out at the plate right there.”
This hits on a larger point about the defending World Series champs. There is no NLCS trade deadline to fix the bullpen, or a magical swing adjustment that will rewire Baez as a hitter.
The Cubs invested a first-round pick in Baez, didn’t trade him for a frontline pitcher, watched him develop into a breakout playoff star and saw even more progress this season (23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS).
“He could get just as hot,” Maddon said. “I’ve seen guys. I’ve had guys like that before. Listen, these are our guys. This is how we got here. I do not run away from that.”