Javy Baez

What Cubs' Anthony Rizzo said to Javy Báez before he did 'that thing' again

What Cubs' Anthony Rizzo said to Javy Báez before he did 'that thing' again

At some point before he heads to the plate to hit in the first inning, Anthony Rizzo typically has a few words for the guy in the on-deck circle.

“Just do that thing that everybody loves,” he tells Cubs teammate Javy Báez.

When it comes to Báez, that could mean anything. And, of course, that’s the point.

“He plays the game kind of differently,” said teammate David Bote, who shared the Rizzo-Báez story. “It’s incredible.”

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That’s why it was almost conspicuous how the All-Star shortstop had played such low-key roles in the Cubs' first four games of this strange, short season.

He earned some attention for a pair of opposite-field hits in Saturday’s loss to the Brewers. But by the end of the third inning Tuesday in Cincinnati he was off to a 3-for-19 start.

“I was out of it. I was a little cold,” Báez said. “But working.”

Then came the fifth inning, and what amounted to the start of Báez’s 2020 season.

He doubled to center off Tyler Mahle with two out in the top of the fifth, and when Kyle Schwarber followed with a single to left, Báez did one of those “things that everybody loves” — sliding headfirst to the outside of the catcher and eluding the tag for a 3-2 lead.

In the bottom of the fifth, he ranged so far in the hole for Curt Casali’s drive that he was about 20 feet from the third-base line, on the grass, when he slid to backhand the shot, leap to his feat in the same motion, then gather himself for a split second before throwing out Casali to end the inning.

MORE: Cubs' Javier Báez follows great slide vs. Reds with slick defensive play

A solo homer off Amir Garrett and two-run shot off Michael Lorenzen capped the big game, and just like that his OPS jumped from .498 to .970 and there was nothing low-key about his early-season presence anymore.

Talk about that thing that everybody loves.

“When Javy plays well it’s infectious for the team,” said manager David Ross, who sidelined his MVP third baseman Kris Bryant before Tuesday’s 8-5 win because of a sore elbow.

“Javy makes so many things happen.”

With Bryant day-to-day and frontline starters Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo on tap for the Reds in the final two games of the series, the Cubs might not find a better time in the early weeks of the schedule to take one of those weeklong rides on the Báez bus.

And for what it’s worth, Báez’s two best months statistically in his career are April (the first month of a normal season) and July (now).

Ross and Báez steered clear of suggesting promises after the game — beyond Báez talking about feeling “pretty good.”

But Báez said something’s working in the way Rizzo heads up the fun committee (“being crazy”) in the dugout, the early season buzz they’re able to sustain in stadiums without fans, so far, and the faith they have in their sprinting ability.

“Now that we got a short season,” he said, “we’re playing more as a team than ever.”

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Cubs quick takes: Alec Mills aces opening test, Javy Báez powers up season

Cubs quick takes: Alec Mills aces opening test, Javy Báez powers up season

Alec who?

Alec Mills, that’s who. And he’s just the latest reason in the early going to wonder if the Cubs rotation got a bad rap from most press box evaluators.

The Cubs’ fifth starter by unexpected need (because of José Quintana’s injury) finished off a stellar first time through the rotation for the starters with six quality innings for an 8-5 victory over the Reds in Cincinnati.

Mills allowed only two hits, both to former Cub cult hero Nick Castellanos — including a two-run homer in the fourth for the only runs against him.

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Other quick takes from the Cubs’ fourth victory in their first five games:

Start of something?

After one full turn through the rotation, the starters are 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA, averaging six innings a start with 26 strikeouts and five strikeouts.

The most noteworthy performances might have come from the two pitchers who went into the first spring training in February battling for the fifth-starter job: Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills, each of whom pitched six strong innings to win his season debut.

It’s only one time through the rotation in a long season — no, wait, it’s not a long season.

Buckle up.

Power surge

All-Star shortstop Javy Báez was just 3-for-19 this season — including two strikeouts in his first two at-bats Tuesday — before breaking out for 10 total bases the rest of the game.

He doubled off left-hander Cody Reed and scored in the fifth, then homered off Amir Garrett and Michael Lorenzen in the seventh (solo) and ninth (two-run shot).

Let the season begin.

Who you calling a DH?

Five games into the season, Kyle Schwarber has batted as the Cubs’ designated hitter only once. And he backed up why he insists he’s not a DH in the third inning — when he sped in from left to make a diving catch of Shogo Akiyama’s blooper to shallow left-center, robbing the Reds’ leadoff man of a hit.

“I know how people love to view me as a designated hitter, but I’m going to still go out there and play my best defense and make really good plays,” he said during summer training camp.

Trainer’s room

Third baseman Kris Bryant, who has struggled the first few games, was out of the lineup because of elbow soreness that bothers him when he extends swinging the bat.

Manager David Ross said he and Bryant are “not too concerned” about it, and his status is considered a day-to-day call. Bryant is 1-for-17 with eight strikeouts to start the season.

Other injury news out of Cincinnati included left-hander Quintana’s big next step as he tries to return from microsurgery on his left thumb: His first bullpen session, scheduled for Wednesday, since slicing the thumb on a broken glass washing dishes four weeks ago.

GLHOAT watch

With Bryant sidelined, Anthony Rizzo — who once declared himself the “greatest leadoff hitter of all-time” — moved up to the leadoff spot for the 59th time in his career.

He didn’t exactly back up his past proclamation on this night, going 1-for-5 with a ninth-inning single — albeit, that hit leading off the inning.

Rizzo’s career numbers as a leadoff hitter remain impressive: .332 with a .422 on-base percentage, 14 homers in 249 plate-appearances and a 1.014 OPS.

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2020 MLB season: What Cubs' initial 30-man roster could look like

2020 MLB season: What Cubs' initial 30-man roster could look like

We knew MLB would expand rosters upon its return from a lengthy hiatus due to the coronavirus. With the long layoff — combined with just three weeks of a second spring training —pitchers’ workloads will be limited, at least early in the season.

In response, one of MLB’s rule changes for 2020 allows teams to carry 30 active players in the first two weeks of the season. That number will drop to 28 for the third and fourth weeks, and then to 26 for the final two. 

Each team will designate 60 eligible players for the season, with about half being inactive and training at an alternate site from the active roster in case of injuries or players testing positive for the coronavirus. Teams are allowed to carry three players on a road trip “taxi squad” in case roster changes are needed. They won’t receive service time unless activated.

If a team carries three players, one must be a catcher.

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Based on how their roster was shaping up in March and the new rule changes, here’s what the Cubs’ initial 30-man group could look like. Players have the option to opt out of this season altogether but no Cubs have yet, so this group is based on that.

Starting rotation

Yu Darvish
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
José Quintana
Tyler Chatwood

The only question with the rotation in March was whether Chatwood or Alec Mills would be the fifth starter. Cubs manager David Ross hinted Chatwood was the favorite for the job, and the assumption is that’s still the case.

Bullpen

CL Craig Kimbrel
SU Rowan Wick
SU Kyle Ryan 
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
LHP Brad Wieck
RHP Alec Mills
RHP Trevor Megill
RHP Dan Winkler
RHP Ryan Tepera
RHP Casey Sadler
RHP Duane Underwood Jr.

The expanded rosters erase most of the camp competition for the several open bullpen spots. They also give the Cubs more time to determine the futures of Megill (Rule 5 pick), Sadler and Underwood (out of minor league options).

Wieck was going to start the season on the injured list after undergoing a procedure for an irregular heartbeat. The three-month delay puts him back in the fold.

RELATED: What we know about the 2020 MLB season: start date, schedule, COVID-19 protocol

Starting lineup

3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
SS Javier Báez
LF Kyle Schwarber
C Willson Contreras
RF Jason Heyward
CF Ian Happ
DH Steven Souza
2B Jason Kipnis

One significant change for 2020 is the implementation of a universal DH, which gives the Cubs a ton of lineup flexibility. Schwarber always comes to mind for that spot — he’s a .299 hitter with nine homers and a 1.046 OPS in 22 career games DH-ing, but he’s been outspoken of his desire to play the field. 

RELATED: Why Kyle Schwarber is not the automatic choice for Cubs DH in 2020

Schwarber will likely DH at some point, as will Souza, who’s coming off a gruesome knee injury that cost him all of last season. Happ can start there, with Souza or Schwarber in left, allowing Albert Almora Jr. to get some at-bats and start in center field. 

The Cubs could even DH backup catcher Victor Caratini, who brings plate discipline and a contact-oriented approach to a slugging lineup. He'll also catch and allow Contreras to DH and rest his legs. Bryant may DH to get some rest, with David Bote then playing third base.

Bench

CF Albert Almora Jr.
C Victor Caratini
INF Nico Hoerner
INF David Bote
INF Daniel Descalso

Hoerner was in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot in March and is assured of making the club now that the minor league season is likely canceled. He’ll see time at second base and give the Cubs a true backup shortstop.

The initial expanded roster gives the Cubs more time to determine Descalso’s future as well. He brings a valuable clubhouse voice but struggled while hampered with an ankle injury last season. He hit .160 in the first round of spring training.

Notable exclusions

RHP Adbert Alzolay
RHP Colin Rea
RHP Jharel Cotton
RHP Dillon Maples
C Josh Phegley
INF Hernán Pérez
INF Zack Short
OF Ian Miller

Alzolay was optioned to minor league camp in March. Having him on the taxi squad assures the Cubs have a starter in the wings in case of a virus outbreak in their clubhouse. Rea and Cotton also provide rotation depth and are on the 40-man roster. Maples and his tantalizing potential is another relief option.

Phegley could be part of the 30-man group but figures to be on the three-man taxi squad. Pérez and Short will be two of the 60 eligible players for this season and provide depth all around infield. 

Miller would be a valuable weapon for MLB's new extra-innings rule. Teams will start all extra innings with a runner on second base, and Miller's speed would be very useful.

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