NEW YORK — The quiet was deafening. Flashy Chicago Cubs star Javier Baez had been flying under the radar for most of August as his team had begun a second consecutive late-season fade. With All-Star catcher Willson Contreras on the shelf with a hamstring injury and slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo out with a back ailment, the Cubs needed someone — besides newcomer Nicholas Castellanos — to take over.
At least for one night, Baez awoke from his slumber to lead his desperate team to victory, beating the New York Mets 5-2 on Tuesday to break a three-game losing streak. The win allowed the Cubs to keep pace with the St. Louis Cardinals, who remain three games ahead of them in the National League Central. Baez’s three extra-base hits — including his 29th home run — fueled the Cubs’ win.
“When he’s under control in the box, and he gets a good pitch to hit, he’s dangerous,” Castellanos said after the win.
Different versions of the same thing were repeated in the winning locker room after the Cubs’ third consecutive road victory: When Baez is chasing pitches out of the zone, little good is going to come of it. But a walk here or there — he also took one on Sunday — and the benefits will be reaped.
“If he’s able to do that a little more often he’ll barrel the ball more consistently,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “When you have an organized strike zone, you will hit better. You’re going to get better pitches to drive.”
Baez hit a second-inning double to the wall in center off Mets starter Marcus Stroman, then hit a two-run blast to right field in the sixth, before doubling home a run in the eighth. In between was that second walk in as many games. Baez wasn’t available after the game for comment but his teammates were more than happy to discuss his night.
“He’s been working counts,” Kris Bryant stated. “When he’s not going good in the past, [he’ll] want to go up there and hit the first pitch you see. I’ve been impressed, he’s been taking a ton of pitches and more walks.”
Asked if Baez simply said “enough is enough” considering his .772 OPS in August, Bryant wouldn’t bite — at least not all the way.
“This game will humble you real quick when you take that attitude,” he said. “I don’t think he takes that attitude. He just gets more determined and let’s his natural ability take over. We all feel it when he gets going.”
As much as Castellanos has been a breath of fresh air for the Cubs’ offense, and as steady as Bryant has been most of the year, it’s still Baez who is the straw that stirs the Cubs’ offensive drink. Before the game, both Maddon and team president Theo Epstein sang a similar song of frustration over the Cubs’ work at the plate. Issues have been percolating for years but most of the time the Cubs have been good enough to produce what’s needed to win.
And Baez is usually in the middle of it all. The Cubs shouldn’t need one player to carry them into and through September, but if anyone has that makeup it’s the man known as “El Mago.” He was feeling it so much on Tuesday, things backfired on him on the basepaths where he was thrown out twice, once trying to stretch one of his doubles into a triple and then after taking off early on a steal attempt. Neither play affected the outcome of the game because his bat took care of that for the Cubs.
“That was spry Javy out there today,” Maddon said. “When Javy has it going on, we are [going].”
It was only a year ago that Baez finished second in MVP voting in the National League. He won’t repeat that vote total this year, but that doesn’t mean a big finish isn’t in him. Cubs fans have been waiting for the next explosion. They may have gotten a glimpse of what’s to come on Tuesday. His teammates feel they did.
“We have so many guys that can do that,” Castellanos said. “Javy was our guy tonight. Hopefully he can carry it tomorrow and we can follow him.”
It all comes down to that strike zone. The back-to-back games with walks won’t make any highlight reels, but when Baez forces a pitcher into the zone, he can be unstoppable.
“Organized strike zone is what we’re chasing right now,” Maddon said with a smirk. “Pun intended.”