- Second baseman Javier Baez, 23, and shortstop Addison Russell, 22, have teamed up to lead Chicago to within one win of its first pennant in 71 years.
LOS ANGELES—As Game 5 of the National League Championship Series finally approached its last out Thursday night after 256 minutes of baseball—one ball in play every 4 1/2 minutes—you could look upon the four players on the infield at Dodger Stadium and see beyond the San Gabriel Mountains and all the way to a new tradition in Chicago. Manning the infield positions for the Cubs were first baseman Anthony Rizzo, 27; second baseman Javier Baez, 23; shortstop Addison Russell, 22; and third baseman Kris Bryant, 24. All of them are under the contractual control of Chicago through at least 2021.
On cue, Los Angeles' Justin Turner hit a ground ball to Russell, who floated to it like a water strider and threw a dart across to the diamond to Rizzo to finish an 8–4 Cubs win that put them one win away from their first World Series since 1945.
Rizzo, Baez, Russell and Bryant each had multiple hits and at least one RBI in Game 5, becoming the first National League starting infield quartet to do so in postseason history. Three AL infields had done it: the 1960 Yankees (first baseman Moose Skowron, second baseman Bobby Richardson, shortstop Tony Kubek and third baseman Gil McDougald); the '86 Red Sox (Bill Buckner, Marty Barrett, Spike Owen and Wade Boggs); and the 2002 Angels (Scott Spiezio, Adam Kennedy, David Eckstein and Troy Glaus). All of them did so in World Series play.
The Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908, when Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were inspiring double play poetry. The refrain of “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” is being modernized.
These are the saddest of possible words:
"Russell to Baez to Rizzo."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds.
Russell and Baez and Rizzo.
"When we turn two," said Russell, thinking of his double play partner, "it’s like bread and butter."
Of the many well-known traits of the 2016 Cubs, the latest is this youthful and athletic double-play combination that may prove the most lasting. Russell and Baez had never started together in the middle infield more than four consecutive games this year, but they have now done so in all nine games this postseason, as Ben Zobrist—the starter at second base for the NL in July's All-Star Game—has moved to leftfield.
On Thursday night, like a new singing duo act playing the Hollywood Bowl, Baez and Russell put on the kind of memorable show that years from now will have fivefold of capacity claiming they were there. In the sixth inning of a tied game in a tied series, Baez singled off Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton and stole second base before his tag-team partner, Russell, walloped a home run into the left-centerfield pavilion to put Chicago ahead to stay, 3–1.
They weren’t done. Adrian Gonzalez led off the bottom of the seventh for the Dodgers by executing a perfect bunt past the mound. Baez, who was playing deep, charged and made a spectacular barehanded grab, then threw to first for the out. In the top of the eighth, after Russell reached on an error to start a rally that had stretched the Cubs' lead to 5–1, Baez smashed a three-run double (his third hit of the game) to open up an 8–1 advantage. Baez and Russell combined on a double play in the bottom of the eighth, while Russell added a single in the ninth and then secured the last out on that Turner ground ball. The two bear cubs combined for five hits, five RBIs and three runs.
Until this month, Russell, the kid from Pace, Fla., was the known quantity: the 11th pick in the 2012 draft by Oakland, traded to Chicago two years later in a deal that sent pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija west. He reached the majors last year and moved incumbent Starlin Castro, a three-time All-Star, off shortstop; the Cubs traded Castro to the Yankees last off-season. As a player, Russell is soft jazz—always smooth but never loud. He is such a quiet introvert that last year Chicago manager Joe Maddon, wanting his shortstop to became the de facto infield captain the position requires, gave him a book report assignment to draw him into more conversations. He asked Russell to read Stephen King’s novel 12/22/63 and report back to him every few weeks or so.
“Addy never says anything,” catcher David Ross said. “You hardly know he’s there.”
Yet when Russell popped his second homer in as many nights, he let out a whoop and a fist pump while rounding the bases—a rare emotional outburst for him.
“First pitch, slider, a little bit low,” Russell said about his at-bat against Blanton. “Second pitch was a slider, but it was elevated and I put the barrel on it, and it kind of went. But just rounding bases it was pretty exciting. Pumped up. Not only for myself, but [also] for the team and that little cushion that [starting pitcher Jon Lester] had to go forward from that, and I felt really good.”
Baez, the kid from Puerto Rico, is merengue—a joyful explosion of percussion and happy horns. He is a bundle of fast-twitch fibers who plays with endless energy. He plays so fast and loose that he leaves the smell of burnt rubber in his wake. He plays baseball as if everybody came to the ballpark just to watch him.
"The first time I saw him," Bryant said, "is when I got to Triple A. And the first thing I noticed about him was the confidence he had in himself. He didn’t care what anybody else thought. People were saying he strikes out too much and his swing is too big, but he believed in himself, and it’s paying off. He’s always been super-confident in himself and his ability. In fact, I could use some of that confidence. I was never the kind of guy with that kind of confidence. I began feeding off that. I wanted to be like Javy."
Said centerfielder Dexter Fowler, “First met him last year. First thing I noticed was how fast his hands were. Then I saw his oppo-power. Sick. And then when I saw him take ground balls and play defense? Crazy. His package of skills is amazing."
"First time I saw him," Rizzo said, “was probably 2013, spring training. He was a lot bigger then. He’s done a great job losing weight and getting into fantastic shape. You could see he had all the tools. But what you’re seeing now in the playoffs? As great as he looks, he’s not even close to reaching his full potential."
Such a showboat is Baez, the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, that he’s yet to wear the same pair of cleats and the same fielding glove in this series. Baez owns 34 different fielding gloves. He’s the Cher of baseball leather. Like a Vegas act, he matches his glove to his spikes, such as in Game 2, when he accessorized his spikes with red shoelaces with a glove with red stitching. In Game 1, he used a black glove belonging to his brother. Even on the workout day on Monday in Los Angeles, Baez rocked a pair of black and grey spikes with bright green spats with a bright green glove.
"My brother, my mother ... they all have gloves," he said. “What can I say? I love gloves. I love shoes, too."
Asked what he owned more of, gloves or shoes, Baez actually thought for a moment, laughed, and said, "Shoes. Yeah, shoes."
Despite their 3–2 lead, the Cubs are actually much further away from the World Series than it appears. Their first crack requires them to get through Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who will be working on extra rest in Game 6 Saturday and this year—regular season and postseason combined—is 14–4 with a 1.92 ERA with 15 walks in 25 games. Los Angeles is 21–4 when Kershaw pitches and 75–72 when he doesn’t. He wins games by himself.
Then there is that small matter of history you might have heard of when it comes to Cubs baseball. Game 6 will be the seventh opportunity since 1945 for the Cubs to clinch the pennant. They are 0–6 in such games, being outscored 41–18 in NLCS collapses in 1984 and 2003. And if it goes to Game 7, they are 0–4 when facing elimination in the NLCS.
But these Cubs are too young and too good to worry about history. To be young and a Cub right now is to be on full scholarship. Somebody asked Rizzo after the game about “poor” Matt Szczur, the teammate who gave Rizzo his bat to use and Russell his undergarment leggings—Russell having forgotten his back in Chicago—while being kept off the active roster.
“I wouldn’t say ‘poor’ anybody here right now,” Rizzo said. “This is a hell of a ride.”