Tag, you're it: Javier Baez breaks out as Cubs' unexpected star in October
- Chicago won its first pennant since 1945 thanks largely to the great play on both sides of the ball by their versatile, free-swinging NLCS MVP.
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Late in Game 4 of the NLDS, Cubs shortstop/second baseman/third baseman/first baseman/outfielder/Swiss Army knife/wizard Javy Baez wanted some gum. As he went to pop a piece in his mouth, it fell, and what the dugout camera caught next was a feat of defensive heroics. Bobble, bobble, bobble with his left hand; swipe with his right; point at a teammate; big smile; and finally, a point at the camera. Yeah, I know you’re watching.
It was gum’s biggest pop culture moment since Violet Beauregarde turned into a grape from some malfunctioning Willy Wonka stuff. If that’s all you remember Baez for during these playoffs, though, you’ve clearly been spending too much time on Twitter and too little watching baseball. Aside from the reality of one long-suffering team finally winning a title, Baez—the co-NLCS MVP, along with teammate Jon Lester—is the best reason to tune in to this year’s World Series.
From the tagging that he has turned into an art form to his clutch hitting that helped the Cubs win their first pennant since 1945, Baez has been a human highlight reel this October. Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks calls Baez “the most natural baseball player I’ve ever seen play the game.” Manager Joe Maddon says Baez plays baseball the way it should be played. Last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant, calls him a playmaker, but it’s catcher Willson Contreras who sums it up best: “Everybody loves Javy,” he said earlier this year.
Chicago chose Baez with the ninth pick of the 2011 draft, and he is just one of three players on the '16 Cubs who were not acquired by the current front office led by team president Theo Epstein. He made his major league debut in 2014 but struck out 95 times in just 52 games, and he played only 28 games at the major league level the next year. But in 2016, Baez saw action in 142 games by playing five different positions—25 at shortstop (his natural position), 62 at third base, 59 at second, six at first and two in the outfield—and still hit .273/.314/.425, finishing second on the team with 12 stolen bases.
As Chicago rolled to the NL Central title, though, Baez was hardly a household name. MVP candidates Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were the faces of the Cubs’ young lineup; Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist were the newly imported stars; and Lester, Jake Arrieta and Hendricks anchored a terrific pitching staff. As soon as the postseason began, however, Baez made his mark, hitting a bomb over the leftfield wall of Wrigley that accounted for the only run of NLDS Game 1. It was just the start of a playoff barrage that has seen Baez hit .333 (best among all Cubs with more than 20 at-bats) and slug .500 with a team-high seven RBIs.
Three days later, in the bottom of the sixth inning of NLDS Game 3, Baez worked his magic on the other side of the ball, skidding toward second base and backhanding a Conor Gillaspie grounder before it got through the hole. He threw off one leg to first, where the umpire initially called Gillaspie out. A replay ruled that Rizzo had come off the bag, but it almost didn’t matter; the throw itself was enough to leave Cubs fans salivating.
“When he goes out there, he's not afraid of making a mistake,” Maddon said after the NLCS, “and that's big thing when you get players that are en masse not concerned about making mistakes—really good stuff can happen.”
Maddon’s quote should come with a caveat: Sometimes Baez does make mistakes—and sometimes that doesn’t matter. In the second inning of NLCS Game 1 against the Dodgers, Baez was on third base after hitting a double and advancing on a wild pitch. With one out and a 2–1 count on Lester, the Cubs attempted a safety squeeze. Lester, a pitcher who is almost a total loss at the plate, failed to make contact, but Baez was too far off the bag to turn back. Los Angeles catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to third anyway, but Baez ducked under the throw, sprinted home and slid under the tag.
It was the first time in his life that Baez had ever stolen home, but he isn’t sure about the technical designation of what he did. “It wasn't really a steal,” he said that night. “Actually, I was going to come back. The ball was really close to my head. I could have let it hit me and scored, but you've got to play the game clean.”
It was the Cubs’ first postseason steal of home since 1907, and Baez became one of just 19 players in baseball history to steal home in the playoffs. In the dugout, Maddon tried to suppress a smile. When Baez returned after scoring, his teammates laughed. “You can't do anything else about it,” he explained. “You can get mad, but I wasn't out.”
That’s how Baez sees the world: plainly and confidently. After Chicago lost Game 2 to Clayton Kershaw the next night, he was subdued but still brash as the team headed for Game 3 in Los Angeles. “We can win all of them,” he said. “We know we're the best. We've got the best team out there.”
That night, Baez had provided the only bright spots for a Cubs team that looked lost. He got one of Chicago's two hits off Kershaw, and in the sixth inning, he made one of the best plays of the entire season. With Dodgers at first and second, Joc Pederson hit a soft liner toward Baez. It would have been an easy play to get one out, but instead, Baez let the ball almost imperceptibly drop before fielding it and firing to (the somewhat caught-off-guard) Addison Russell at second for the force. From there, after what appeared to be some direction from Baez, the Cubs caught Adrian Gonzalez in a rundown between second and third before tagging him out. “I didn't think about that one, but sometimes I do,” Baez said afterward. “I try to make a crazy play before I make the routine play. I've just got to keep in mind to do the routine play first, and if I get to make a good play, I will.”
He made more good plays in Game 5. With the Cubs leading 3–1 in the seventh, Gonzalez led off for the Dodgers by attempting a bunt. Baez, who was playing on the outfield grass as part of a shift, came racing in, fielded the ball barehanded and threw hard to first to nip Gonzalez. One inning later, he ripped a three-run double that put the Cubs up by seven runs in what became an 8–4 win.
Baez went hitless for one of only two times this postseason in Game 6, but he still managed to find the spotlight. After L.A.'s Andrew Toles started the game with a single, Corey Seager followed with a slow grounder to second. Baez charged, fielded the ball, swiped a tag on Toles and threw to first to get Seager for a double play. He was part of another twin killing to close out the eighth, and in the ninth, fittingly, it was Baez who capped a 6-4-3 double play by firing to first to get the final out of Chicago's 5–0 win. Afterward, when he was presented with the NLCS MVP award, fans interrupted his postgame interview by loudly chanting his name, causing him to break into a wide smile.
The fans and the entire viewing audience had seen Baez shoot to stardom for his style, but also for his smarts. To appreciate baseball is to wonder at the brains behind that flair. That, really, is the essence of Baez. He trades in thought-out theatrics, and he’s as smart as he is athletic, as endearing as he is showy. On a Major League Scouting Bureau report from 2011, he’s rated highest for his baseball instinct and aggressiveness, and the first summation comment reads: “Fun to watch.”
It’s really as simple as that.