Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Javier Baez, Cubs' riveting second baseman, is leaving mark on playoffs

As soon as Jon Lester pulled his bat back from a bunt and the pitch landed in the glove of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz, a singular thought jumped into the head of Javier Baez as he bounded down the third-base line.

Uh-oh.

"I went a little early," he said, a smile creasing his face. "Or much early, I guess."

As the postseason has increasingly revealed, Baez, the Chicago Cubs' young dynamo, does not do half measures. He will flip his bat and admire the arc of balls that may (or may not) be home runs. He hunts outs with his glove like a leopard in wait. And he runs the bases with an audacity that suggests he already has the answers to the exam.

So it was again on Saturday night when Baez was a comfortable inhabitant of no-man's land, screeching to a halt a third of the way down the line as Ruiz, a cool-headed catcher, came out of his crouch, firing to third.

As Ruiz cocked his arm, Baez made a quick calculus — there was no way he could get back to third before the throw got there. Instead, he bolted for home.

And as he slid safely across the plate ahead of third baseman Justin Turner's return throw, Baez made his apologies — first to Lester, who thought he had missed a suicide squeeze sign (he had not) then to third-base coach Gary Jones. Baez was then greeted in the dugout with as much head-shaking as congratulations.

"He's going to do something once in a while that's going to make you like: Javy?" manager Joe Maddon said. "You know, call him into the principal's office. But then he does things like that."

So while Miguel Montero, with a pinch-hit grand slam in the eighth inning, took the star turn in the Cubs' 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in the opener of the National League Championship Series, Baez once again left his imprint on a playoff game. His bloop hit over a drawn-in infield in the second inning, which he legged into a double as Jason Heyward scored, and his subsequent dash home helped stake the Cubs to a 3-0 lead.

Asked how many Cubs might have extricated themselves from the mess Baez had briefly found himself in, his teammate Ben Zobrist thought for a moment.

"Nobody, except for Javy," the former Ray said. "It was like he had a sixth sense. We were just looking at each other like, What just happened? How did he do that? We're doing the same thing the crowd is doing. And then when it works out, you're just like, man, this guy's a magician with what he does on the base paths."

The Cubs are brimming with talent — they flooded the starting lineup in the All-Star Game in July and have the best rotation in baseball — but their most riveting player may be Baez, 23, who spent most of the 2016 season as a super-utility player before emerging to a national audience as a divining rod for big moments.

It was Baez who delivered the eighth-inning home run that foiled San Francisco's Johnny Cueto in a 1-0 win in the teams' Division Series opener. It was Baez who delivered the series' winning hit, a single that scored Heyward as the Cubs rallied for a 6-5 win in Game 4.

In between, Baez made a prescient read of Kyle Hendricks' blooper in Game 2 of that series that allowed him to score when many other players would have held up, worried about being doubled off. And in the deciding game of that series, he hit a grounder and raced all the way to third base when Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford made a bad throw to first.

Meanwhile, in the field, stationed at second base, he has shown off extraordinary range, arm, athletic ability, instincts and a viper-strike slap tag.

"He's exciting to watch," said Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman, who once won nine consecutive Gold Gloves. "People don't realize how hard it is to be good at one position. He could win a Gold Glove at four or five different positions."

No wonder, then, that Baez, rummaging through his locker late Saturday, counted seven gloves in all. He has an additional 30 at home (though he said they are outnumbered by the baseball spikes he owns). The glove he used Saturday night belonged to his brother Gadiel, his name stitched into it. It sat next to another that once belonged to his younger sister, Noely.

"I love to look good," Baez said. "I've got a lot of different color gloves."

For Baez, baseball has been a form of expression. He eats and writes left-handed, but he throws and hits right-handed. He and his two older brothers have tattoos of the Major League Baseball logo, with Baez's on the nape of his neck. The game has also served as a security blanket for Baez, giving him something to cling to after his father, Angel, died and his mother moved the family from Puerto Rico to seek better care for Noely, who was born with spina bifida.

First in a small town in North Carolina, then after his family moved on to Jacksonville, baseball was all that felt familiar when Baez struggled to assimilate because he did not speak the language.

"It took me four years to not be afraid to speak up," Baez said. "I was in English-as-a-second-language classes with a lot of Latino students and a translator helping us, but you won't learn English being around Latinos who speak the same language. I started hanging out with American guys and my coaches — they were Americans. I used to understand a lot more than I'd speak it."

In 2011, the Cubs drafted Baez with the ninth pick of the first round and gave him a $2.625 million signing bonus, which allowed him to buy a house for his mother, Nelly, and a customized minivan that would better accommodate Noely, who was bound to a wheelchair.

Noely, born 11 months after Baez, was closest to him. She loved baseball and watching him play. So when she died in April 2015, it hit Baez hard.

"I feel like when she went away, my life went black," said Baez, whose right shoulder is covered with a tattoo of his sister. "I knew that it was going to happen sooner or later, but I think of it as a blessing because she lived 21 years. With the loss of my father and her now, it's been really tough for me and my family, but you have a life that you have to continue."

Baez spent much of last season in the minor leagues as the Cubs waited for him to learn not to swing as if he were trying to hit every pitch into Lake Michigan. He was recalled in September and found his way into the postseason when shortstop Addison Russell was hurt. In his first start, Baez hit a three-run homer as the Cubs clinched their Division Series with a 6-4 win over rival St. Louis.

This season, there was still some question about where Baez fit. The Cubs traded second baseman Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees but signed the versatile Zobrist, who can play second, as a free agent. The answer, it turned out, was that Baez fit everywhere. He has played third, shortstop, second, first and leftfield.

If Baez still believes shortstop is his best position, he no longer wonders about his future, as he did when the Cubs acquired Russell two years ago, which Baez acknowledged "was kind of hard for me not to listen to what was going on."

Now, when he comes to the plate at Wrigley Field, he is bathed in chants of "Jav-y, Jav-y" — a beloved child on a team of favorite sons.

As he sat in the dugout Tuesday night in what turned out to be the clinching game against the Giants, a TV camera seemed to capture the essence of Baez at the moment. As he went about the mundane business of unwrapping a piece of gum and putting it into his mouth, Baez fumbled it once, then twice before snatching it out of the air.

He then smiled and pointed to the camera, having escaped another pickle.

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