LOS ANGELES — The Cubs’ Javier Baez, this October’s breakout star, owns a locker filled with shoes and gloves in many colors, shapes and sizes. Because of all the things he wants to accomplish on a baseball field, he’s confident enough to admit that looking good is one of them.
On the back of his neck is the Major League Baseball logo, the first tattoo of what became many. He got it when he was 16. His brothers got matching ink, too. It is a demonstration, he said, of their “passion for the game.”
But those are just baubles.
Baez’s real tribute to the game comes through in the way he plays it, with a uncommon blend of talent, skill and smarts that he has showcased during the Cubs’ postseason run.
“It’s just a unique talent, it’s a unique skill set,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s the obvious stuff, but it’s so hard to teach how quickly his mind works. You just can’t. There’s certain people that have it.”
Baez has it. He has used these playoffs to assemble a personal highlight reel, seemingly one each for every facet of his game. In the Cubs’ six postseason games, the 23-year-old phenom has two game-winning hits (including one on a homer), made body-contorting acrobatic plays at second base and used his brains and hustle to create havoc on the bases.
“The types of things that he’s done in the postseason have really shown the world what he’s capable of,” the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist said.
Instincts alone guided his steal of home on a botched safety squeeze in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. Later, Maddon said no other player in baseball would have saved the play.
The Cubs are hitting only .193 in the postseason, by far the lowest of the four clubs still standing. But Baez is hitting .391, the highest mark among Cubs with at least 10 plate appearances.
“I feel great about what I’m doing and the help that I’m bringing to the team,” said Baez, who began the year as a piece off the bench, used only to spell others when needed.
But by midseason he had forced himself into the lineup every day, his growth at the plate finally catching up with the rest of his game. Baez ditched his leg kick and the bat wrap that lengthened his swing. The changes helped him cut down on his strikeouts, which had long been a hindrance.
Not only did his glove give the Cubs a lockdown defender to be deployed all over the field, but he hit .273 with 14 homers. In the playoffs, he has been indispensable.
The series against the Giants served as a four-game tour de force for Baez, who went 6-for-16 (.375) to help the Cubs reach the NLCS for the second straight year. Most Valuable Player awards aren’t awarded in the NLDS, though Maddon knew where the mythical prize would have gone. “He should get the Corvette,” Maddon said.
Baez has only grown more comfortable in the spotlight. On a team with more prominent names such as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, he has faced the most cameras. He keeps making plays.
In Game 2 against the Dodgers, with one out and runners on first and second, he let Joc Pederson’s soft liner drop on purpose so he could start an inning-ending double play. Baez had caught nearly everyone on the field off guard, another display of his ability to think more quickly than most.
Said Zobrist: “Some of the instinctual stuff I’ve seen him do, with the steal of home and that [double-play] ball last night, I’ve never seen that out of anybody.”