Patrick Mooney

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

javy_baez.jpg
USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”

Jon Lester’s lat injury sets off alarm bells around Cubs

Jon Lester’s lat injury sets off alarm bells around Cubs

Jon Lester had enough. Already down 8-0 in the second inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the $155 million ace waved toward manager Joe Maddon in the dugout and seconds later walked off the mound with assistant athletic trainer Ed Halbur, setting off alarm bells all around the Cubs.

Lester stepped into the dugout, turned left and marched right toward pitching coach Chris Bosio. The two exchanged words as Bosio gave a disbelieving look that said “Me?” Lester shook his head and turned his back, walking away in frustration.

While the game turned into Home Run Derby, the Cubs announced Lester was being evaluated for left lat tightness, an issue that loomed larger than the offensive fireworks and bullpen meltdowns during a 13-10 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. It suddenly put the defending World Series champs in a precarious position.

Right around the time Lester would normally be in the interview room dissecting his performance, he was scheduled to be examined by Dr. Stephen Gryzlo in downtown Chicago. But something clearly looked wrong with Lester, who got only five outs, threw just 46 pitches and gave up seven hits and a walk to the 14 batters he faced, leaving the Cubs bracing for bad news.

“I don’t have anything specific yet,” Maddon said. “The thing that I saw today was that the velocity was down on everything a little bit. They did have a lot of soft hits over the infielders’ heads. The pitches were getting in, but they weren’t finishing.

“They were able to fight him off enough to get ‘em over infielders’ heads, so he was lacking that last thing that you normally have on your pitches that permits you to not have that happen, or get even weaker contact. Because he was making good pitches. They were just dumping ‘em on him.

“Obviously, something wasn’t right, because the cutters were like 84-85 (mph). That’s not quite right, so it might have been bothering him from the beginning. He didn’t say anything, though.”

Lester isn’t all talk and prefers to lead by example. He already changed the course of franchise history by deciding to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season. The Cubs counted on him to be a separator in a National League Central race where three teams began the day bunched within three games of each other.  

Lester’s six-year megadeal essentially already paid for itself during the first two seasons, the Cubs winning 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since 1908, and expecting another strong finish this October.

Lester had a clunker in the final game before the All-Star break, getting two outs and giving up 10 runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he came back refreshed and went 3-1 with a 3.26 ERA in his next six starts, putting up 45 strikeouts against eight walks.

“His velocity was a little down,” catcher Alex Avila said. “Maybe his side had something to do with it. But it seemed like in that inning, the balls that they hit were just perfectly placed.”

Lester has been a model of durability and needs five more starts this season to reach 31 for the 10th time in his career, though there are no guarantees. But at a time when the entire industry is searching for ways to keep pitchers healthy, the ultra-consistent lefty has exceeded the 200-inning mark in five straight seasons and in eight of the last nine years.

There are backup plans and workarounds in a mediocre division. The Cubs (63-57) stretched Mike Montgomery out to 61 pitches, watched the lefty swingman hold the rugged Cincinnati lineup scoreless for 4.1 innings and think he could be a long-term solution in their rotation.

Kyle Hendricks is getting back into a groove. John Lackey said he never mentioned retirement. And Jose Quintana wanted to pitch in big games after hearing so many trade rumors with the White Sox. But this second-half push started with pitching, and the rotation revolves around Lester’s blue-collar approach to his job.

In Lester’s mind, your arm might feel good on the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and it will only get worse from there, meaning a lot of it is about managing an unbelievably stressful grind.      

“When a pitcher of his stature is potentially injured, of course, you’re a little bit concerned,” Maddon said. “But I don’t want to jump to conclusions, either. Let’s just go through the proper procedures, have the doc see him and then try to figure it out from there.

“So for right now, I’m not going to jump to any kind of negative conclusions.”

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”