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CINCINNATI – Using common sense and Geek Department probabilities, Joe Maddon wants to know where the ball should be hit before deciding where to play Javier Baez, the kind of elite defender the Cubs manager envisions when he talks about creating a Gold Glove for super-utility guys.
“I just like to put him where the most action may be,” Maddon said. “He really provides a lot of coverage on slow rollers. He’s got the arm. He’s got the flair.”
With lefty Jon Lester facing a Cincinnati Reds lineup stacked with right-handed hitters, Maddon started Baez at third base on Saturday at Great American Ball Park, where the Cubs gave a potential sneak preview for their Game 1 playoff lineup.
Baez has been credited with 17 Defensive Runs Saved this year while moving between second base, shortstop and third base, putting together a package of highlight-reel plays and giving Maddon even more freedom with his lineup and in-game strategy.
If offense will be at such a premium in the postseason – putting an even stronger emphasis on pitching and defense – could Baez become an everyday player in October?
“Not 100 percent,” Maddon said. “You catch a lead, he’ll be in the game. I think that we still may go with an offensive matchup – and then hopefully grab a lead – and then get him in there. Do that kind of a thing, not unlike what we did last year with ‘Schwarbs’ (Kyle Schwarber), as an example, (where you) pull him and move everything around.
“I haven’t decided, but that would be my first inclination.”
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The Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency, a breakthrough that has contributed to 102 wins and helped Lester and Kyle Hendricks put up Cy Young Award-worthy numbers, giving this group an overall dimension that could separate them from the franchise’s previous playoff teams.
“That’s where our pitchers have just been able to relax,” Lester said. “(We) know that: ‘Hey, I don’t have to be so perfect with each pitch.’ We’ve got such good defense behind us that it’s kind of like: ‘OK, just hit it. Those guys will figure it out after that.’”
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — DeShone Kizer wasn’t perfect, but exact perfection probably doesn’t matter much when you take a flamethrower to something.
That something was Syracuse’s secondary in Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over the Orange Saturday at MetLife Stadium. Kizer threw for 471 yards, 55 short of Joe Thiesmann’s program record and the most an Irish quarterback has ever thrown for in a win. He threw touchdowns of 79, 67 (both to Equanimeous St. Brown) and 54 yards (to Kevin Stepherson) and averaged 13.5 yards per attempt.
Still, what Kizer and coach Brian Kelly were more pleased with was how he played in the second half. Back-to-back quick-strike scoring drives — Kizer connected for that 54-yard touchdown to Stepherson, which Dexter Williams followed with a video game-like 59-yard touchdown run — put the game out of reach awfully quickly after a rocky end to the first half.
“The first half, yeah, you get a bunch of highlights throwing the ball down the field and having one play, two-play drives,” Kizer said. “What we need right now is a way of being sustainable on defense and offense. The second half is a good example of that.”
Kizer didn’t play mistake-free football, though. He missed an easy touchdown when he overthrew a wide-open Stepherson in the first half, and the sack he took late in the second quarter knocked Notre Dame out of field goal range — after which Brisly Estime returned Tyler Newsome’s punt 74 yards to set up an Orange touchdown. And things threatened to get worse when Kizer threw an interception with under 30 seconds left, setting up a Syracuse 40-yard field goal that Cole Murphy missed.
[MORE NOTRE DAME: Defense leaves New Jersey with good vibrations]
Kelly said Kizer tried to do too much late in the first half, but stopped pressing and trying to put the team on his back after those two mishaps.
“That was the conversation I had with him was DeShone, we need to get three points there, you’re trying to do too much,” Kelly said. “And he has a tendency to want to do too much, put too much pressure on himself. And he’s gotta stop doing that. I told him, you do enough. What I liked about him in the second half was that he dropped the ball down, took the easy completions, made the smart decisions and I think he needs to continue to do that. I thought the second half showed the kind of things I was looking for him to do.”
The things Kizer did right emphatically overcame those mistakes. He threw a number of fantastically-placed passes over the middle and consistently looked for easy check down throws. He got both tight ends — Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar — involved in the offense. He rushed for a touchdown, too, his sixth of the year.
So in front of a bunch of NFL scouts at an NFL stadium — where Kizer could, of course, be playing on Sundays next year — the Notre Dame quarterback turned in yet another strong performance. This time, though, it was good enough to get his team a win.
And it wasn’t perfect, as Kizer was quick to note after the game, but he’ll head back to South Bend pleased with what he did and where he can go from here.
“This is the sloppiest 50 points I’ve ever been a part of, the sloppiest 400-plus pass game I’ve ever been a part of,” Kizer said. “And I think that’s the best part of about. We’re having fun, we’re having a good time, and there’s still so much room to improve. To come out and play the way we played and have the amount of fun that we had and still know there’s a lot of work to be done, I couldn’t be happier.”