Another reminder Javier Baez is a game-changer – not trade bait – for Cubs

Another reminder Javier Baez is a game-changer – not trade bait – for Cubs

Remember Javier Baez? “Javy Being Javy” hasn’t delivered quite the same entertainment value recently, the Cubs not blowing teams out the way they did last year or playing the same highlight-reel defense every night.    

Ian Happ is now the next big thing. Kyle Schwarber is the one answering questions about his offensive approach. Baez is still getting lumped into talk-show debates and online polls about who should go in the trade for a frontline pitcher.

“The first thing that comes into my mind is I don’t control that,” Baez said after blasting the grand slam that set the tone for Thursday’s 9-5 win and swept the Cincinnati Reds out of Wrigley Field. “I can’t pick what people and fans are going to talk about. I just try to stay focused on baseball.”

Don’t forget that Baez is one of the most dynamic talents in the game, a hitter with Gary Sheffield bat speed, a Gold Glove-caliber defender all over the infield, someone who runs, tags and slides with the natural instincts of a great NBA point guard.     

Plus, Baez is only 24 and already did it on the biggest stage, becoming a breakout star during last year’s playoffs and a viral sensation with Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. That combination will be pretty close to untouchable in the middle of a pennant race.

“Things happen for a reason,” Baez said. “I’ll obviously be ready to stay here, because I love Chicago and I love this organization. It’s been the best. If something comes, I know it’s not going to be anytime soon. I’m not really paying attention to that.”

Does it surprise you this would even become a topic of conversation after everything you did for a World Series team?

“Yeah, to be honest,” Baez said. “But I know it’s not going to happen yet, and hopefully not for a long time.”

Baez reminded you with one big swing in the first inning. Baez dropped his bat, took a few steps and watched Amir Garrett’s hanging slider soar out toward the top of the left-center field bleachers for a 5-0 lead. The Cubs overwhelmed Garrett, a well-regarded rookie with the frame and athleticism to play college hoops at St. John’s.

While the rebuilding Reds (19-21) are on a six-game losing streak and sinking in the National League Central, the Cubs rolled with Jon Lester, who put together another quality start (six innings, three runs) for a rotation moving in the right direction.

Led by Baez and Lester – last year’s NLCS co-MVPs – the Cubs are now 5-1 against the Reds and 16-18 vs. the rest of their schedule so far. The Cubs have scored almost 25 percent of their runs this year against Cincinnati pitching.

Baez finished with five RBI and went 3-for-3 to raise his batting average 20 points to .248. He also committed his sixth error, all signs of a young, ultra-talented team still trying to get into rhythm after making history last November.  

“You shouldn’t single just him out,” said Lester (2-2, 3.57 ERA). “We all haven’t really been sharp from top to bottom. But Javy is a unique guy.

“You see him grow each at-bat. Obviously, we know (a couple) years ago about his swing-and-miss stuff and he’s made the adjustments to stay around. Obviously, his defensive side of the ball helps that.

“But you see him grow every day as a hitter. You see him make adjustments and have good at-bats and do things that can really change the game for us.”

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”