Chicago Cubs

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.”

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

[RELATED — Joe Maddon feels the heat from White House comments and rethinks Trump vs. sports world]

Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”