Chicago Cubs

Inside the Javier Baez inside-the-park home run

Inside the Javier Baez inside-the-park home run

SAN FRANCISCO — Javier Baez made it feel like the playoffs more than the 63-degree temperature at first pitch, the Halloween colors all around AT&T Park and a San Francisco Giants franchise holding auditions and playing for the future.

October is Javy Time after last year’s breakout performance, which started Game 1 with the Johnny Cueto quick pitch he drove into the Wrigley Field basket and became a blur of highlight-reel plays. The rest of the baseball world began to see what the Cubs already understood — a sixth sense for tagging, freakish range and arm strength, a fearless attitude running the bases and so much swagger.

Baez became the game-changer during Monday’s 5-3 win, again stealing the show on a night where Metallica played the national anthem, Joe Montana watched from the stands, Jake Arrieta showed flashes of Cy Young Award stuff and Barry Bonds waved to the crowd on the 10th anniversary of breaking Major League Baseball’s all-time home-run record.

Baez didn’t exactly burst out of the batter’s box and admired this one for a moment in the second inning, a natural reaction to watching lefty Matt Moore’s 93-mph fastball soar out to right-center field.

“I was in the on-deck circle — I see Javy,” Arrieta said. “Most hitters kind of take a look, kind of assess the situation and then go from there.

“But he’s a tremendous athlete. I knew we were going to have a chance to have him get all the way around the bases, based on the kick. And this is a strange park. There are certain spots in the outfield. If the ball hits off the wall, good things can happen like that.”

Baez turned on the afterburners in between first and second base when he saw the ball slam off the angled wall and ricochet away from Carlos Moncrief, who made his big-league debut in late July for a last-place team that lost its identity and might now have the worst outfield defense in the game.

Third base coach Gary Jones still knew Moncrief had a “cannon” and calculated that sending Baez would be worth the risk with two outs in a scoreless game and the pitcher up next.

“I thought he ran hard the whole way,” Jones said. “I just try to read the situation. You try to play certain scenarios in your mind before they actually happen. And then when they happen — because you’ve already played it in your mind — it kind of slows down on you a little bit.”

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Moncrief hustled after the ball and unleashed a strong one-hop throw that bounced up while Baez dove low headfirst under the tag from Giants catcher Buster Posey.

“That guy may have the best arm I’ve ever seen,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s Bo Jackson arm stuff right there. That was that good. That was Bo good. I’ve always thought Shawon Dunston and Bo Jackson. Shawon Dunston on the infield, Bo Jackson on the outfield. And I think Moncrief is among that group. It’s incredible.”

Baez stretched out in the dirt for a moment before slapping hands with Jason Heyward — who scored from first base — and getting back up to his feet with a big smile on his face.

“That’s everything I had,” Baez said.

“He told me after that he drank too much water, so he was a little heavy,” Jones said. It became the first inside-the-park homer for Baez since “Little League, I guess.” It marked the first by a Cub since Anthony Rizzo last season and only the 10th since this magnificent stadium opened in 2000.

“Everybody was really excited (in the dugout) — I was just tired,” Baez said. “I was trying to catch my breath for a few minutes.”

It’s hard to picture a more dynamic No. 8 hitter who can play Gold Glove-level defense at second base and seamlessly move over to replace an All-Star shortstop while Addison Russell is on the disabled list. With that mad dash, the defending World Series champs are now 59-52 and up 1.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. The Cubs and Baez are coming for October.

“Everybody’s got me as a really exciting player,” Baez said. “I’ll take it.”

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

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

MILWAUKEE – Sticking to sports becomes impossible when Donald Trump calls protesting NFL players sons of b------ and feuds with NBA superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James on Twitter while the University of North Carolina’s national championship men’s basketball team declines a White House invitation (scheduling conflict) and Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell takes a knee during the national anthem.

All that happened within 24-plus hours, a head-spinning news cycle that will not stop. It’s impossible to escape for a high-profile organization with political connections like the Cubs.

That’s how manager Joe Maddon wound up feeling the heat in Miller Park’s visiting dugout before Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, clarifying his comments to the Chicago Sun-Times that went viral: “It’s dangerous when folks in our country stop respecting the White House and the seat of the president.”

“What would you like me to say?” Maddon said. “I’ve read it all and I’m saying it’s understandable why these people – why the players – jumped back at him the way they did. It’s very understandable, absolutely. I had no idea.”

The Sun-Times asked Maddon for a reaction minutes after Saturday afternoon’s 10-inning, playoff-intensity loss to the Brewers as the media session was breaking up in the manager’s office inside the visiting clubhouse. That quote appeared deep within a longer story headlined: “Sports world revolts: LeBron James, Roger Goodell fire back at Trump.”    

“I had no idea what the president had said prior to being asked that question,” Maddon said, “so I wasn’t commenting on what the president had said. When (the reporter) asked me that question, I had no idea it was in that context whatsoever.”

The Cubs angle: The World Series champs starred in the final official White House event for President Barack Obama on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A group of players, staffers and executives returned for an Oval Office photo op with Trump on June 28, a side trip in the middle of a likely playoff preview against the Washington Nationals.        

Curry already made it clear that he would vote against the Golden State Warriors making a ceremonial visit to Trump’s White House. After Trump tweeted that he withdrew Curry’s championship invitation, Maddon told the Sun-Times: “With all due respect to everybody, I just believe that we need to get our acts together collectively, all of us.”

“I had no idea what he said,” Maddon said during Sunday’s pregame briefing. “I had no idea what was said. How would I? I had no idea what was said prior to (getting asked) that question.

“My response is typical: I always respect the office and the White House and the seat of the president, like I said before we had attended. That was what my response was about. It had nothing to do with the situation yesterday.”

Maddon backtracked and said he has no issues with LeBron using his @KingJames account to support Curry, call Trump “a bum” and tell his 38.5 million Twitter followers: “Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”

“I’ve always spoken what’s on my mind,” Maddon said, “and I’ve always respected other people doing the same. It’s that simple. I just did not know the context of the question yesterday at all.

“And then I read about it last night when I got back to my room. And I could understand what all the uproar was about, easily. But I had no idea after the game that’s what had been said.”

Maddon wore a black turtleneck and an olive coat to the White House in January and enjoyed seeing Obama, who gave him a shout-out during the East Room ceremony: “Let’s face it, there are not a lot of coaches or managers who are as cool as this guy. Look how he looks right now.”

Maddon also eagerly posed with Trump, a meeting set up through Cubs ownership and the Ricketts family’s influence within Republican politics. Maddon also aligned himself that week with a childhood friend from Pennsylvania, Congressman Lou Barletta, an early Trump supporter who recently announced a Senate campaign.

“Again, I have respect for the government of the United States,” Maddon said. “I have respect for the office. I have respect for the seat of the presidency. When it comes down to individual battles, I have nothing to do with that.

“All I’m saying is that I understand why the players responded the way they did. After I read the comments, it was very clear why they would respond the way they did.

“It’s just unfortunate we’ve arrived at this point where it’s so easy to have this dialogue between the highest office in the country and everybody else in such a negative way. That’s the part that’s really disappointing.”          

Justin Wilson isn’t running away from big moments with Cubs: ‘I want the ball’


Justin Wilson isn’t running away from big moments with Cubs: ‘I want the ball’

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs have tried to find lower-pressure spots for Justin Wilson to work on things and rebuild his confidence without publicly burying a lefty reliever they specifically targeted before the July 31 trade deadline.

Both manager Joe Maddon and team president Theo Epstein have given Wilson the vote of confidence, though the real test will be whether or not the Cubs actually trust him in the playoffs.

“It’s an open book of communication here,” Wilson said. “We talk. I’ve talked to them and said: ‘Hey, I’m going to get right. I want the ball. I just want to keep getting back out there.’”

Even after All-Star closer Wade Davis blew his first save in more than a year, the Cubs could find big-picture optimism about their bullpen because Wilson got four outs during Saturday’s 4-3 10-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

“How good was that?” Maddon said. “That’s really something looking forward. He made a nice adjustment out there. It looked really good from the side. If we get that out of him, that could be a huge difference-maker for us.”

That was the idea when the Cubs made Wilson their headliner in the package deal with catcher Alex Avila and reinforced the bullpen for another World Series run. Wilson closed for the Detroit Tigers, notching 13 saves for a bad team, putting up a 2.48 ERA in 42 appearances and shutting down left- and right-handed hitters.

Wilson – who gave up 16 walks in 40.1 innings for Detroit – allowed 16 walks and 17 hits through his first 14.1 innings as a Cub while putting up a 6.28 ERA.

On a smoking 88-degree afternoon and in front of a loud crowd of 44,067, Wilson faced the top four hitters in the Milwaukee lineup and unleashed 17 fastballs in a row, all of them buzzing around 95-97 mph across the seventh and eighth innings. Wilson struck out Eric Sogard and Neil Walker, forced Ryan Braun to fly out to left field and struck out Travis Shaw swinging.

With stuff like that, the magic number to clinch the National League Central title in the low single digits and another week left in the regular season, the Cubs hope Wilson can figure it out and become the late-inning weapon they envisioned.       

“Clearly, it hasn’t been the same for me from before the trade,” Wilson said. “I just want to keep pitching.”