ST. LOUIS – Javier Baez isn’t just happy to be here. The kid with the big swing and the Major League Baseball logo tattooed onto the back of his neck understands what’s at stake.
The Cubs just stared down the St. Louis Cardinals over the weekend in front of sellout crowds at Busch Stadium. They will face what looks like a killer September schedule.
“They’re going to find out how to pitch to me,” Baez said, “and I got to find out how to make them throw the ball over the plate.”
There was a telling moment on Sunday afternoon, with two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game the Cubs would lose 9-6. The Cardinals walked Chris Coghlan, putting a second runner on to get to Baez, not exactly a sign of respect for someone with seven home runs in August and Gary Sheffield bat speed.
All-Star reliever Pat Neshek threw four straight sliders and Baez flied out to shallow right field, slamming his bat to the ground in frustration and slamming his helmet into the dirt after rounding first base.
That 0-for-5 with two strikeouts left Baseball America’s No. 7 midseason prospect hitting .188 in The Show. Baez now has 49 strikeouts in his first 116 plate appearances.
But this is exactly why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein aggressively promoted Baez and $30 million Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler from Triple-A Iowa.
“A lot of times, September can be a misleading month to evaluate,” Epstein said. “It’s not always a true major-league experience if you’re playing teams that are out of it and they’re sending their Triple-A pitchers out to face you. But in our case, we play contenders just about every single series the rest of the year.
“We’re going to face good teams and get their best pitching. And then from the sixth inning on, we’re going to get matched up. With the expanded rosters, teams that are in contention tend to use multiple relievers in an inning and go left/right and try to create the best matchups for them.
“It’s going to be a challenge for our young hitters, but something I think will be good for them in the long run.”
The cat-and-mouse game continues on Labor Day at Wrigley Field against the Milwaukee Brewers, who are trying to fend off the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs still have 18 games left within the division. They’ll go on the road to play three games against a Toronto Blue Jays team that’s on the fringes of the wild-card race (Sept. 8-10).
The Los Angeles Dodgers are in first place and could be thinking about popping champagne bottles when they come to Wrigley Field for a four-game series (Sept. 18-21).
“We have a really tough schedule the rest of the way, which normally you’d feel badly about,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But I really like it. Watching our young guys play against call-ups from other teams and other teams’ Triple-A guys, we wouldn’t really feel like we’re learning anything.
“Now, I feel like we’re going to watch these guys almost every series the rest of the way against a contender, against teams that are going full bore. It’s going to be a full-on learning experience for our young guys.
“Advance scouts are going to talk about how they can get them out and they’re going to go right at their weaknesses. When this thing ends on September 28, they’re going to know what they need to work on this winter.”
The idea being Baez will be a force in the middle of the lineup when every pitch matters and the Cubs are contending again.