ST. LOUIS – The Cubs have seen enough of “The Cardinal Way,” the 95 mph heat from Shelby Miller, the legs flying at Starlin Castro and a relentless lineup that Jeff Samardzija said has no weaknesses.
Javier Baez isn’t ready to be thrown into the fire of this rivalry and perform in front of some 45,000 fans wearing red at Busch Stadium. But if the Cubs are going to close the gap in the National League Central, they need to be right on Baez and Jorge Soler, his buddy at advanced Class-A Daytona.
Baez blew up on Twitter after his four-homer game on June 10, played in the Florida State League All-Star Game over the weekend, hit a grand slam on Tuesday and homered again on Thursday night.
The kid with the Gary Sheffield bat speed – as well as the $30 million Cuban outfielder – have become bigger headlines than almost any other player inside the big-league clubhouse.
That’s why Daytona manager Dave Keller wanted to slow down some of the runaway hype surrounding the core pieces in Theo Epstein’s rebuilding project.
“As coaches, it’s easy to get this way. We know the media gets this way. I know the fans in Chicago get this way,” Keller said. “Everybody wants these guys to do so well and they got to realize that this is a marathon. This is not any type of sprint at all.”
Keller, who once managed Manny Ramirez in the Cleveland Indians system, has almost three decades of coaching experience in pro ball. He’s now in his 10th season in the Cubs organization, having worked as a hitting coordinator and a major-league staff assistant in 2011. He’s spent enough time in Chicago to understand the expectations.
“It’s a very, very hard sport to play,” Keller said. “We want these guys to do well, just like you sitting there writing the story and the fans sitting there spending their money for popcorn and food and wanting to cheer for the home team.
“Cubs fans are off-the-charts as far as enthusiasm goes and emotions. They want these guys to succeed, too, but we also have to be a little bit patient about things that go on when we’re talking about minor-league kids, because it’s a learning process and every level’s going to teach you something different. You just have to be able to retain that information and apply it.”
Keller has watched Baez work during batting practice, making a conscientious effort to drive the ball more up the middle and into right field, helping him stay on pitches and off-speed stuff, finding his balance and more rhythm.
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In his mind, Keller ran through the four-homer game at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona: Baez drove the first one to right-center, took a relaxed swing and hit the second one to dead center, dropped the third one on top of the batting cages in left and snuck the last one inside the foul pole in left.
“He’s quiet and reserved in some ways,” Keller said. “(But) he is very, very observant to what’s going on in the game. He’s very aware of what’s happening defensively. His instincts on the bases are way above average. His instincts defensively are way above average. He watches, trying to figure how his offensive plan fits into the guy that he’s facing.
“Sometimes (with) guys that are really quiet like that, you don’t know where they are, but you know he’s concentrating because he wants to succeed.”
Only one other player in the Florida State League’s 94 years of existence has put together a four-homer game. Keller was there for that one, too, watching Ryan Harvey, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2003 draft who never made it to Chicago (or even the Triple-A level).
That underlines why the Cubs can’t bank everything on prospects, why they aren’t going to rush Baez, a shortstop (for now) who’s still only 20 years old after getting drafted ninth overall in 2011.
“A night like that, if it’s part of a longer stretch – and so far it has been this month – where he clearly dominates his competition, that gets him closer to moving up,” Epstein said.
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Baez has posted a 1.261 OPS in June, with seven of his 15 homers coming this month. Overall, he’s hitting .276 this season, with 50 RBI, 66 strikeouts and 17 walks through 64 games.
“Any one night or any one game in itself doesn’t really change (things),” Epstein said. “It’s more sort of a progression, the pattern of play. He’s doing really well in all phases. What stands out to me more than the power (is) he’s really started to have better quality at-bats, (getting) his swing under control more. He’s cut his strikeout rate down a little bit and seeing some more pitches.
“He still (needs) some polish to his game before he moves through the whole organization. That’s a priority, cutting down on some of the errors on routine plays and managing the strike zone a little better. But we’re sure excited about his evolution so far.”
Cubs fans don’t want to hear reality checks, and the Chicago media roots for the quick, easy story. But remember this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Cardinals got a huge head start years ago.