Javier Baez reminds Cubs that Ian Happ isn't only young player who can hit
CHICAGO — If the Chicago Cubs were looking for an offensive spark this week, they might want to send a thank-you note to the Cincinnati Reds‘ pitching staff for providing it. Their latest victory over the Reds, 9-5 on Thursday, was propelled by two young players who might be fighting for playing time in the future.
“When it comes to the bases loaded, every hitter thinks about a grand slam,” Baez said, smiling, after the game. “We’ve been talking to each other about taking more pitches and letting the pitcher do the work. It’s been working for us.”
Could Happ’s success be motivating Baez? Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t think so, but there’s little doubt Happ is the flavor of the month. He has taken the league by storm while already having started in all three outfield spots since being called up Saturday. And when Jason Heyward comes off the disabled list, it doesn’t sound as though Happ is going anywhere. Not with a .353/.500/.824/1.324 slash line after Thursday’s game.
“There’s still the ability to balance it,” Maddon said of potential playing-time issues. “I like the idea that we have enough really good players that you can rest guys. Somebody gets hurt, you have somebody good to put in their place. Baseball normally takes care of that.”
Maddon has been preaching that kind of thinking since spring training, and that was before Happ established himself in the big leagues. Now the manager has one more body to find at-bats for. And just when it seemed Baez might have to take a back seat, Thursday’s performance reminded everyone of his talent. Maddon actually liked Baez’s single more than the home run.
“He had a game like that because he hit a hanging slider,” Maddon said. “I like the bouncer to right field with two strikes. That’s a much more veteran at-bat on his part.”
It’s the kind of at-bat Happ has been having since coming up from the minors. He already has walked five times in five games to go along with four extra-base hits. Pop and patience probably will keep him in the lineup, though Baez plans on making it tough on Maddon as well.
“Usually I start slow,” said Baez, who raised his average to .248. “I’ve been doing it since I was in Double-A. I keep working and I see I’m getting better.”
Not long ago, Maddon wasn’t sure if a rookie could come up and stick around when all bodies were healthy, but he has pivoted because of Happ’s stellar start. That means a tough decision is looming, because the Cubs already have indicated they’d like to keep eight relievers. It means pinch hitter Tommy La Stella could be on the move — except his OPS is second on the team only to Happ, if in a limited sample size. Maybe the Cubs will change course again and send a pitcher down. Maddon seems to know how to make it all work.
“I like our bench guys getting a chance to start,” Maddon said, continuing to plead his case for everyone to stick around. “If you don’t have the requisite talent on the bench to permit that to occur, then you don’t want to do it.”
So what’s the answer? The Cubs might give a nice shrug to that question, as it was only days ago they were searching for success at the plate from anyone. Thanks to the Reds, more guys than not are clicking now.
“I guess we had a good plan,” Maddon said. “Wrigley is good when the wind is blowing out, which it has been.”
It’s not the first time over the past two seasons the Cubs have feasted on Cincinnati pitching, and the numbers are staggering. After Thursday, the Cubs are averaging 7.6 runs against the Reds over the past 25 games. That’s three more runs than they average against the rest of the league. In that span, the Cubs are 20-5 against Cincinnati while hitting .282. Against everyone else, they’re hitting .248. No wonder Baez got healthy at the plate.
He also got his first trade question of the season Thursday. The Cubs seem more redundant at certain positions than ever, and it’s leading people to wonder who could be on the move come July. Baez is trying to stay on an even keel and ignore any outside talk. It certainly worked Thursday.
“I don’t control that,” the 24-year-old said. “I can’t think what people and fans are going to talk about.
“I try to stay focused on baseball.”