Javy Baez could be big part of big finish for Cubs in playoff plans

SAN FRANCISCO — Anybody criticizing Javy Baez for not getting out of the batter’s box quickly enough when he hit a second-inning pitch off the wall in right-center field Monday is missing the point.

Actually, several points, not the least of which is that Baez wound up circling the bases and sliding home safely with the Cubs’ first inside-the-park home run since the middle of last season.

The bigger point might be that the way Baez plays the game — big swings, strikeouts, mistakes and all — might be a significant part of whatever success the Cubs have down the stretch as they try to reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

‘‘I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings, but look at his two-strike numbers,’’ manager Joe Maddon said before the Cubs’ 6-3 loss Tuesday against the Giants at AT&T Park. ‘‘Look at his OPS. Look at the run production in general. It’s outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.’’

Baez slides in ahead of Buster Posey's tag Monday for the Cubs' first inside-the-park home run since Anthony Rizzo hit one June 29 last year.

With Addison Russell on the disabled list because of a foot injury, that first-rate defense — and the biggest infield arm on the team — is at shortstop until further notice.

And his two-strike numbers? Through Monday, Baez’s .207 average in two-strike counts ranked among the top third of the National League and was better than those of All-Stars Cody Bellinger, Ryan Zimmerman and Giancarlo Stanton.

Since a rough April, Baez is hitting .282 with 15 of his 16 homers, a .526 slugging percentage and an .848 OPS. And since the All-Star break, he’s hitting .309 with six homers and a .997 OPS.

‘‘I usually warm up during the season, and we’re obviously already more than halfway through,’’ said Baez, who came close Monday to becoming the first Cubs player since Ryne Sandberg to hit homers inside the park and over the fence in the same game. ‘‘I’m just seeing the ball really good and making my adjustments.’’

It was against the Giants last fall that Baez began his postseason breakout into the national spotlight. His homer in the eighth was good for a 1-0 victory in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field, and his single in the ninth was good for the go-ahead run in the clinching Game 4 at AT&T Park. Then he went on to share MVP honors in the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers with teammate Jon Lester.

‘‘The thing is, he’s not afraid of anything,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time, and sometimes he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK. With all of us, you’ve got to take the bad with the good.

‘‘Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events like he did [Monday] night.’’

Teammates don’t want Baez to change his style.

‘‘Javy’s very important,’’ right-hander Jake Arrieta said when asked about the stretch drive. ‘‘He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players. And I think the biggest thing is just to keep guys like that healthy.

‘‘The next three weeks are going to be very important for us. Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and handles the bat very well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact.

‘‘I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.’’

Baez said he doesn’t plan to change anything.

‘‘I’ve been healthy the whole year, and that’s probably the biggest thing I wanted to do,’’ he said.

Now it’s about finishing as strong as he has started the second half — ‘‘to try to do my best out there and help the team.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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