Who’s better than Javy Baez? Right now, the answer is nobody
SAN FRANCISCO — Javy Baez tried to play it off as no big deal, but that dog wasn’t hunting.
Besides, the Cubs second baseman and breakout star of the NLDS was standing in the clamor of a winning clubhouse, cacophonous joy all around him, champagne soaking through his clothes, the preposterous goggles that covered most of his face beginning to fog over.
Moments like that one on Tuesday night, after the Cubs eliminated the Giants with a ninth-inning comeback for the ages, have a way of making the truth flow.
So again, this time more privately, Baez was asked to explain a particular dramatic gesture he made after rounding first base with the game- and series-winning hit.
Because this gesture wasn’t directed at his teammates, as Cubs players have been doing after big hits all season. Instead, Baez kept his back to the dugout and snarled as he stuck out his left fist and pounded it several times with his open right hand. He was glaring while he did it, but at whom or what, exactly?
“I had my reasons,” he said.
Was it intended for Giants reliever Hunter Strickland? Or for the whole Giants team? Or was it even broader than that — an exclamation point on his arrival as a postseason celebrity who is only beginning to be recognized for things he knew long ago that he could do?
“It was that,” he said. “It was all that.”
By the end of the teams’ series, the Giants — and their fans — clearly did not like Baez, who was booed for two nights solid at AT&T Park. It started in Game 1 at Wrigley Field when Baez lingered at the plate and watched his eighth-inning home run ball fly into the basket in left for the only run of the night.
In Game 2, Strickland buzzed Baez up and in. In Game 3, closer Sergio Romo yapped at Baez after striking him out. Reliever Derek Law had words for Baez and the Cubs, too. Before and during Baez’s winning at-bat against Strickland in the finale, the right-hander tried to rattle him.
Afterward, Baez laughed at Strickland’s effort to intimidate.
“He just kept staring at me for no reason,” he said.
He also laughed at Strickland’s effort to get him out.
“The last pitch was a fastball — you can’t throw that pitch to me.”
And he had a word or two in return for the Giants team and its supporters.
“If you’re tripping because I took a little time coming out of the (batter’s) box, if you’re talking trash to me, if you want to boo me, I don’t care. I have a clear mind. It’s only because I’m doing damage.”
The Giants didn’t like him, but baseball fans all over got to know him and Cubdom clearly fell head over heels in love with him as Baez was the best player on the field night after night. Baez led all Cubs in the NLDS with four runs scored and two game-winning hits, yet somehow it was his personal parade of web gems in the field that seemed to move the needle more.
Game 4 alone was a highlight reel of plays that perhaps only Baez — not just among the Cubs, but in all of baseball — is capable of making.
He showed range on ground balls that hasn’t often been seen — ever — and a contortionist’s flexibility on throws and tags. Go ahead, try sprinting 40 feet to your right only to violently twist your body on one foot in the opposite direction even as you’re crashing to the ground. Or better yet, don’t. Your insurance provider will thank you for it.
Is Baez the best defensive player in the major leagues? Despite not having been a full-time starter throughout the 2016 season, does he have the deepest well of talent of any member of the Cubs? Is there a more valuable Cub right now than Baez, Kris Bryant’s and Anthony Rizzo’s MVP candidacies notwithstanding?
These are questions being asked by plenty of people.
It’s almost comical now to think back to the Cubs’ offseason signing of Ben Zobrist, not because the signing was a bad idea — it certainly wasn’t — but because of what it said about Baez. In a nutshell, it said he wasn’t an every-day kind of player.
Who knows? Maybe that actually was an accurate read on him at the time.
But October Javy Baez is one player — maybe the player — the Cubs can’t take off the field for even an inning. And they won’t. Not this postseason. Probably not, to any meaningful extent, for a long time to come.
“I know what I can do,” Baez said. “And what I do, I’ll do it for my team, for my fans and for Chicago to bring the ‘W’ home.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.