CLEVELAND – Cubs manager Joe Maddon might have flirted with a lineup change or two for Game 6 of the World Series, but one he did not consider, not for a second, was taking Javier Baez and his slumping bat out of it.
Not with that glove. Not with his run prevention skill at second base, especially with seven of nine Indians hitters swinging from the left side against Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta on Tuesday night.
“You’re looking for that one hit maybe, as compared to maybe the ball being in play I don’t know how many times [to Baez] in that spot,’’ said Maddon before his team tried to force a seventh and deciding game at Progressive Field.
The same would be said for right fielder Jason Heyward playing 125 feet or so behind Baez in right field. Scuffling bat, but a valuable good glove.
Defense matters, especially for a team struggling to scrape together runs like the Cubs.
“Jason’s hitting eighth, he’s hitting ninth,’’ Maddon said. “Two of the best defenders in the National League. It’s hard to walk away from that right now.’’
And when the Cubs erupted for a 7-0 lead after three innings behind Kris Bryant’s homer, Addison Russell’s grand slam and two-run double, Baez’ bat suddenly became less of an issue and Maddon had his best defense in place to protect the lead, which came into play when Heyward came in to catch Jose Ramirez’ sinking liner in the fourth when the Indians had Arrieta on the ropes and settled for one run, leaving the bases loaded.
Baez, arguably the most valuable player in the NLDS against the Giants (there is no such award) and the actual co-MVP with Jon Lester in the NLCS, seemed to have completely lost it offensively in the World Series, chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone like a cat lunging at a ball of yarn. In Game 6 against Josh Tomlin, he grounded out to second baseman Jason Kipnis, almost beating out a ground ball near the second base bag. Then he chased a high fastball from Danny Salazer for his 10th strikeout of the World Series.
Both Maddon and hitting coach John Mallee had at least one “nice talk” with the 23-year-old Baez before the game, including one apiece with at the batting cage during batting practice.
“We’re still working on him to get him back where he had been,’’ Maddon said. “Just trying to slow him down a little bit.’’
That would be hard to do, considering the breakneck speed toward stardom at which Baez was racing to almost overnight during the postseason. Exceptional play after play in the field, coupled with a tagging skill like no one can seem to recall seeing before, caught the attention of national media and fans everywhere. On top of that, Baez batted .318 with .833 OPS against the Dodgers in the NLCS.
And then in the World Series, he suddenly tanked, going 3-for-21 (all singles and no walks) with nine strikeouts in the first five games.
“He’s a young man,’’ Maddon said. “He’s a young man. And when things are going quickly, especially right now, it’s hard to put the brakes on.’’
When 2017 rolls around, Baez might settle in at second base, a spot manned primarily by Ben Zobrist during the regular season. Zobrist, like Zobrist a versatile multi-purpose defender, has been entrenched in left field in the postseason.
“It depends on how we configure the team,’’ Maddon said. “Of course, [left fielder Kyle] Schwarber being healthy, and then what do you do in center field [Dexter Fowler will be a free agent and Albert Almora is waiting in the wings]. Heyward. … And then there comes Zobrist’s name. So how do you configure all of that?’’
That’s for a later discussion. Maddon knows this: Baez would be at second base in Game 7, which is where this series appeared headed almost from the get-go Tuesday night.