PITTSBURGH – The tale of the Cubs’ diminished-capacity outfield these days can also be told in part as a tale of two infielders: Kris Bryant and Javy Baez.
Bryant, the All-Star third baseman versatile enough to help cover some of the outfield needs in the last week, could see more playing time there depending on the status of right fielder Jason Heyward’s sore wrist.
But just as significant in manager Joe Maddon’s comfort level in taking his starter out of the infield is the luxury Baez gives the manager with his versatile and exceptional fielding ability.
“You could actually say without really stretching things way too far that he’s one of the best infielders in the National League, Javier is,” Maddon said. “And he doesn’t start.
“Purely as a defensive, ground-balls, infield-acumen kid of player, he’s one of the best in the league right now, period,” Maddon added. “We’ve just got to find opportunity for him.”
Baez backed that up in Tuesday’s start at third base with several sharp-to-dazzling plays, including charging two rollers in the late innings and turning them into scoop-and-throw outs — one barehand, one with a backhand glove pick. He also backhanded a tough hop behind the bag in the seventh and made a laser throw to first to get David Freese on a play he made look easier than it was.
“You can’t play much better defense than he did tonight,” Maddon said. “Javy was spectacular.”
Maddon said Baez would be back at third Wednesday in a decision made before Tuesday’s game.
For the last two days in particular, Baez’s opportunity has come in the form of injuries to outfielders Matt Szczur and Jason Heyward.
When Szczur left Monday’s game in the fifth with a hamstring injury, Maddon shifted second baseman Ben Zobrist to the outfield, sending Baez to second. Baez then made the defensive play of the game on a tag of Starling Marte on a steal attempt, Marte an inch from the bag as Baez put down the glove as he leaped over the bag to field the throw.
“Not many guys can do that,” Maddon said.
Meanwhile, if the Cubs have anymore outfielders go down, if Bryant makes the All-Star game again, he could be a corner outfielder by then.
Tuesday marked the eighth time in 10 games he has played the outfield, seven of those starting there.
“I’m fine with it,” said Bryant, who isn’t looking for a position change long-term. “That’s still my priority, where a lot of my focus is, just continuing to get better over there [at third].”