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MVP buzz? Javy Baez picks up where he left off with big opener for Cubs

Javy Baez, after hitting his second homer of Thursday's opener, just might be No. 1 in the NL MVP race -- with only 161 games to go.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Call the Cubs’ 12-4 victory over the Rangers in their season opener Thursday a sign of the “urgency” they’ve been talking about all winter if you want.

Proclaim team president Theo Epstein’s contention that last year’s offense “broke” a mere figment of the Cubs’ past after 13 hits and eight walks against Texas pitching.

“You tell me after today,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said.

Go ahead and insist that the Cubs got the message about this so-called “year of reckoning” after last year’s early playoff exit.

But after just one game in a season with at least 161 to play, only one thing was certain about any of these Cubs this season:

Javy Baez has launched his 2019 MVP candidacy after he fell just short of winning the National League vote last year.

Hey, it’s no crazier than 20 Democratic presidential candidates rolling out campaigns for 2020 already.

“Last year it kind of got to me a little bit,” Baez said when a reporter actually asked him about the MVP race after a March 28 opener of a six-month baseball season.

“It’s really early,” Baez said, “the first day, but let’s see how it goes the first half.”

For now, two homers off different pitchers to two different parts of Globe Life Park has Baez looking like the very, very, very early leader over last year’s winner, Christian Yelich (one homer) of the Brewers.

It may be early, but the way Baez approached a workmanlike spring and brought perhaps a career-high level of swagger into the season, this ridiculously early MVP field at least has more clarity out of the gate than that presidential thing.

Whether Baez gets another hit the rest of the opening series, he already was talking in February about getting better in 2019 than he was during a breakout 2018.

And the Opening Day cleanup hitter and shortstop is delivering with a more mature approach and greater confidence as the season opens.

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“I think we all kind of saw him grow up before our eyes last year,” said Lester who gave up a two-run homer to Elvis “Baby Shark” Andrus in the third for all the damage against him in a six-inning start.

“And then this year it’s just him being himself now,” Lester said. “He’s done it, so I don’t think the questions are there as far as, ‘Can he?’ Now it’s just a matter of him going out and playing.”

After seeing six pitches in a first-inning at-bat, Baez reached out to hook an 0-2 breaking ball from left-hander Mike Minor just over the railing in left field for a fourth-inning solo shot for the Cubs’ first run of the season.

Then during the Cubs’ six-run fifth, Baez greeted one-time teammate Jesse Chavez after a pitching change by driving a first-pitch fastball into the Rangers bullpen in right-center for a game-changing three-run shot.

“Right now he cannot be more confident,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s impossible.”

Said teammate David Bote: “I’m not surprised at all. The dude’s a superstar.”

Added Lester: “Let Javy do Javy, and I think good things will happen.”

Of course, Baez was just one large part of what went well for the Cubs in their quest for a quick start to their season.

“I think that was offensively better than any game we had last year,” said Kris Bryant, who underscored the renewed health of his left shoulder with his own homer in the eighth inning.

Whether there’s any veiled references there to hitting coaches past, the Cubs talked before and after the game about fresh starts and thoughts such as Albert Almora Jr. saying before the game, “I forgot what happened last year.”

“We played with a lot of energy, man,” Maddon said. “A lot of energy.”

Said Bryant: “Just overall an unbelievable game to start the year.”