I know that we tend to exaggerate the meaning of the playoffs, which means we tend to exaggerate the meaning of playoff player performance. Regular players are made out to be heroes, superstars completing their development on the national stage. The playoffs make it easy to get swept away by anything. The increased focus on every single individual event allows for one to forget that all of these sample sizes are remarkably small. Through the middle of May, the Phillies had one of the best records in baseball. The Phillies were a bad team all along.
The point is: I get it. And, you get it. We all understand the postseason booby traps. And yet I need to share that Javier Baez is taking the playoffs over. Baez, already, was opening national eyes, and he owned the NLDS against the Giants. Sunday against the Dodgers, Baez authored a new chapter for his aggressively-growing legend. Not even very long ago, Baez felt risky and almost disposable. Now it’s difficult to see the Cubs winning without him.
Already in these playoffs, Baez had provided the only run in a game. In Game 2 of the NLCS, the Cubs were going up against Clayton Kershaw, so it stood to reason runs would again be at a premium. Baez, in his first trip, struck out, and, well, that happens. Especially when you’re Javier Baez, and especially when you’re facing the best pitcher in baseball. But Baez picked things up in the bottom of the fifth. When he came to bat, Kershaw had faced 14 hitters, and Kershaw had retired 14 hitters. Buster Olney was starting to tweet about a potential perfecto. The Cubs needed something, a sign of life, evidence that breaking through could be possible. Baez saw an 0-and-1 curveball.
All that is is a clean base hit. And Baez didn’t come around to score. Kershaw, today, isn’t thinking about this single, but not only was that the Cubs’ first spark. Look at this again. This is how much Javier Baez has improved since he was a rookie.
The story of the playoffs has been Baez’s maturation, and part of that has been maintaining better control of himself in the box. Baez came up with a huge leg kick, and he didn’t know anything but the huge leg kick, and it unsurprisingly made him vulnerable. Baez still has that kick today, but he doesn’t always use it. A few years ago, Baez would’ve swung right through this pitch. Look at him now. Baez got fooled, and he did shift his weight. Yet with his foot down, Baez stayed under control, and he kept his hands back until he could whip them forward at the appropriate time. This swing won’t hit you a homer. This swing will save an at-bat, and Baez turned a would-be 0-and-2 count into a line drive. The Cubs were on the board, in the second column if not in the first, and Baez again put his development on display. It’s adaptive hitting from someone who came up rather stubborn.
The Baez show, of course, was far from complete. He singled in the bottom of the fifth, and then he started a double play in the top of the sixth. But it wasn’t just any double play. It was a creative double play that required Baez to think quickly on his feet.
By allowing the soft liner to fall cleanly, Baez turned one out into two outs. As we’ve already gone over, the play was arguably borderline, but for Baez there wasn’t any real meaningful downside. Even if the umpires rather surprisingly ruled it an infield fly, the automatic out would stand. But an infield-fly call was unlikely, given the trajectory of the ball, and Baez found a loophole. He had two seconds to make a decision and he made a great one. Maybe this is something he’s practiced. Maybe this is something that’s been drilled into him. Even still, not every second baseman makes that play. An awful lot of players would take the one sure out. Baez doubled up, and he got the Cubs out of a jam.
Which only set the table for the real fireworks. In hindsight, Baez isn’t really remembered for the fifth inning. He isn’t really remembered for the sixth. It’s all about the seventh, when Baez came up as the go-ahead run with two down in the frame. The score was 1-0 Dodgers, and there was a runner on first. Kenley Jansen was ready in the bullpen, but Kershaw convinced Dave Roberts to give him one more hitter.
It’s a decision that might live on in infamy. And perhaps that’s unfair to the first-year manager, given that Clayton Kershaw is Clayton Kershaw, yet only days ago, Roberts went to his closer without hesitation. Sunday night, he hesitated.
Once again, Baez showed off. And, once again, Kershaw’s postseason hopes were dealt a devastating last-minute blow. When Kershaw closed out the NLDS, fans and writers alike were quick to bid farewell to what had been an unpleasant and maybe unfair October narrative. Now it’s the seven pitches that look like the blip, because Kershaw more recently threw one bad one.
Off the bat at 103 miles per hour. Baez’s go-ahead, game-winning homer wasn’t some Wrigley cheap-shot, like Andre Ethier’s the game before. Were it not for an extremely favorable wind, Ethier would’ve wound up with a harmless fly out. Baez’s homer was legitimate. Batted balls hit the same way have most often been homers. It wasn’t exactly the pitch Kershaw wanted, and Baez applied a home-run swing. A leg kick was there. Baez was ahead in the count. Reading the situation, he took a chance, and he cemented his status as an area hero.
Javier Baez is far from the only reason why the Cubs are where they are. It’s been a complete team effort all season long, and Baez will be counted as no one’s 2016 NL MVP. But while other players carried more of the load for the first six months, these last couple weeks have been almost all about Baez, showing off what he can do in every dimension. As things stand today, the Cubs are more likely than any other remaining team to win the World Series. It’s all they’ve ever wanted, and to this point, halfway through a terrific NLCS, they have a blossoming 23-year-old to thank. He might not have gotten them to the playoffs, but he’s pulling them to the finish line.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.