CHICAGO – His logic was not flawed and made plenty of sense at the time.
Yet the decision could have denied one of the Cubs’ best young players and their fans a positive moment in time on Friday night.
Up till that point Johnny Cueto was frustrating home team hitters with strong command and quick delivery. Thought 7 1/3 innings the team that had the third most runs in the regular season was held to just two hits with just one runner making it to third all night long.
That’s why Javier Baez considered a different strategy in play to ignite a Cubs’ rally in a furious pitcher’s duel.
“Obviously I was just trying to get on base. One out, obviously, I was thinking about bunting and the third baseman was playing in,” said Baez of his mentality going up to the plate in the eighth inning.
Wait, a bunt?
“I was. I really was. With Cueto, that timing, that he does, that quick pitch, it’s — it’s hard to get the timing down,” said Baez, confirming his initial strategy when he stepped up to the plate. “Obviously, trying to get on base, I knew somebody was going to hit for Rossy and Les, so hopefully I could get on base and score.”
Maybe he would have. Cubs fans will never know and frankly don’t care. Fate would dictate a full swing.
Instead of bunting Cueto continued to work the inside against Baez in the at bat and the second baseman finally got a hold of a pitch. He sent it high into the air blowing left-to-right, pushing what looked initially like an easy homer back closer to the field of play.
With Angel Pagan waiting at the ivy, the ball had just enough hang time to light drop into the bottom of the metal basket in left for a solo home run. Jubilant fans jumped in unison as Baez rounded the bases having just provided the first memorable moment of the 2016 Cubs postseason.
“So I knew Cueto was pitching me inside all day, I mean all night, just waiting for him to make a mistake and he finally did,” said Baez, who thought it was an easy homer right off the bat.
When he made contact with the pitch he paused for a second and then threw the bat over his shoulder. The flip came as the ball appeared to be sailing well out of the playing field but Baez had to speed up when the wind knocked it down.
“I was so focused on that at-bat that I completely forgot about the wind. And I thought that I really I hit it really good, I thought it was way farther than that, but when I saw it jump I was like no way that ball didn’t stay in,” said Baez. “And it barely went out, but I still will take it. Didn’t mean to show anybody up. Obviously, but it was a big hit for us.”
One that started perhaps the most anticipated playoff run by the Cubs in the division era. Following a 103-win season the team goes in as a favorite to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years but the normally tormented fan base always has its fair share of skepticism.
That may have increased had the Cubs wasted Jon Lester’s eight shutout inning performance opposite of Cueto on Friday night. Tension built throughout the capacity crowd of 42,148 as the innings passed without a score on either side and that let out when Baez deposited the hit into the basket.
“Really, I mean, obviously everybody gets really excited. I’ve just been learning how to slow the game down,” said Baez of being able to come through in the 8th inning. “Obviously in big moments with how loud the crowd is, I’ve been learning how to control the game and slow it down.”
Manager Joe Maddon has seen Baez do that even before his homer in the eighth. In fact it was his hit in the bottom of the fifth inning – one of the three the Cubs got all night – that the manager believe set up the eighth inning blast.
“I love the base hit to right field, actually. That really — I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he ended up hitting a home run because what he had done in his earlier at-bats he was up there working good at-bats he wasn’t trying to do too much,” said Maddon of Baez. “Even the home run, I mean, it wasn’t his “A” hack, but it was in an area that he can do that with, so he didn’t try to force something.”
Like trying to bunt instead of swing away. That decision gave the Cubs the first of what they hope will be many October moments to come.