The Incredible Hulk has always been one of my favorite superheroes. He’s at once a brilliant scientist and a rampaging monster, a force of nature who can’t be contained and often can’t seem to get out of his own way. Ah, but when Bruce Banner’s mind remains sentient even after his gamma-irradiated cells go all not-so-jolly green giant, that’s when things get really fun.
I recently likened Javy Baez to Spider-Man, and I think that comparison is still someone apt. Upon further review, however, I have determined that sufficient evidence exists to overturn that call. Not only is he freakishly athletic, he’s also inordinately brilliant and is capable of beating you with both his body and his mind. Wait, that’s still Peter Parker/Spidey. Why was I wanting to overturn things again?
Oh yeah, the anger and the fierce drive that undercuts the performance.
Far from an uncontrolled maelstrom of rage and raw power, Javy has learned to channel his anger and frustration in order to use them as fuel. Tuesday’s game-winning hit was an example of just such refined concentration, a defiant act of retribution that made him both hero and villain at the same time. To understand why it was so, we need to go back to Saturday’s Game 2, when Baez faced Hunter Strickland with two outs in the 8th inning of the Cub’s 5-2 victory.
Actually, you know what, let’s go back even further first. When the season began, Baez was a utility man, somewhat of a role player — albeit an insanely talented one — pushed to the fringes by Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell and a propensity to keep swinging big in two-strike counts. But it didn’t take long for him to prove that he’d made the necessary mechanical changes, increasing his OPS in those counts from a career .287 mark to .605 in 2016 (h/t Sahadev Sharma).
Pitchers could no longer waste a slider in the dirt and get him to swing. Well, not every time. And they damn sure weren’t going to beat him with fastballs, a lesson Strickland never learned. Combined with his superior defense all over the infield, the new offensive approach made Baez an indispensable part of both the Cubs’ present and future. But it’s one thing to excel in the regular season and quite another to shine under the bright lights of the playoffs.
“I love playing in the postseason. I love playing under pressure,” Baez boasted Tuesday “I think I can slow the game pretty good. I’m just doing my job trying to get the routine plays and trying to help my team win.”
Just doing his job and making routine plays? Who is this guy? He’s not the hothead San Franciscans wanted to make him out to be, that’s for sure. Okay, fine, maybe there’s still a little of that in there. What Baez is either way, though, is coachable. In a team meeting prior to the postseason, the Cubs discussed two-strike approach and being short to ball in order to make contact and put it in play. Easier said than done, especially when all eyes are on you.
Back to Game 2, when Baez dug in against Strickland the night after he had dropped his bat while admiring his game-winning home run against Johnny Cueto. The hard-throwing righty reliever opened the at-bat with a 99 mph message for the batter before setting him down with three straight called strikes. Javy wadded up the memory of the AB and tossed in the burn pile, where it would smolder until he needed to set it ablaze.
That moment came Tuesday night, when Javy once again dug in to face Strickland. Knowing that he’d already gotten the better of the man standing in the box, Strickland felt no need for such trifles as statement pitches. He led with a low curve that induced a swing and miss: 0-1. Then he dialed up 98 mph four-seamer that Javy fouled off: 0-2.
I got him now, the pitcher must have thought.
No you don’t, Javy answered by slapping the next fastball, this one at 99, into center to plate the game-winning run.
“(Strickland) just kept staring at me for no reason,” Baez said after the game. “The last pitch was a fastball — you can’t throw that pitch to me.”
And he made sure to let Strickland know about it too, his demonstrative celebration both a response and warning. Javy then returned the glare, keeping his eyes fixed on his opponent as he returned to the bag.
“If you’re tripping because I took a little time coming out of the box, if you’re talking trash to me, if you want to boo me, I don’t care. I have a clear mind. It’s only because I’m doing damage.”
And here’s the real video:
So go ahead, opposing managers, have your Cy Young-worthy starters and your red-assed relievers challenge this kid. You may have an army, the Cubs have a Javy.