KANSAS CITY -- Javier Baez had struck out twice when the rain started to fall at Kauffman Stadium, interrupting the Cubs' series opener against the Royals on Monday night. He was lying on one of the couches in the clubhouse, waiting out the 22-minute delay, when teammate Pedro Strop gave him a pep talk.
Cubs fans can probably guess that this rain delay meeting worked, too.
Baez smacked a go-ahead home run leading off the sixth inning, added an RBI double in the eighth and made a stellar defensive play to back starter Cole Hamels in a 3-1 Interleague victory. Chicago is now 9-9 since the All-Star break.
"I was so mad [at my at-bats] plus the rain delay -- you can ask 'Stroppy' about my attitude," Baez said. "I struck out twice, and not that I struck out, but it was pitches way out of the zone. This is the first time I played here so I was really excited to be here. I like the field -- it's really big. I was trying to control my emotions. After the rain delay, I went out there with a different attitude and being patient."
"[I told him] 'You've got two more at-bats,'" Strop said. "'We're playing this game, and you've got two more at-bats. I want you to go 2-for-4. Don't tell me anything, you're going 2-for-4.' I was kind of screaming at him. 'Wake up, man. Wake up. We've got a game to play and you're the man. You're going to get two base hits. Watch. Let them pitch. Let the ball get close to you and hit it.' That's pretty much what it was."
Royals starter Jakob Junis fanned eight and escaped jams in the fourth and fifth innings before Kevin McCarthy took over in the sixth. Baez was expecting a first-pitch fastball after all the sliders Junis threw him. Instead, McCarthy threw a curveball and Baez launched it a projected 414 feet to straightaway center, according to Statcast™, for his 25th home run. He's now hit three homers in his last four games.
Baez delivered his RBI double with one out in the eighth off former teammate Jason Hammel. Before every at-bat, Baez was greeted by chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P" from Cubs fans in the crowd. Is it hard not to think about the National League MVP Award?
"Yes it is," Baez said. "The first at-bat, I was like, 'Damn, it's my first time here, and they're already yelling for it.'"
How hot is Baez? He leads the NL with 88 RBIs and is batting .400 (16-for-40) with 12 extra-base hits, including six home runs, and 14 RBIs over his last 10 games.
He's trying hard to ignore the hype.
"I'm trying to deal with it and stay focused with my plan," he said.
Hamels was impressed.
"He's a naturally gifted infielder," he said of Baez. "I think if you wanted to throw him at first base, I'm sure he could do that pretty well, too. You can tell -- he's a baseball player. He's the type of guy who wants to be there every day and he wants the ball to come to him and he wants to make the play, and you can see that and you want to get him the ball. You know he's going to make great plays.
"It's pretty special to have that type of player behind you on top of what he's been doing with the bat. He's been outstanding."
Making his second start since the Cubs acquired him from the Rangers, Hamels scattered seven hits over six innings, striking out two. He also had to wait out the delay that came in the top of the fourth.
"His stuff is still really good and I also believe there is another level or layer of him [regarding] pitch execution," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "This guy physically has not lost a thing. I think it's the execution or the selection of the pitch more than anything."
Strop picked up his eighth save with a 1-2-3 ninth on 10 pitches. Good thing he worked quick as rain started again.
"[Bullpen coach Lester Strode] said, 'We've got like 10 minutes before rain,'" Strop said. "I said, 'All right, I've got to do it quick.' We were trying to get out of there."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Welcome back:Benjamin Zobrist, playing in Kansas City for the first time since 2015 when he was part of the World Series championship team, tripled leading off the fourth. Jason Heyward then walked and one out later, Zobrist scored on a wild pitch during Kyle Schwarber's at-bat to tie the game at 1.
According to STATS Inc., Baez reached 25 homers in 110 games, the third fastest to do so for a Cubs second baseman since 1900. The others are Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg in 1990 (92 games) and Rogers Hornsby in 1929 (106 games).
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The Royals scored in the second on Alcides Escobar's two-out RBI single. But the highlight of the inning was a defensive play by Baez, who made a diving stop on the third-base line to get Jorge Bonifacio's grounder and was able to get to his feet in time to throw for the out at first. This was Baez's 11th start at third base as the Cubs continue to fill in while Kristopher Bryant is sidelined with a sore left shoulder.
"That was very large -- that probably prevented a two-run inning at least from them when he made that play," Maddon said.
Hamels appreciated it.
"Javy's play was outstanding," Hamels said. "I've been fortunate enough to play with a Hall of Famer behind me in Texas [third baseman Adrian Beltre] and what Javy's able to do, he's riding the line with that type of playing ability. It's great to be able to have that."
Said Baez: "I just reacted to it. I knew it was going to be fair. I wasn't that far from the line. We try to get double plays, but we're lucky we got one."
HE SAID IT
"He's been 'that guy' the whole time." -- Maddon, when asked about Baez rising to the occasion again
Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery will make his 13th start of the season in the second game of this Interleague series against the Royals at 7:15 p.m. CT on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium. Montgomery changed the grip on his curveball and he was pleased with how it felt in his previous outing against the Padres. He is 2-0 in three games (two starts) against the Royals, including a complete game on June 23, 2015. Kansas City will counter with rookie righty Brad Keller.