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0-2 count, in need of magic, Javy comes through

@MLBastian
June 23, 2019

CHICAGO -- Javier Báez jogged up the dugout steps, his dirt-stained jersey pulled out after his trip through the home dugout, and the Cubs’ shortstop howled and pumped his fist. He was answering the “M-V-P!” calls of the roaring Wrigley Field crowd after shaking the old ballpark with his latest

CHICAGO -- Javier Báez jogged up the dugout steps, his dirt-stained jersey pulled out after his trip through the home dugout, and the Cubs’ shortstop howled and pumped his fist. He was answering the “M-V-P!” calls of the roaring Wrigley Field crowd after shaking the old ballpark with his latest heroics.

In the eighth inning, Baez drilled a go-ahead three-run home run off Mets righty Seth Lugo, sending his audience into a frenzy and powering the Cubs to a 5-3 victory over the Mets. It was a much-needed moment for a Chicago club that had dropped eight of its previous dozen games, including the last two in careless fashion.

Box score

During that moment, none of that mattered. Baez stole the show.

"You want all the attention on you," Baez said.

The win salvaged a split of the four-game set with New York and allowed the Cubs to stay atop the National League Central.

Baez soaked in the atmosphere after his game-changing blast -- the 100th home run of his career -- partially due to the frustration he felt earlier in the game. Cole Hamels was locking horns with Mets ace Jacob deGrom, and Baez struck out twice as the first batter in both the second and fourth innings. Runs were hard to come by for the Cubs, Pete Alonso had set another rookie home-run record for New York and Baez was fuming.

Chicago reliever Pedro Strop was on his way out to the bullpen not long after Baez's second strikeout of the day -- a punchout that featured four consecutive sliders from deGrom. The shortstop's plan was to look for the fastball. He expected the fastball. Instead, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner kept feeding him breaking balls that ran out of the zone.

Baez vented to Strop.

"He's not throwing any fastballs! Just sliders!"

Strop tried to calm the shortstop down.

"I'm like, 'It's good you know that. Go up with another plan,'" Strop said. "'Do your thing and you're going to win this ballgame.'"

Cubs manager Joe Maddon never expects anger or frustration to linger for too long with his star shortstop.

"He was upset," Maddon said. "But then he files it, he goes back, he plays his defense, he smiles, he does his thing, he pops sunflower seeds. He doesn't carry things with him. That's what a good baseball player does."

The Cubs drove deGrom's pitch count up to 97 after six innings -- Baez worked the righty for nine pitches and singled in the sixth -- convincing the Mets to turn things over to their beleaguered bullpen. Facing Lugo in the eighth, Kyle Schwarber led off with a single and then Anthony Rizzo drew a one-out walk. That prompted a mound visit from Mets pitching coach Phil Regan.

Baez's walk-up music -- Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" -- began to play. Thanks to the mound meeting, the song played long enough that fans began singing along: "Don't worry, about a thing. Every little thing, is gonna be alright."

And then Baez slipped into an 0-2 count against Lugo.

"He's the type of player that you can never count him out," Hamels said.

That has been especially evident in 0-2 situations this season for Baez.

Entering Sunday, all Major League batters combined were hitting .152 with a .397 OPS on at-bats ending in an 0-2 count. The league as a whole was batting .165 with a .464 OPS in plate appearances that concluded after beginning with an 0-2 count. The free-swinging Baez is an outlier. He is now batting .314 with four homers and a 1.057 OPS on 0-2 and .296 with nine homers and a 1.076 OPS after an 0-2 count.

Hamels had a theory about why that is the case with the Cubs' shortstop, who has a 29.8 percent strikeout rate (fifth-highest in MLB), but also 19 homers, an .874 OPS and a 122 wRC+.

"Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2," Hamels said. "So, if that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him -- it's considered almost always an 0-2 count -- he's going to get really good at it, because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. ... That obviously, I think, can kind of make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect. And therefore, that's why they make mistakes."

Baez shrugged when asked about his approach in such situations.

"I just try to see the ball better and cut down my swing," he said. "But, that's pretty hard for me, because I've got to swing hard."

Like deGrom, Lugo leaned on his slider for the potential chase pitch. This time, though, Baez had adjusted his sights and the shortstop was ready when the breaking ball hung in the strike zone. Baez slammed it to right-center field, where it soared beyond the bricks and ivy and into the bleacher seats.

Baez admired his work for a few steps and then casually let go of his bat.

The Cubs needed that moment.

"That was big for me, for the team and for him," said Strop, who worked the ninth for the save. "This guy can do it all. This is a kid that he has the most passion for this game. I love to see him play. He's one of the best."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.