CHICAGO -- With two game-winning hits already on his list of postseason highlights, Javier Báez fell only feet short of delivering another on Sunday night. What would have sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy and revived seventh-inning horrors of postseasons past for Clayton Kershaw instead represented the Cubs' final fruitless attempt to get to the Dodgers' lefty, who pitched Los Angeles to a 1-0 win in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had just been talked into sticking with his starter by a look in Kershaw's eye, and so the skipper settled back in the dugout ready to watch the game's best take on one of October's hottest.
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Baez had already broken up Kershaw's no-hitter with a two-out single two innings earlier, and now he stepped up to the plate with two out, Anthony Rizzo on first, and the Cubs trailing by one in the seventh.
Baez laid off a low fastball, then drove an outside one to deep center.
"Off the bat, I thought it was something bad, for sure," Kershaw said afterward. "I kind of had a mini stroke right there. I thought that it was at least off the wall, at least a double. I had a slight panic moment, for sure."
Instead, center fielder Joc Pederson camped under it with ease, ending the inning and preventing another sour seventh inning for Kershaw, who has allowed 15 of his 41 career postseason runs in the frame.
"I really hit it good, but I was just a little bit out front," Baez said. "And dead center. I think the wind killed it a little bit."
He got most of it, however, and, as Statcast™ data suggests, was a bit unlucky. Balls hit with the same exit velocity (102.5 mph) and launch angle (24 degrees) as Baez's have gone for a home run 67 percent of the time in 2016. The batting average with those parameters is .899.
Those figures, though, don't account for where the ball was hit -- in this case, to the deepest part of the Wrigley Field outfield -- or the environmental factors at play. Though the wind was not gusting as it had been one night earlier, the air was heavy. Baez's drive ended up landing 387 feet from home.
"It's one of those things that you get so used to watching a ball come off the bat, you knew it was just not far enough," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "You just knew it. It was hit well, then immediately you look at the outfielder, and you look at the wind, and you know that all in advance. You just knew that was at the wall, and that's just one of those moments."
According to Statcast™, that particular pitch from Kershaw had a spin rate of 2,447, well above his average four-seam fastball spin rate of 2,294. For four-seamers, higher spin rate is what gives the pitch the "rising fastball" effect, and pitchers typically get more swings and misses as the spin rate goes up. This season, Kershaw had allowed only one home run on a pitch with a spin rate above 2,400.
Countering that, though, was the fact that his extension on the pitch (6.35 feet) was slightly below his season average of 6.45. So even though the fastball registered at 93.4 mph on the radar gun, it had a perceived velocity of 93 mph. That worked in Baez's favor and perhaps helped account for the cut he was able to take.
Shrugged Baez afterward: "I just didn't get all of it."