Báez keys Mets' surge: 'Feels great to be hot'

September 5th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- Javier Báez may not be the prototypical type of hitter that the Mets’ front office values, much as Yoenis Céspedes was not in 2015. And while Báez is different from Céspedes, too, he’s the exact type of player who can have a Yoenis-sized impact on New York’s attempt to climb back into the National League playoff picture.

Báez homered, stole a base, drove home two runs and beat out an infield single to spark the Mets’ go-ahead rally in a 13-6 win over the Nationals on Sunday, ensuring they will stay no further than 3 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Braves. A day after blowing a nine-run lead at Nationals Park before recovering to win, the Mets coughed up a four-run lead, but once again, managed to win in spite of it.

“It feels great to be hot at the plate right now,” Báez said, “and hopefully I’ll keep it going.”

Among all of Báez’s contributions, his most critical was not the flashiest. Leading off the eighth inning with the game tied at 6, Báez hit a slow roller that third baseman Carter Kieboom charged. Had Kieboom made the play cleanly, Báez would have been out. But Báez’s speed forced Kieboom to rush his transfer, resulting in a double-clutch that gave Báez just enough time to reach first safely. The Mets then pushed him around the bases on two more singles and a Patrick Mazeika sacrifice fly to retake the lead before erupting for six runs against Austin Voth in the ninth -- four of those coming on a Kevin Pillar grand slam.

All told, six Mets contributed multi-hit efforts, including Báez, who finished 4-for-4. He became the first Mets player to compile at least four hits, a home run and a stolen base without making an out since Kevin McReynolds in 1988. Including his fifth-inning hit-by-pitch, Báez reached base safely in all five of his plate appearances.

“He’s a very exciting player,” starting pitcher Taijuan Walker said. “He takes the extra bag, steals bases, hits homers. Just to have that kind of excitement out there, that type of player, really brings good energy for us.”

When the Mets made Báez their most prominent addition at the Trade Deadline, many focused on the things he does not do well. One of Báez’s defining characteristics is his lack of plate discipline. He leads the league in strikeouts for a reason, whiffing nearly nine times as often as he walks.

But Báez is also a two-time All-Star and former NL MVP runner-up. His power rivals any Met this side of Pete Alonso. He’s a reigning Gold Glove shortstop. And his speed can change games, as he proved twice in the eighth. To beat out his infield hit, Báez reached a sprint speed of 29.3 feet per second -- just shy of the elite threshold of 30.0 feet per second. When Mazeika’s subsequent fly ball forced Nationals center fielder Lane Thomas to slide to the turf, Báez broke for home without hesitation.

“If he keeps getting better with his approach -- which is something that he can always do -- without losing the identity of being aggressive, he’s going to be even better,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said of Báez. “There are always opportunities to keep getting better as a player, even how successful he’s been in his career. It’s impressive how he hits and puts up the numbers that he puts with that approach. It’s a marvel, really.”

After the Mets endured a difficult loss in Game 2 of a doubleheader on Saturday, Rojas received criticism for benching both Báez and Francisco Lindor in that game as a way to keep them fresh. The counterargument was that, with less than a month left in the season, the third-place Mets no longer have the luxury of worrying about load management.

A day later, Rojas went out of his way to credit that decision as a reason for Báez’s standout game -- and his second baseman wasn’t the only one to thrive under those circumstances. Lindor also homered and scored twice. Michael Conforto recorded two hits, two runs and three RBIs. Alonso hit safely three times; Jeff McNeil, twice. It was more than enough for the Mets to win, despite Walker’s six-run outing.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this offense,” Pillar said.

The rest is anecdotal, which doesn’t make it unimportant. Pillar and Rojas both cited Báez’s presence as one of the reasons behind the recent hot streaks of Lindor, Conforto and others. Because Báez possesses such game-breaking talent, he takes pressure off other players in the lineup, while also forcing pitchers to throw them better pitches.

“From Day One, when he showed up into the clubhouse, he can transmit a lot of good things,” Rojas said. “He can make this lineup so deep.”