CHICAGO -- Javier Baez's swing looped from the bottom of the strike zone to the top of it, his right hand leaving his bat as it whooshed above his shoulder. Baez watched his first home run of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series fly into the night on Wednesday, as aware as anyone of its personal significance.
Three innings later, Baez cranked another home run into the Wrigley Field bleachers, blowing a bubble as he took a skip toward first base. Baez's elation was unmistakable; in hitting two homers to lead the Cubs to a 3-2 win over the Dodgers, postponing elimination, he burst out of an 0-for-20 postseason funk in about the most explosive way possible.
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"Just give him credit for sticking with it," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Very difficult start to the postseason for him, and that's what he can do."
Like many Cubs, Baez was struggling at the plate coming into Game 4 of the NLCS presented by Camping World, though his issues ran deeper than those of Kristopher Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, et al. Baez's 0-for-20 slump included eight strikeouts and two double plays. For the most part, his second baseman's glove was keeping him in Maddon's lineup, but even that was no longer a given.
"I've been trying to get a base hit so hard," Baez said.
It was around the start of the NLCS that Baez began feeling better about his approach at the plate. The results still weren't there -- he went 0-for-5 in Games 1 and 2 before sitting on the bench for most of Game 3. But by that point, Baez felt unlucky more than anything, ready to uncoil.
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Maddon liked the Game 4 matchup against left-hander Alex Wood, who had allowed two hits to Baez in five prior meetings. Baez quickly made it 3-for-6 on his first home run, bashing a knuckle-curve that tumbled toward the bottom edge of the strike zone.
"It's a little frustrating, especially when you feel like you've made a quality pitch," Wood said. "It's something where, if you throw a quality pitch -- a pitch he doesn't hit well at all -- he gets it up in the air, it's a little frustrating for sure."
So imagine Wood's vexation in the fifth, when Baez golfed a changeup below the strike zone into the left-field seats. Suddenly, the Cubs' second baseman was 2-for-22 in the playoffs, feeling much better about his standing heading into a must-win Game 5.
"That guy's a baseball player -- I think that's the best way to describe him," teammate Kyle Schwarber said. "You guys can label him as flashy. You guys can label him as whatever. But that guy to me is a baseball player. He cares. He makes the stellar plays, he makes the routine plays and he finds a way to come up with big hits."
That much was plenty true last October, when Baez homered off Corey Kluber in World Series Game 7, and provided the only run in Chicago's 1-0 National League Division Series opener against the Giants. But heading into Game 4 of this year's NLCS, Baez simply hoped to avoid becoming the sixth player to go hitless in a single postseason. (Dal Maxvill's 0-for-22 in the 1968 World Series remains the ignominious MLB record.)
That Baez did so much more won't be forgotten around Wrigley anytime soon.
"Tonight I just said to myself not to try too much, and I didn't, and there you have it," Baez said. "I had made good contact [twice] and we won the game by one run."