Báez's grand slam caps offensive explosion

April 22nd, 2021

CHICAGO -- knew it right away. The Cubs shortstop strutted for a few steps out of the batter's box, nodded his head a couple of times and then finished the moment with a casual drop of the bat.

The baseball that just met Báez's bat was well on its way to Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers, and the Cubs were well on their way to a wild 16-4 romp over the Mets on Wednesday. That sixth-inning grand slam was the evening's exclamation point.

"As long as we win," Báez said, "it doesn't matter how it goes for me."

That may be true, but Báez has been under the microscope three weeks into this season for a statistical stat line that is extreme even by his free-swinging standards. And then comes a night like Wednesday, when waiting through all the whiffs finally pays off.

Báez had zero strikeouts in his five trips to the plate against the Mets, marking only his second no-punchout performance of 2021. Shoot, the Cubs shortstop even made contact with James McCann's mitt in the fifth, resulting in catcher's interference.

There was a bit of hard luck (Báez lined out to third baseman J.D. Davis in the second) and good fortune (Davis booted a grounder from Báez as part of Chicago's seven-run fourth). Báez also had some fun, flying out to deep left in the eighth while batting left-handed for just the third time in his career.

And, of course, there was that towering, no-doubt slam. All of it came after Báez struck out swinging four times Tuesday night.

"The first thing you've got to do is flush it after the game," Báez said of the previous night's showing. "For me, it's my timing. My timing, my approach and the trust that I have in the pitcher. I'm seeing the ball good, even though I struck out four times last night.”

Báez's shot off Mets reliever Trevor Hildenberger -- against a slider -- capped a three-inning concoction of Chicago offense and Mets’ miscues across the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. New York had four errors overall, including three in the Cubs' 10-batter, seven-run fourth that chased lefty David Peterson.

While the Mets' defense certainly did its part to help the Cubs to a pile of runs, Chicago capitalized with a wave of singles, walks and smart baserunning. Within that last category was a sprint from second to home by Báez on a two-run hit from David Bote in the fourth.

"It was nice. Quality at-bats," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I don't know if we've had that many singles in quite some time. It feels like the things we've seen over the last four or five days have been really good and paid off."

The Cubs had 10 singles overall, including six in the fourth inning alone. To Ross' point, Chicago had topped six singles in a game this season just once (seven on April 8). Led by Báez's extreme batting profile, the North Siders have been heavy on strikeouts and dependent on walks and homers.

And the Cubs were back to that Three True Outcome style in the sixth. One batter was hit by a pitch, three drew walks and three struck out. Báez took advantage of all the traffic with his sixth career grand slam.

When the smoke cleared on El Mago's latest show, the shortstop was batting .203 with a .250 on-base percentage and a 44.9% strikeout rate to go with a 1.4% walk rate. That said, Báez was also slugging .469 and on pace for 40-plus homers, 40-plus steals and 130-plus RBIs over 600 projected plate appearances.

Add all that up and combine it with Báez's elite defense abilities, and he is one of the game's unique players.

When that full picture comes into view, it also makes sense why Ross would say Tuesday that Báez is "the best version of himself when he's turned loose and able to play freely."

This is not to say the Cubs are not trying to tighten up some areas behind the scenes.

"There’s some things he’s working on," Ross said. "I don't want to tell the world exactly everything that he's going through. There's some mechanical things and timing things that he's still working on. You see glimpses of it."

Báez provided one of those jaw-dropping glimpses when he was trotting around the bases -- moments before the Wrigley Field crowd showered the shortstop with chants of, “JAVY! JAVY!”

"I'm a big team player, you know?" he said. "Like I say, I don't take my numbers out there. I don't take my frustrations."