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Báez can't rescue Cubs in pinch-hit appearance

@MLBastian
September 21, 2019

CHICAGO -- With the knowledge that Javier Báez was finally available as a pinch-hitter, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was waiting for the right time to tell his star shortstop to grab a bat and head to the batter's box. The moment finally arrived in the ninth inning on Saturday. Báez

CHICAGO -- With the knowledge that Javier Báez was finally available as a pinch-hitter, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was waiting for the right time to tell his star shortstop to grab a bat and head to the batter's box. The moment finally arrived in the ninth inning on Saturday.

Báez headed up the dugout steps with not only the game in the balance, but the Cubs' postseason chances rapidly diminishing. When the Wrigley Field crowd grasped what was happening, the buzzing morphed into roaring and then organized into chants of "JAVY! JAVY!"

"I would do anything to help my team," Báez said after a heartbreaking 9-8 loss to the Cardinals.

The storybook moment did not come to fruition. Báez struck out on three pitches -- all swings.

It was another example, however, of how Chicago's players are trying to save a season on the brink of collapse. Báez had been sidelined since exiting a game on Sept. 1, with what the Cubs discovered was a hairline fracture in his left thumb. Báez is not completely healed, but he was given clearance before Saturday's game to be used as a pinch-hitter.

Trailing by one run in the bottom of the ninth, Báez stepped in against the hard-throwing Carlos Martinez with Kris Bryant on first and two outs in the books. The shortstop fouled off the first pitch he saw and eventually went down hacking at a 99-mph fastball.

"I was holding him back and there it came," Maddon said. "The first pitch he missed -- that foul ball -- that was a really good swing."

Báez's return to the batter's box came two days after first baseman Anthony Rizzo made a shocking return to Chicago's lineup. Rizzo sprained his right ankle on Sunday against the Pirates and was initially thought to potentially be out for the rest of the regular season. The first baseman made it back to the field by the opener of this crucial series with St. Louis.

"After he took the field, he got my respect," Báez said.

Rizzo also respected what Báez attempted to do on Saturday.

"It just goes to show that he wants to be out there with us," Rizzo said. "He took some good swings and fell short, but I'm happy for him, for him to step up and do that."

In 135 games this season, Báez has hit .281/.316/.531 in his follow-up campaign to being voted the runner-up in National League Most Valuable Player balloting. The shortstop has 29 homers, 38 doubles, 85 RBIs and 89 runs scored this season for the Cubs, who dropped to six games back of the NL Central-leading Cardinals with the loss.

Báez returned as a pinch-runner on Thursday and is now permitted to hit, but playing the field is still an issue. The shortstop has tried playing catch in the batting cage, but still feels soreness when catching the ball. Báez said he hopes to be able to return to the lineup by Tuesday, but he added that the decision will be left to the medical staff.

"I've just got to get here and tell the trainers how it feels," he said. "Obviously, they're going to make me hit, and they've got to see how I react and they're going to decide. But I'll tell them I'm getting ready for Tuesday."

Báez hopes his return can help the Cubs claw back into the NL Wild Card picture. The defeat on Saturday dropped Chicago three games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card slot, after Milwaukee topped Pittsburgh.

"We're obviously in a hard situation right now," Báez said. "We've got to win games. If not, we're going to be out of the playoffs. We're in this together. If we're going to give everything, we're going to give everything together. I'm trying my best to come back."

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.