There’s a reason Javier Báez’s nickname is “El Mago.”
Sometimes, the things he does on a baseball field can only be described as magical. Chicago's manager, David Ross, described Báez as the little league player who is better than everyone else, who is always running around the bases and forcing his opponents into mental errors.
“He has just this way about him that, whether you call it swag or baseball IQ or just -- he plays a game like a kid,” Ross said. “I think that's why a lot of people fall in love with him.”
Based on what he was able to do Thursday at PNC Park, he's still mesmerizing opposing defenses into making mistakes.
In the top of the third inning of the Cubs' 5-3 win over the Pirates, Báez was at the plate with two outs and Willson Contreras second. Báez hit a sharp grounder to Bucs third baseman Erik González, who threw to first for what would have been the final out of the inning. The throw was wide, however, pulling first baseman Will Craig off the bag. With Báez barely halfway down the line, Craig readied to tag Báez as he approached.
But the Chicago magic man had other ideas, stopping in his tracks and going back toward the plate. Craig pursued him -- though he could have just stepped on first to record the out -- as Báez continued his retreat home.
“There should have been eight of us on the field yelling to just go step on first. Or anything, you know?” Pirates starter Tyler Anderson said. “That’s a whole team thing right there.”
Meanwhile, Contreras had rounded third and was heading toward the plate. Craig saw him coming, and flipped the ball to catcher Michael Perez. But it was too late, as Contreras slid in safely. Báez even waited around to signal “safe” on Contreras' slide before taking off for first, and Perez's throw to second baseman Adam Frazier was wild, allowing Báez to go to second on the error.
Just for good measure, Báez made it a 3-0 game when he scored on Ian Happ’s single to center in the next at-bat.
“Let's say I improvise,” Báez said. “At the moment, I can react pretty fast to things like contact and stuff like that. But I'm pretty good at tagging and not letting people tag me."
“They say if you stay in the game long enough, you’ll see everything,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “I’ve never seen that before. That’s on me. We got to know [how to execute] that. I guarantee you’ll never see it again while I’m here.”
Báez’s will to keep the inning alive symbolized the Cubs’ will to win amid their month-long standoff with the injured list.
On Thursday, Chicago had 10 players on the shelf -- which has turned regular third baseman Kris Bryant into a super-utility man -- and Anthony Rizzo sat out of his second straight game with low back tightness. Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks struck out five and allowed three solo home runs in his seven innings of work.
The Pirates even loaded the bases while behind 4-3 in the eighth.
And yet, Chicago has now gone 16-7 in May with 10 wins in its last 13 games.
“These guys have just kind of found who they are and settled into the season,” Ross said. “I think we've figured some things out.”