The signs had been there. Javier Báez was starting to look more like himself in the batter's box in recent games. The swing was as violent as ever, but the shortstop appeared more under control and was beginning to hone in on appropriate pitches.
"It's coming. I feel like it's coming," Cubs manager David Ross declared over the weekend. "I know there's a sense of urgency there for him as well."
On Monday night, Báez used that urgency to help power a 9-3 romp over the Tigers at Comerica Park. The shortstop launched a pair of home runs -- one over each cavernous gap in Detroit's outfield -- in the precise performance the Cubs had been waiting on for weeks.
Báez was not alone in helping the National League Central-leading North Siders to an 18-10 record -- plus the 11,000th victory in franchise history -- but his showing felt critical. Chicago has held steady atop the division with a group of stars underperforming, and Ross summed up that reality before the win.
"We're going to live and die with the core guys here," Ross said. "We're going to be as good as those guys are. That's our strength. Those are the guys that are going to carry the day for us."
Here is a walkthrough of how Báez carried the game on Monday:
Third inning: Single to center
In his opening at-bat against Tigers rookie Casey Mize, Báez struck out swinging against a 1-2 slider that tailed well out of the zone to end the top of the first inning. In their second battle, Mize again worked the Cubs' star shortstop into a 1-2 count, giving Báez something to think about.
"I get frustrated," Báez said. "But I let it go fast and just move forward to the next thing."
The next pitch Mize threw was a splitter low and away. This time, Báez adjusted his swing, flipping the barrel at the ball instead of taking a power-driven hack. The result was a base hit that dropped into center field.
It was a great sign, given that Báez had hit just .167 (1-for-6) against two-strike offspeed pitches this season. Overall against offspeed offerings (a group that includes splitters, changeups, forkballs and screwballs by Statcast's filters), Báez had a .200 slugging percentage this year, compared to .510 in '19.
Fourth inning: Two-run homer to right-center
The last time Báez cleared a fence was on Aug. 1, when he belted a solo shot off Pittsburgh's Mitch Keller at Wrigley Field. Over the next 16 games, leading up to the weekend series against the White Sox, he hit .155/.194/.207 with 25 strikeouts and two walks.
Then, Báez began to heat up. He singled against the South Siders on Friday. One night later, he fell behind 0-2 before drawing a leadoff walk in the sixth. He had a two-out single in the eighth Saturday night, too. On Sunday, Báez doubled in the eighth, setting up a game-deciding two-run homer by Kyle Schwarber.
"You knew [Báez's slump] wasn't going to last forever," said David Bote, who had four RBIs and launched a 455-foot homer in Monday's win. "He's an unbelievable talent, an unbelievable worker."
In the fourth inning in Detroit, Tigers lefty Tyler Alexander gave up an RBI single to Anthony Rizzo and then sent a 1-0 changeup low and away to Báez. The shortstop pounced, crushing the ball 109.9 mph (per Statcast) to right-center for an opposite-field two-run shot. Báez had 14 homers the opposite way in 2019.
"Listening to him come back in the dugout, about how good that felt for him, I think is a positive.” Ross said. “A really nice approach, that homer to right. I think that's got to be a big weight lifted off of his shoulders."
Ninth inning: Solo homer to left-center
Not that Alec Mills needed much more support for his strong seven-inning outing, but Báez was not done yet.
In the final frame, Tigers right-hander John Schreiber spun a 1-2 curveball to Báez that hung over the zone. The pitch floated outside enough for him to extend and yank the ball over the wall in left-center for a more traditional El Mago blast.
That gave Báez the eighth multihomer game of his career.
Going into Monday’s contest, Báez had a .231 slugging percentage on breaking balls, compared to a .550 showing last season. So not only did he use each field, his three breakthroughs in Detroit came against pitches that had caused him the most frustration of late.
"That's what we work for," Báez said. "I know I have been struggling, but I don't stop working. I don't stop trying to get better. Today, we finally got the result and I had a really good game. … There's a lot of pressure with this short season and all this stuff, but the thing is to control that pressure when the big situations are there."