Three strikeouts, a groundout, a fly to right... and a game-winning home run.
All in a night's work for Cubs rookie second baseman Javier Baez (sounds good, right?), who was playing in his first big-league game Tuesday night in Denver. He made it a memorable one for himself and his team by smashing a tie-breaking homer in the top of the 12th that provided the winning margin in a 12-inning, 6-5 Cubs win over the Rockies.
Before I continue recapping this game myself, I wanted to point you to this quote from Baez buried in a Tribune notes article:
Baez praised the work of [Manny] Ramirez, who joined Iowa in late June as a player-coach. "I learned a lot of stuff from him, such as my approach to right-center, learning his routine every day, going to the cage and the way he worked," he said. "He always has a bat in his hand doing something, swinging the bat or just hitting in the cage. He talked to all the guys. "He talked about the approach and how the pitchers were throwing to me and started talking to me about taking more pitches and swinging at pitches in the (strike) zone."
"My approach to right-center." Which is exactly where the home run landed, in the bullpen, so it was easy for Rockies personnel to get the ball back to Baez -- not only his first big-league homer, but his first hit.
Baez's bases-loaded, hard line-drive out in the seventh inning, also to right field, came after the Cubs had already drawn six (!) walks in that inning, scoring three runs without a hit (two bases-loaded free passes and a sacrifice fly "drove" in the runs). I'm guessing pretty much every Cubs fan, and maybe even every baseball fan save Rockies fans, wanted Baez to launch a ball in the general direction of Wyoming in that at-bat for a grand slam. Kudos to him for taking the ball the other way, even though right at Rockies right fielder Brandon Barnes.
Defensively, Baez let a ball he tried to short-hop bounce off his arm with one out in the 11th inning that eventually led to the Rockies tying the game for the second time. It was ruled a hit -- I thought it should have been an error, and so did Len and JD. The Cubs had taken the lead in the top of the inning on a soft little single just over DJ LeMahieu's head by Ryan Sweeney with the bases loaded. Baez wiped most of the memory of that play with the homer, and he also turned a couple of double plays, though the relay throw on one of them bounced in to Anthony Rizzo, who made a nice pick in saving the ball and completing the DP.
A lot of other things happened in this game -- I might not get to all of them, but here's most of the important stuff.
Travis Wood struggled a bit early, but wound up with a "quality start." If you don't think that's important, it was his first one in his last nine starts. Maybe Wood has gotten beyond his troubles of the last couple of months and can finish the season strong.
Baez's extra-inning heroics were made possible in part by Wesley Wright, who allowed a two-out, game-tying home run to Nolan Arenado in the seventh inning. After that, the Cubs' pen threw five innings and allowed just the game-tying run in the 11th. Carlos Villanueva finished up for his second save of the year (and eighth of his career).
The six-walk Cubs seventh inning was one of the crazier Cubs innings in recent years. Despite all the walks, and three Rockies pitching changes during the inning, it didn't seem to take that long, maybe because it was fun watching Cubs hitters be patient. Some of the pitches seemed to be egregiously bad calls by plate umpire Marty Foster, who at one point appeared to call two consecutive pitches in the same location differently, the first a strike, the second a ball.
It made the game the Cubs' second consecutive game with nine walks. The Cubs drew nine walks in a game once all of 2013. Progress! That puts the Cubs in the middle of the major-league pack (17th) in bases on balls with 316 (the MLB average is currently 332). Last year's Cubs ranked 22nd.
With all the walks, the Cubs made their eight hits count. Starlin Castro, back in the starting lineup, had two of them, including his 30th double of the year. It's his fourth 30-double season and just the 17th such year in Cubs history (since 1914) by a shortstop. The team record for doubles by a shortstop in a season is 38, set by Woody English in 1931, equalled by Don Kessinger in 1969. Looks like Castro has a good shot at that one.
Also notching another mark was Welington Castillo, who homered for the Cubs' first run of the night, matching his career high (eight) set last year, with more than a quarter of the season remaining.
One last note: it really is time for Nate Schierholtz to go, isn't it?
There is one thing I wanted to say about the length of this game -- and it's not about how long the games are, but about how players get used in long extra-inning games. Because of the multiple pitching changes and pinch-hit appearances, both the Cubs and Rockies had essentially run out of players by the 12th inning. Neither club had any position players left -- sorry, for those of you who enjoy seeing position players pitch, and Len and JD mentioned that Rockies manager Walt Weiss doesn't like doing that anyway -- and the only pitcher besides starting rotation members available was the Cubs' Chris Rusin.
It seems to me that these kinds of things, that happen more and more often these days, will eventually result in an increase in the active roster size, to 26 or perhaps even 27, sooner rather than later.
This night, though, belonged to Baez, as likely will many afternoons and evenings over... well, maybe the next 15-20 years, if things go the way we hope they will. He is, after one game, exactly as advertised, someone with tremendous bat speed who will strike out a lot and occasionally hit majestic home runs. Fortunately for the Cubs, the latter won them a ballgame.
This is the kind of excitement we had hoped the system developed by Theo & Co. would produce, over time; I didn't necessarily expect it to happen in Baez's very first game, but having something like this occur definitely energizes me, gets me hopeful for things to come, and though this season is a done deal, perhaps there will be a few more homers, a few more wins to come, and we can look forward to 2015 as the first opportunity for the core of the club to head toward contention in the National League Central.
I wanted to point out one more note from the Tribune link above:
Baez was happy jersey No. 9 was available, a number he said he wore last season at Double-A Tennessee.
I suspect they're working overtime somewhere in Chicago making BAEZ 9 shirseys and there will be a brisk business in those shirts over the weekend. Nine seems a good number for him; I can't really explain it, but somehow, it fits.
Now what does he do for an encore?
We'll find out at 7:40 CT Wednesday night, the second game of this series, when Jake Arrieta takes the mound against Colorado's Jordan Lyles, who is coming off a disabled-list stint (broken non-pitching hand).