PHOENIX, Arizona -- One of the things Cubs manager Joe Maddon wanted to see this spring is how well Javier Baez could play center field. The need for Javy to play center was lessened when Dexter Fowler returned to the Cubs, but Maddon does like his players to be able to play all over the field, and Thursday afternoon in the spring opener at Maryvale Baseball Park against the Brewers, Baez started in center field, batting sixth.
It did not go well. Jonathan Villar, a spare-part infielder who has a shot at making the Brewers but who spent most of 2015 in Triple-A, launched a Travis Wood pitch to deep center field. A play for Javy!
Baez let the ball play him. It was clearly going over his head and toward the high wall just left of dead center field (had it been hit about six feet to the right, it'd have been a home run). Javy should have stopped and let the ball bounce back to him; if he had done that, Villar probably would have had only a double. Instead, the ball bounced high off the wall, then over Baez's head as he chased it down, and Villar had a leadoff triple.
The next hitter, Colin Walsh (I didn't recognize many of these Brewers as not only have they been revamped for this year, they were also a split squad), hit a ball to Javy, who caught it and made a somewhat-wild throw trying to nail Villar trying to score. Thus, 1-0 Brewers in the first inning.
Jonathan Lucroy -- you know him, of course -- was the next batter. He also hit a ball to Baez. Or, rather, in the general direction of right-center field. Jorge Soler headed for it, but Javy called him off the ball... and dropped it for a two-base error.
Figures, right? First three balls of the game hit to the new guy in the field. Well, Maddon wanted to see Baez play center, and he got his chance. Baez got no further chances in center and at the plate, he reached on a fielder's choice and was called out on strikes.
But hey, it's only the first game of the spring. I do think Baez has both the speed and athleticism to play center field. He just needs more reps. As I noted, with Fowler on board the need for Baez to play outfield is probably less than it was a week ago.
The Brewers added a run off Kyle Hendricks in the third inning. Jacob Nottingham laced a screaming line drive just out of the reach of Kris Bryant for a double, and after Hendricks struck out the next two hitters and looked like he was locating well, a single by Lucroy scored Nottingham. As it turned out, that's all the Brewers would need for a 2-1 win over the Cubs in the first official spring game for both teams.
Cubs starters -- those who came, anyway -- left en masse in the bottom of the fifth. Just three of them got hits. Miguel Montero registered the first Cubs hit of the spring, a double into the gap in left-center. He was stranded. Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant singled with two out in the fifth, but Anthony Rizzo struck out to end that rally. Bryant's hit was the best hit the Cubs had all day from a regular, I thought. It just sounded good off the bat, really good contact.
Cubs pitchers gave up only four hits and a walk and struck out 13, so there's that. Both Wood and Hendricks got touched up for runs. Hendricks' outing was better than Wood's, as Travis allowed those long fly balls in the first inning to center, and had two other flyball outs. Hendricks struck out four and looked like he was locating well.
The other four Cubs relievers Thursday were Clayton Richard, Rex Brothers, C.J. Riefenhauser and Spencer Patton. Other than Richard, I can't say there was much to distinguish any of the other three, all of whom will likely be in the Iowa bullpen this year. They did manage to keep the game close, but they were facing mostly Brewers minor leaguers.
The Cub subs tried to come back, and did push a run across when Tommy La Stella beat out an infield hit and BCB favorite Dan Vogelbach hit a double that bounced onto the left-field lawn. Vogelbach then left for a pinch-runner, Jacob Hannemann, so it was Hannemann who came to bat in the ninth inning with Arismendy Alcantara representing the tying run with two out. Hannemann ran the count full, then struck out to end a quick game, two hours, 28 minutes, in front of a languid, small crowd of just 4,279, which sounded like it was two-thirds Cubs fans, on a hot day with temperatures near 90 (average this time of year: 74).
I've said this before, but Maryvale Baseball Park is a nice ballpark in the wrong location. Let's just say there's a reason the Brewers never play spring night games there. In some ways, it's like retro spring training when you go there. Built in 1998, Maryvale has no video board and a PA announcer who sounds like they've had to brush the cobwebs off him before he opens the mic. In announcing the lineups, he called the Cubs first baseman "REET-zo," which would be correct if we were in Italy, but we aren't. Concession and souvenir prices are lower there than at most spring parks across the board. It's kind of a gentle trip into spring training the way it used to be, where the places were half-full and no one really cared much what was going on down on the field.
For today? A tune-up, nothing more. The Cubs regulars who didn't play Thursday will undoubtedly play Friday in the Sloan Park opener, where the Cubs will face the Angels at 2:05 CT. Pierce Johnson gets the start for the Cubs against the Angels' Jered Weaver. There's TV coverage via the Angels network Fox Sports West, which you can watch if you have a MLB.tv subscription.
Apologies for the short delay in getting this recap together as there was more traffic than I expected heading back. Actually, there was more traffic than there should have been going out there, as the city of Phoenix decided that it would be a good idea to seal up cracks on Indian School Road right in the middle of the day. That backed up traffic for a mile, at least; fortunately, I found my way around it and continued towards Maryvale.
Finally, just for the record, I shot these three short videos to kick off the Cubs' season, since there was no TV coverage. The first is a bit of Wood's pregame bullpen session. The second is Schwarber facing the first pitch of the spring season (he fouled it off, and yes, that woman was wearing a Cardinals Yadier Molina shirt. I have no idea why), and the third is Wood throwing the first spring pitch for the 2016 Cubs. Onward.