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New and improved Javier Baez comes through in Cubs' win

CHICAGO -- Just when you thought the Chicago Cubs would have a little dip in their offense without Kyle Schwarber in the lineup, here comes young Javier Baez to the rescue. It wasn’t just him doing the damage in the Cubs' 14-5 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon -- Addison Russell homered twice, for example -- but Baez is the freshest face to haunt opposing pitchers. He’s young, but he’s not new to the mix.

“He did a lot of things really well today,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He had a tension-free kind of a game. He has a really good way about him out there, heads-up. It’s going to be really fun to watch for many years.”

Baez's day started with a walk -- so many of the good ones do for these young hitters -- then came two singles and then a gorgeous, right-handed swing to launch his first home run of the season into the left-field bleachers. It’s been a long road back for the 22-year-old, who has a new stance and new approach after striking out 95 times and hitting .169 in 52 games last season.

“I’m seeing the ball really well and letting it get deep into the zone,” Baez said. “I’m trying to get a pitch over the plate.

“When you take a walk, it means a lot to me because I don’t walk a lot. I’m seeing the ball really well and taking my pitches out of the zone.”

That walk came with the bases loaded in the first inning, while the home run in the fifth came with a man on. Baez had two hits in the inning as the Cubs poured it on, but the bigger news is the changes at the plate for the 2011 first-round pick. He’s closed up his stance and isn’t swinging for the fences -- at least not on every pitch.

“You could see the hits up the middle, hits to right field,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “The approach has changed.

“He still takes a big hack, which is good because you don’t want to see a guy lose his aggressiveness.”

Maddon added, “He did it one time and genuflected on the finish.”

Maddon was referring to a swing on Wednesday. But by Friday, Baez looked even more comfortable. Hearing Maddon talk of Baez takes you back to spring training, when the manager raved about his all-around game. Maddon loves his defense -- there’s a good chance Baez will start at third base on Saturday -- and his instincts on the basepaths. Having said that, don’t expect Baez to play all the time. The Cubs saw something in the matchup with Diamondbacks right-hander Zack Godley on Friday. Baez will play against lefty Robbie Ray on Saturday, but not because he had three hits.

“That’s where people get confused,” Maddon explained. “He had a couple homers, he had a hit and all of a sudden you want to play him from now until whenever. The matchup was good. If it was bad, why put him in that situation right now?”

It’s the right move. Baez hasn’t proven the changes to his offensive game can handle all pitchers in all situations. Maybe he will slowly. But with enough weapons at his disposal, Maddon can put his non-regulars in the best position to succeed. That could eventually be playing every day, but for now, it’s the matchup game.

The good news is Baez feels comfortable in his own skin with his new stance and approach. Once in a while he reverts back to his high leg kick and wild swing, but those at-bats seem to be fewer and fewer.

“I don’t feel lost at the plate,” he said. “As long as I keep my approach, I’ll be fine.”

He was fine on Friday as the Cubs got help from a new but familiar face.