Mike Olt, Javier Baez show promise on Day 1

MESA, Ariz. -- A strikeout and a flyout never meant so much. But with Chicago Cubs infielders Javier Baez and Mike Olt, the baby steps they take now could benefit them later.

Both players began their spring overhauls with promising at-bats in Day 1 of Cactus League play Thursday. Olt homered off of Barry Zito his first time at the plate -- producing the only two runs of the day for the Cubs in a 2-2 tie -- then struck out two innings later.

“That’s one of the best at-bats I’ve had in a while,” Olt said Friday morning.

If you can believe it, he wasn’t talking about his two-run shot. The strikeout came after a long at-bat in which he fouled off several 3-2 pitches before succumbing to a nasty changeup.

“I was happy with the way I battled,” Olt said.

Olt rarely battled a year ago, losing his part-time starting job and eventually being sent to the minors. He finished the season with a .160 big league batting average and 100 strikeouts. Something had to change.

“I feel like it’s night and day,” Olt stated. “I know last year I said my swing was there, but secretly in my head I knew I was swinging at pitches I wasn’t supposed to. I just feel like I’m tracking the ball better this year.

“The swing I had last year I was trying to hit a ball 500 feet. I don’t need to hit it 500 feet. I need to hit it 330-340. Understanding that was a big mental step for me.”

And part of that is simply shortening up -- especially with two strikes. Olt wasn’t happy with himself fouling off a couple of hittable fastballs before missing on the changeup Thursday, so he’s still learning how to take advantage when a hitter's pitch is coming. But if things work out he won’t only have to rely on sitting on fastballs. The changeup he struck out on? It’s also the pitch he hit out in the second inning. And it’s the pitch, according to ESPN Stats and Information, he ranked 325th in baseball out of 334 players with a .103 average last year.

“I was really pleased,” manager Joe Maddon said. “If you keep working up good at-bats, good things will occur.”

Baez keeping it short and sweet

Speaking of shortening up, Baez has vowed to do just that with two strikes, and already it’s paying off. He flew out twice Thursday, but his second at-bat could be a game-changer if he keeps it up. After taking two mighty swings at the plate and missing, Baez shortened up and hit the next pitch to right field for a flyout. No big deal right? It would have been if there was a runner on third and less than two outs. That kind of situational hitting eluded Baez last season when he struck out 225 times combined between Triple-A and the majors.

“That’s what we’re working on for now,” Baez said. “Trying to make my swing shorter for now. I might take one hack or might take two, then I go back to the short swing. We’ll be working on that the whole spring training.”

Hitting coach John Mallee is espousing a simple philosophy: strike one and/or two is for the hitter, but after that it’s for the team.

“That’s the idea, to get more contact,” Baez said. “They told me I looked better.”

Two hitters, both remaking themselves after dreadful years at the plate. Their jobs might depend on it.