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Cubs' Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist agree: Javier Baez has grown as a player

CINCINNATI -- Most players would have stepped on the bag at third base and thrown to first for an easy double play, but not Chicago Cubs super-utility guy Javier Baez. He wanted it all.

“At the last second I tried to go to second for the triple play,” Baez explained on Saturday afternoon. “It was actually pretty close.”

The play came in the fifth inning on Friday night when Cincinnati Reds center fielder Tyler Holt hit a chopper to third with men on first and second and no outs. Baez, starting his first game of the season there, charged the ball, stepped on the bag, and surprised everyone by turning toward second. He threw a perfect strike to Ben Zobrist, who threw to Anthony Rizzo, missing the triple play by a step.

“He’s not a safe player,” Zobrist said as a compliment. “That’s what’s going to make him great. You get big rewards when you take big risks in this game.”

Manager Joe Maddon simply likes the 23-year-old Baez's instincts along with his defense. Baez can play almost every position on the diamond, and after being a big factor in the Cubs' 8-1 win on Friday night, he got the start at third base again on Saturday, pushing NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant to left field for the second consecutive night.

“[Saturday], the way it's set up defensively ... looking at defensive charts, I liked the way the defense set up tonight with John Lackey pitching. That’s it,” Maddon said.

So, either Maddon likes Baez at third for defense or, more likely, he likes Bryant over Jorge Soler in left. In the very early going this season, Lackey has trended toward more fly balls than usual for him. This is Soler’s fate right now. He’s had a decent start at the plate, but if there is any doubt, Maddon will go in another direction on defense. He could do worse than Baez, who homered to left on Friday, singled to right, stole a base and nearly hurt himself deciding whether to slide head first or feet first at home on a sacrifice fly.

“I tripped a little bit,” Baez laughed. “I was going to go head first and I remembered my hands, but I was going too fast to come back and slide feet first. I’m used to going head first.”

Baez has injured himself sliding head first, including into first base during spring training. At least he’s thinking about changing. Zobrist sees a player slowly maturing.

“There are certain guys looking for an opportunity to make a great play,” Zobrist said of Baez. “He’s one of those guys.”

Zobrist also seemed to know what Baez was thinking on that triple-play attempt. He had to cover second not knowing for sure if the ball was coming his way -- but he had an idea that it was.

“When he saw that ball in the air I guarantee you he was thinking triple play,” Zobrist said. “There was no hesitation. He wanted it.”

Said Baez: “I was for sure going to step on the bag and go to first and I just reacted and went to second. ... I learned from Adrian Beltre. He told me either to stay back or go get the ball.”

Of course, Baez didn’t stay back. He went and got it. That’s his aggressiveness taking over. He’s the same way at the plate, but now he’s starting to refine himself. As Maddon has noticed, the big swings are usually followed by a more mature approach. He finds his way back to a better at-bat.

“I’ve been working on my approach and pitch selection,” Baez said. “It’s working really good now.”

Of course, with great instincts and a "go for it" mentality comes some negatives. Bad decisions are made, leading to bad execution -- and sometimes some injuries -- but Maddon has often said he never wants to coach the aggressiveness out of a player. The attempted triple play was a great example. The veteran Zobrist loved it.

“It was perfect,” he said. “He has great baseball instincts and athleticism.

“As he grows as a player and learns when to take the chances and when not to, he’s just going to become a much greater player.”