Javy Báez Gets Cubs Another Step Closer to Playoffs with Different Kind of Bubble

Tuesday brought official word of the MLB playoff “bubble” format, with top seeds hosting the opening round before subsequent rounds and the World Series move to neutral sites. Under the guidelines set forth by the agreement between the league and union, some of which may still be subject to tweakage, AL teams still mathematically in contention will start a transition period on September 22. NL teams will do the same the following day.

That means up to 90 members of an organization (28 active players, 12 tax-squad players, and 50 additional team personnel from coaches to front-office staff) must stay at the team’s transition hotel — which sounds like a fancy name for a halfway house — or travel with the team on the road from that point forward. Only spouses, domestic partners, children, and childcare providers can join players during this time, but non-players cannot bring anyone with them on the road or to the transition hotels.

For those wondering, it’s because that latter group does not have union representation.

The plan also calls for a seven-day quarantine in order for family members to join players at the “bubble hotels” once the playoffs are down to the divisional round. There will be four separate family hotels at those sites — Petco Park in San Diego, Dodger Stadium in LA, Minute Maid Park in Houston, and Globe Life Park in Arlington — where players can have up to six family members, though they’ll be limited to supervised outdoor visits.

It’s also possible that those folks will be able to attend games, since Rob Manfred went on record as saying there could be fans during the postseason in accordance with local guidelines. The hope is for up to 25% capacity at some venues, but there’s still a lot to be worked out there. Whatever the case, players and their families could be living on the road for nearly six weeks if they advance to the Fall Classic.

With 100% playoff odds, the Cubs are already making plans to begin their transition period next week. And though they’ll tell you they’re not looking too far ahead, their play of late has them looking like they could be spending an extended period of time in the Lone Star State. We weren’t saying that heading into the 9th inning Saturday night, but, gosh, kind of a lot’s changed since then.

Jason Heyward rocked Josh Hader, Alec Mills pitched a no-hitter, and the Cubs won their third in a row on a walk-off HBP to increase their division lead to five games. Each of the last two games featured acts of baserunning derring-do we’ve come to expect from Javy Báez, even if no one from either the Brewers or Indians understood as much.

Eric Sogard was too busy thinking the play was over to be bothered to check on Javy, who’d just tagged from second on a pop fly, so El Mago broke for home and scored. Tuesday night saw the magic man attempt an even more brazen feat as he stole second and then never stopped running after center fielder Delino DeShields made the mistake of assuming it was just your everyday extra base on the overthrow from catcher Sandy León.

“I wasn’t thinking to score from first,” Báez explained. “But after the ball went in the outfield, it was time to improvise.”

Some credit should also be given to third base coach Will Venable, who recognized the situation and waved Javy home. We may also want to consider that DeShields, who apparently didn’t consult his former-Cub father about playing at Wrigley, had already misplayed a pair of balls out in center. In the end, though, it was all Javy. And as a testament to just how calm and self-assured the shortstop was about his dash, he blew a bubble as he began his safe slide home.

That run proved to be important after Jeremy Jeffress labored through the 9th, issuing a pair of walks and giving up a game-tying homer to Frankie Lindor. Though it didn’t have nearly as much six appeal as Javy brought from a lower spot in the order, seeing the Cubs manufacture the game-winning run may have said more about who they are as a team.

Kris Bryant drew a one-out walk before gliding from first to third on an Anthony Rizzo single, putting the winning run 90 feet away with just one out. Willson Contreras took umbrage after Nick Wittgren plunked him on the hand with a running fastball, but calmed quickly as he loaded the bases for Cameron Maybin. As if to prove the previous pitch didn’t have malicious intent, Wittgren hit Maybin with a changeup and the Cubs walked off.

Cubs players have now been hit by 40 pitches, tied with the Mets for most in MLB this season and 10 more than the Brewers for next-most in the NL. The ability to stay calm in the box and wear an inside pitch for a free base is absolutely something that can mean the difference in a game, particularly when you are the best team in baseball when it comes to going first to third on singles.

The Cubs do that at a 39% clip, four points better than any other team in MLB and eight points better than Atlanta among NL playoff teams (as of 9/16). In case you were wondering, the league average is 26% and three current NL playoff teams fall below that mark. The Cubs may not have a great team batting average, but walking and getting hit as frequently as they do gives them plenty of opportunities to take extra bases and put pressure on opposing defenses.

All of that was on display Tuesday night, with El Mago’s go-for-broke exploits serving as the undeniable highlight. So while the depleted rotation and inconsistent offense will serve as the main talking points when discussing the Cubs’ viability as a contender, it would be unwise to overlook some of the skills that won’t show up in the box score.

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