Chicago Cubs: Magic of Javier Baez propels team into first place

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 13: Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated after scoring during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on July 13, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 13: Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated after scoring during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on July 13, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /
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Javier Baez willed the Chicago Cubs to victory Friday night in San Diego, teaming up with Anthony Rizzo to lift the team into first place in the division.

Imagine that. As the second half of the season nears, Joe Maddon‘s Chicago Cubs are heating up. Under his leadership, the Cubs have played dominant baseball down the stretch year after year. If the last week-plus is any indication, we could be headed down that road once again in 2018.

Tyler Chatwood turned in a serviceable outing in his final first half start. He tossed five innings of three-run ball, striking out two and walking three. Despite some frustrating moments (like walking his counterpart then serving up a two-run homer), he looked solid – and it was likely enough to keep him in the rotation, at least for the time being.

Offensively, Anthony Rizzo desperately needed a break. And, after recording outs in his first two at-bats, the Chicago first baseman got it going. He doubled twice and also singled into the right-center field gap. It marked just his second three-hit effort dating back to May 28.

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This one featured a back-and-forth battle that spanned the entire game. After Austin Hedges gave the Friars the lead in the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs answered right back. Facing left-hander Brad Hand, Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ promptly went down for the first two outs of the inning.

Another improbable late-inning comeback

Hand hit pinch hitter Victor Caratini with a pitch. Maddon lifted Caratini for pinch runner Jason Heyward, who had the night off with lefty Clayton Richard on the mound. Then, right on cue, Rizzo laced an opposite-field double to tie the game. Pedro Strop struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth, setting up the game-winning play in the tenth.

With one out, Baez reached on an infield single. With Willson Contreras at the dish, he took off for second. Hedges uncorked a throw that sailed into center field. As Manuel Margot chased down the ball, Baez took third. But Margot fumbled with the ball once he reached it and El Mago raced all the way to home, scoring what proved to be the game-winner.

"“At this point, it’s really not even surprising to us, and it’s crazy to say that,” Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo said of Baez’s daredevil baserunning. “It’s fun. His instincts, his baseball instincts, are taking over the whole game and people are noticing it more than ever. That’s who he is, and he continues to keep getting better.”"

With the win, Chicago moved into first place in the National League Central. As the Cubs continue to play well, the Milwaukee Brewers have done the opposite, dropping three straight contests. Of course, right out of the All-Star Break, Chicago has five games in four days – all coming against the St. Louis Cardinals – but, at least for now, it’s a nice feeling to be back on time.

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These & other stories you may have missed

Lester will not pitch in the All-Star Game – Cubbies Crib

Who came up with El Mago’s nickname? – The Athletic

Trying to figure out Rizzo’s offensive woes – Cubbies Crib

Hendry’s legacy lives on in two Cubs All-Stars – Cubbies Crib

Brewers ‘fading’ in the Machado sweepstakes – Bleacher Nation

Wasn’t Hickey supposed to improve the rotation? – Cubbies Crib

Next: Is another crosstown deadline deal in the works?

What’s Next

Chicago and San Diego continue their three-game weekend set Saturday night.

Kyle Hendricks (5-8, 3.93) comes off his best start of the season. The Padres send Luis Perdomo (1-3, 7.09) to the hill to oppose him.

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