Emma: Winning Defense Will Make Difference For Cubs

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Cubs infielder Javier Baez ranged to his right for a rocket struck up the middle by Dee Gordon. He took away what would’ve been a base hit by getting to the ball, turning his momentum and unleashing a rocket to first base to catch one of baseball’s fastest men.

Ho-hum, Javy. After countless improbable plays before, the ones that are just great seem downright mundane. His highlight reel is stocked with defensive efforts ranging from incredible to downright ridiculous.

Manager Joe Maddon won’t short-change Baez for any flair of the spectacular.

“That’s as good as it gets right there,” Maddon said after a 10-2 win over the Marlins on Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

And that wasn’t even Maddon’s favorite play of the night. He first pointed out a diving defensive effort by third baseman Kris Bryant to take away a shot from Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ king of exit velocity.

In the ninth inning, first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit the dirt for a hard-hit grounder and managed to hit Hector Rondon at first base.

When the Cubs were rolling up an astonishing run differential a year ago, Maddon pointed to the defensive prowess. When they were under .500 at times this season, he suggested the defensive inconsistencies were a factor.

Now, Maddon is seeing the Cubs again play winning defense.

“We’re starting to see the defense perk back up,” Maddon said following his team’s fifth victory in a row.

Runs saved are runs earned, and while the offense took care of the Marlins on Tuesday, the defensive efforts were clear.

Right-hander Jake Arrieta settled in after a rough first inning by relying upon his sinker, forcing the Marlins into groundout after groundout. When they got one into the air, Arrieta’s outfield took charge.

After struggling throughout the early part of this season, Arrieta put forth a strong outing by pitching to contact and letting his defense do the rest. That could be the key for John Lackey on Wednesday, just the way it was for Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery on Monday.

“It’s huge for our pitchers to go out there,” said four-time Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, “starting pitchers and relievers, in a big spot in the game to feel like they can attack a hitter, make their pitch, focus on their approach up there and not worry what’s going to happen behind them.

“Regardless of what happens with our at-bats, we know we got to rely on our defense and make plays in big spots.”

The Cubs last season boasted a league-best 3.15 ERA, with their starters registering a 2.90 mark. That came in part due to the leading defense at 69.0 win shares, according to FanGraphs. Their plus-270 run differential, by far baseball’s best mark, came not only because of the bats but also the pitching and defense.

Of the many inconsistencies the Cubs have faced so far, the defensive regression has been the most alarming. They entered Tuesday at -0.3 defensive win shares, ranking 16th in baseball.

Now, it seems the Cubs are trending in the right direction.

What exactly is winning defense? It’s Heyward running 52 feet in 3.4 seconds to dive and take away extra bases like Sunday night against the Cardinals. MLB’s “Statcast,” which tracks efforts like those, gave it a 14 percent probability of a catch.

It can be a sprawling play at the hot corner or robbery up the middle. For a struggling starter, it can be pitching to contact and letting the gloves behind him do the rest.

Winning defense means not only the spectacular but also the right play. The Cubs know well how it looks.

Good gloves don’t slump — or at least they shouldn’t. The Cubs are starting to look like themselves in all facets of their game.

But they know well that winning will come with the gloves.

“We all do take a lot of pride in that,” Heyward said. “We know we’re really good at it. We know what we’re capable of defensively.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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