ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Javier Baez had a slight smile on his face when he was asked how different he felt playing shortstop and hitting cleanup for the Chicago Cubs.
Two big swings on opening day indicate he’s picking up where he left off last season.
“Uh, the same. I feel more confident at the plate, being smarter with a plan,” Baez said. “About the lineup, you can really put me anywhere. We’ve got guys here who can hit leadoff, third, fourth, last. It doesn’t matter.”
Baez homered twice, Jon Lester won for the first time in his last five opening day starts and the Cubs began the season with a 12-4 victory Thursday at Texas, spoiling the debut of new Rangers manager Chris Woodward in the 26th and final opener in their current ballpark.
While batting everywhere in the lineup except ninth, Baez hit 34 homers and led the National League with 111 RBIs last season, when he finished second in MVP voting and was the starting second baseman in the All-Star Game.
“We all kind of saw him grow up before our eyes last year,” Lester said. “He’s done it, so I don’t think the questions are there as far as can he. … Let Javy do Javy, and I think good things will happen.”
With Addison Russell completing his 40-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, Baez opened this season as the starting shortstop. Barring no postponements, Russell could be eligible to return in early May.
Kris Bryant added a two-run shot for the Cubs, opening their fifth season under manager Joe Maddon after four playoff appearances in a row that included the 2016 World Series title.
Elvis Andrus and Nomar Mazara each hit a two-run homer for Texas, which matched its most lopsided loss in a season opener.
The Cubs led 7-2 in the fifth after Baez greeted reliever Jesse Chavez with a three-run homer on the right-hander’s first pitch. That was an inning after Baez hit a solo shot, when he reached out almost one-handed to pull an 82 mph 0-2 breaking pitch from Mike Minor (0-1) into the left-field seats.
“Last year at this time (Baez) was hitting really low in the batting order. There wasn’t that same kind of vibe coming out of him like you’re seeing right now,” Maddon said. “Right now, he cannot be more confident.”
Lester (1-0) limited Texas to two runs over six innings to win his first opening day start since 2013 with the Red Sox. The lefty lost Boston’s 2014 opener, and dropped his debut with the Cubs in 2015 before no-decisions the last two years.
Minor, the only holdover from last season’s Rangers rotation, made his first career opening day start. He permitted six runs and five hits over 4 2/3 innings.
Woodward, the 42-year-old former utility infielder who played 12 big league seasons, was the third base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers the past three seasons — and last two World Series.
Minor and six Rangers relievers, including two making their big league debuts, combined to allow 13 hits and eight walks.
“We’re going to have days like this. It’s pretty obvious the reason why,” Woodward said. “Weird things happen first game. … Maybe it’s the nerves. It was pretty windy out there. A lot of guys were saying the ball was moving way more than normal.”
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