MILWAUKEE -- His manager thinks he's the best in the game at it, and one of his catchers wouldn't mind him covering second base as much as possible. One thing is for sure: When Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez is getting ready to put a tag down, you better be watching carefully because the moment is going to go by quickly.
"I just try to match where the ball is and when the runner is sliding as close as I can," Baez explained Monday morning before the Cubs played the Brewers. "Sometimes I've partially missed it, and it came close to my face. Sometimes I put it down too early, and the ball tips my glove, then hits me, but that shouldn't happen anymore."
In other words, Baez can be too fast for his own good. He hasn't had any issues lately, though, as he continues to turn potential stolen bases or singles attempting to become doubles into outs. He did it again Monday, not long after he got an extra out over the weekend against the San Francisco Giants.
Soon, teams might start checking who's playing second base, instead of catcher, when deciding if they'll be stealing against the Cubs that day. Baez's tags have been that good.
But there was Baez with the quickest of tags as Nieuwenhuis looked like he had the base stolen -- until he didn't. Baez said he learned a long time ago how to apply the quick tag. It began as simply waiting as long as possible before reacting to the ball in order to deke the runner. A quick catch and then tag was needed to complete the play. Soon enough, it became part of his DNA as a ballplayer.
"When I was little in Puerto Rico, they showed me how to get early to the bag and act like nothing was coming, then at the last minute, catch and tag," Baez said with a smile. "It kind of forced me to be quick at the last second ... I just kept working at it and kept getting better and better at it."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon simply calls Baez "the best" when it comes to tags, knowing how many extra outs he has created out of plays that looked dead. It's almost like an art form, and it has become a weapon on defense for Maddon's team. Catch, tag. Catch, tag. Baez is as quick as they come. The manager was asked if his infielder reminded him of anyone.
"Benji Gil," Maddon said. "Mr. September [Gil] was outstanding at it. Adam Kennedy became a better tagger watching [him] ... Javy is the best. Watch when Javy plays first base. He will sting your thigh. You should always apply a hard tag. It's not to hurt anyone. It's just that's the right way to do it. He does it all the time."
Just as Kennedy learned from Gil, Baez says Anthony Rizzo is attempting to do the same.
"We've been joking around with Rizz," Baez stated. "Every time he does a quick tag at first, he asks me, 'How was that one?' And I'm like 'No, no, it's not that fast.'"
Perhaps Montero, even more than the Cubs' pitchers, is the person who can benefit the most from the quick tags applied by Baez. Montero has struggled to throw runners out, going back to last season, but tags weren't a specialty of former Cub Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell was just getting his feet wet. Then came Baez. Montero has had such a dismal year throwing the ball that he'll take any advantage he can get, including asking Baez to cover second more often.
"No disrespect to anyone else, but I told him before the game against Pittsburgh, 'I know you’re playing second, but even if it's a lefty, just cover the bag,'" Montero said. "I'm trying to build up confidence. Sure enough, he [Starling Marte] went, and we got him.
"My best year throwing the ball was with [former Diamondbacks] Stephen Drew and John McDonald. When you have that confidence, you just throw it. You don't think. Last year was a little bit tough. You feel like you made a good throw, but it wasn't perfect. With Javier, you don't have to be perfect. He gives you confidence. He can make up for a lot of things."
Montero says McDonald was the best at tagging until Baez came along. Pitchers, catchers and coaches agree. Baez is making them all look better.
"They love it," Baez said, still smiling. "I try and do it from anywhere the ball is coming. It's fun."