LAKELAND, Fla. — The bags were strewn across the Tigers clubhouse, between a set of chairs and a set of lockers. One bag was designed in the style of the Puerto Rican flag. Another looked more like a Tigers bag.
It was a fitting scene that marked the return of Javier Báez from the World Baseball Classic. Five days earlier, he was part of the celebration that followed Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic that sent the team into the quarterfinals in front of a frenetic crowd in Miami. On Monday, he was back in the Tigers’ lineup at shortstop in a 5-0 loss to the Blue Jays as Detroit began its final week of Spring Training in Lakeland.
As much as he loved the experience of representing his home, Báez was ready to get back to the grind.
“We played with a lot of excitement and we played for our island,” Báez said. “It was great, the support, how many people flew out to Miami and supported us. It was incredible. We had so much family there, too. As a team, we had probably more than 200 people, family members and friends. It was really, really fun.”
If Báez can take some of his energy and success from the Classic and channel it into the upcoming season, he might help his quest for a bounce-back season. His ability to do the reverse — taking some of his points of improvement from Spring Training into the Classic — gives him encouragement.
“I was working on what I was working here, trying to be on time and seeing the ball and getting that trust,” he said. “That’s really what happened. I was seeing the ball good, trusting the pitchers and my team. But I’m seeing the ball really well. We’ll see how it goes on.”
Báez batted 7-for-19 with three doubles, a home run and a team-high six RBIs for Puerto Rico. Just as important, he kept his strikeouts in relative check, fanning three times. Between the Classic and his early Spring Training games, Báez has yet to strike out more than once in a game, while he’s slashed five doubles.
He’s still swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, as his first at-bat on Monday demonstrated. But there have also been visible improvements. After swinging and missing at a first-pitch slider from Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman, Báez worked into a 2-2 count, fouling off a couple of tough splitters, before lining out sharply to center field.
Báez grounded out on a first-pitch splitter from Gausman in the fourth inning before flying out to left off Luke Bard in the sixth.
The slugger has been through this transition before. He played for Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, batting 8-for-27 with five RBIs and four stolen bases in seven games. He returned to Cubs camp afterwards, then he got off to a slow start in the regular season, batting .203 (12-for-59) with five doubles, a home run and 21 strikeouts in April.
“In 2017, I gave everything I had,” Báez said. “And then for the [start of the] season, I was pretty tired.”
Once Báez caught his breath, he adjusted quickly. After that miserable opening month, he batted .291 (25-for-86) with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in May, sending him on his way to a 23-homer season. He kept that adjustment in mind this time around.
“This time, I knew it was going to end at some point, and everybody had to be focused on the regular season with their teams,” he said.
Still, while his focus has transitioned and his bags are back in Tigertown, Báez’s heart remains back home. After all Puerto Rico has endured in recent years, he was proud to represent it well.
“The way that our island supported us, all the people in the street kind of stopped to watch us,” he said. “I don’t know, we just feel big for our island, to be honest. It’s hard to be here, [given] where we come from. We just give them a lot of credit.
“That’s our goal, other than winning. It’s about sending the message to the future that it really matters for us to bring this sport back in Puerto Rico.”