It was only a little over a year ago that Desi Wilson, then a hitting coach with Class A Advanced Daytona, first had the pleasure of coaching Javier Baez, who played his final 23 games of that season with the Cubs.
"Last year, he was just a young, talented ballplayer with no approach, trying to do too much," Wilson said.
The hitting coach was bumped to Double-A Tennessee in the offseason, and midway through 2013, Baez, now the Cubs' top prospect, met him there. In the time that's elapsed since their first collaboration, the shortstop has truly become a professional ballplayer in Wilson's eyes.
"He's laying off pitches out of the zone, and he's not missing his pitches in the zone," the 44-year-old instructor said. "He's doing the job."
Baez earned his paycheck Wednesday, belting a pair of home runs and plating the go-ahead run in the ninth with a sacrifice fly to help Tennessee down Birmingham, 10-8. The 20-year-old, ranked 10th on MLB.com's Top 100 prospect list, collected four hits and drove in five runs in the contest.
The win was the 1,700th of Tennessee manager Buddy Bailey's 30-year managerial career. The Norristown, Pa., native took on his first role as skipper for Rookie-level Pulaski in the Appalachian League in 1983. He has toiled in the Minor Leagues for Atlanta, Boston and Chicago, joining the Cubs organization prior to the 2006 season.
"Obviously, it's nice to have," Bailey said. "It means I've been working a long time in the Minor Leagues, riding a lot of buses, enough to win that many games.
"I've been fortunate that organizations have given me the opportunity and trusted me to manage their players, and have the opportunity to get wins with those players."
Among the more talented players he's coached is Baez, who the Cubs selected in the first round (ninth overall) of the 2011 Draft out of Bayamon, Puerto Rico. The shortstop has been with Tennessee since a late June promotion from Daytona, and he's hitting .307 with 16 dingers and a 1.025 OPS in 43 games with the Smokies. For the season, Baez has 33 homers and 100 RBIs.
Baez's first blast Wednesday came in the top of the third as the Smokies erased a 1-0 deficit with a four-run inning. After Rafael Lopez's one-out walk, Matt Szczur reached on an error, and Arismendy Alcantara knocked a double to right field that scored Lopez and moved Szczur to third.
Baez then came to bat against left-hander Spencer Arroyo, and the Barons hurler fell behind him, 3-0. Baez swung through the next pitch, but then drilled the 3-1 offering over the wall in left.
"[Arroyo] went 3-0 on him, then he threw a ball off the plate to see if he would chase," Bailey said. "Then he came into the zone and [Baez] didn't miss it. That really turned the game around at that time."
The 20-year-old's roundtripper off the left-hander was a continuation of what he's done all summer. Since being promoted to Double-A in late June, Baez is hitting .436 with a 1.383 OPS and six homers in 55 at-bats against southpaws.
Success has come a little tougher against right-handers. Baez entered the Birmingham game hitting .242 with an .830 OPS and nine homers in 120 at-bats against them.
Gaining the platoon advantage didn't do the Barons much good Wednesday. While Baez went 3-for-3 against Arroyo -- adding singles in the first and fifth -- he did damage against Birmingham's right-handed relievers too.
Righty Dan Remenowsky squared off with Baez in the seventh, and with the bases empty, the Cubs slugger turned on an offering and mashed his second homer over the bullpen in left to stretch Tennessee's advantage to 6-3.
Then after Birmingham staged a three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth to square the game, 6-6, Baez snapped the tie against right-hander Kevin Vance in the ninth. With runners at the corners and nobody out, Baez smoked a line drive into left-center. Barons center fielder Keenyn Walker tracked the liner down for an out, but Szczur scored easily from third on the play for the 7-6 edge.
To Wilson, the performance was indicative of a number of improvements Baez has made over the past year.
"Last year, I think everything was speeding up for him," Wilson said. "Basically, he was just swinging at everything they threw up to him. Everything was going so fast. He was just trying to do too much. Him going to big league camp, going to Spring Training and the work he's done, it obviously has paid off.
"Now, he's not afraid to fall behind 0-1, 0-2. That's the difference I see in Javy. He's not swinging as early in counts, being a lot more selective in his [at-bats] compared to last year."
The multi-homer game was the fourth for Baez this season, including a four-homer game with Daytona on June 10 -- the other three have been two-homer games with Tennessee. It was his second four-hit game in the Southern League, and he now has nearly as many homers in the Southern League (16) as he had in 76 Florida State League (17) games prior to his promotion.
All this after the shortstop struggled in his initial exposure against Double-A pitching, posting a .190 average with 14 strikeouts in his first 11 games. After some work with Wilson, the Puerto Rican has begun terrorizing Southern League pitchers as he did hurlers at every prior level.
In 20 August games, the 20-year-old is hitting .407 with five roundtrippers and a 1.184 OPS.
"I think, more or less, when pitches are in the zone, he's laying off the sliders and getting his pitch to hit," Wilson said. "That's what we talk about every time in pregame. Talk about the pitcher you'll face, what you'll see. He's a student of the game, and it's paying off. He looks so comfortable at the plate."