CHICAGO -- When the season started, Ben Zobrist was projected as the Cubs' everyday second baseman, and he was looking forward to finally settling into one spot. However, this postseason, Zobrist is starting in the outfield because of the emergence of Javier Baez, who is expected back at second for the National League Championship Series. Game 1 against the Dodgers is Saturday (8 p.m. ET/7 CT on FS1).
"[Zobrist] sees what Javy's doing -- he gets it," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Thursday.
If there was an MVP for the NL Division Series, Baez would have won the award. He hit a homer in the Cubs' 1-0 win in Game 1 and smacked a tiebreaking RBI single in the ninth in Game 4 against the Giants. Baez also provided a highlight reel of defensive plays in the four games.
Zobrist, 35, understands. All anyone has to do is watch Baez play second base to know he needs to be there.
"I know Joe well enough to know that when things happen, [roles] change over the course of the season," Zobrist said Thursday. "Coming into the season, it was a big question mark for Javy -- how was he going to respond to the role they gave him in the spring and the struggles he's had in the past few years?
"Everyone can see this year has been such a big stepping stone for him to put him into the position he is now," Zobrist said. "He's playing incredible out there and we have to have him in the lineup right now, and offensively, he's made the adjustment to take the ball to right field. He's grown by leaps and bounds this year."
Baez began the season without a starting job, and he was a quasi-Zobrist this season, playing all infield positions. He batted .273 in 142 games, setting career highs in home runs (14) and RBIs (59).
And one of his biggest fans is the versatile veteran Zobrist.
"He's just exceptional," Zobrist said. "He's got such a knack for the ball and the timing of the runner. His glove-to-hand transfer -- everything is so quick and athletic at the same time, there are few guys in the league athletic and quick and dazzling as he is in the field."
Maddon also is a huge fan. He first saw Baez in Puerto Rico, shortly after Maddon was hired as Cubs manager. He watched Baez play in a couple games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and could see the talent.
"It's obvious," Maddon said Thursday. "Put your scout's cap on, and this guy knows what he's doing on the bases. Instinctively, he took extra bases by being his own coach. Everybody was talking about his hitting and the fact he needed to get better at the plate and more selective, and I was like, 'OK, I get that.' But I was impressed by everything else he did. Sometimes we get caught up in somebody's weaknesses and don't see his strengths. His strengths are pretty outstanding."
There are some who may not like Baez's flair, or the quick tag he's perfected at second.
"He can be flashy, however, that's something I would never coach out of him," Maddon said. "I want him to make better judgement regarding the mental component of the game. The physical side of it, he does things that are unique to him."
There are other players who have had unique approaches to the game. Maddon pointed out that Stan Musial had a different stance than others, and Bob Boone was a unique catcher. They were successful.
"Javy's got his methods," Maddon said. "He's really good at figuring them out. There's times when maybe the method may fail and people may blame it on he's too flashy, but I'll take him the way he is. The biggest thing out of him is that he continues to make good choices."
Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward has one of the best views of Baez's acrobatics.
"It's fun to watch," Heyward said. "He doesn't take a play off, regardless of how his at-bats are going. He knows when he's playing, where he's playing. It's a privilege to watch his ability to go do what he does and his ability on the field."
On Thursday, the Cubs held an informal workout, and Zobrist was using a small 1910 model glove.
"I never tried to catch with it -- it was pretty difficult and I wanted to see what it felt like," he said.
Said Heyward: "It's a very Ben Zobrist look. That was his sandlot day."
On Friday, Zobrist will be in the outfield with his regular glove, working with coach Dave Martinez. Maddon and Zobrist were together with the Rays, and they have a tremendous respect for each other. In 2007, Maddon recalls having to tell Zobrist that he was going back to the Minor Leagues, and how well Zobrist handled that.
"He's always been that guy -- he's just about team first," Maddon said. "He does not care about himself. He just wants to win. Whenever I first saw him, and the conversations in my office, he told me, 'I'm good, I just care about the team.' He said that as a borderline Major League player at that time."
On Saturday, when the Cubs open the NLCS, Baez will be at second base and Zobrist will be right where he wants to be.
"I told [the front office] on the phone last year, I want to help them get those last eight wins," Zobrist said. "That's the goal right now. We wanted to be at this point, and this is exactly where I envisioned our team being when I was deciding who to sign with. So far, that's come to pass. My ultimate goal in signing here is to win a championship, and that's what everybody's [goal] is. We're close to that."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.