Cubs

Kris Bryant delivers another MVP performance for red-hot Cubs

Kris Bryant delivers another MVP performance for red-hot Cubs

It’s only the middle of August, but the Cubs are already getting questions about October lineups, the odd man out of the playoff rotation and how soon before the best team in baseball starts thinking about shaping the postseason roster.

This is really all Kris Bryant knows as a Cub. No rebuilding seasons, no wait until next year, just a realistic expectation to win the World Series now and keep winning later.

If not for his partnership in Bryzzo Souvenir Co., Bryant might be the National League’s clear-cut MVP favorite, instead of potentially splitting the Baseball Writers’ Association of America vote with Anthony Rizzo.

Bryant launched two more home-run balls during Thursday afternoon’s 9-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, going 5-for-5 with five RBI and falling a triple short of hitting for the cycle. That made Bryant the fifth player in franchise history with 30 homers in an age-24-or-younger season, joining Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa and Rizzo.

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“He always jokes around with me, saying: ‘You know, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, Prince Fielder was hitting behind him,’” Bryant said. “He always tells me: ‘I’m your Prince.’”

Bryant leads in homers (30-25) and batting average (.296-.291), while Rizzo has driven in eight more runs (86) and posted a fractionally higher .OPS (.960-.956). Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber defender at first base, while Bryant is an All-Star third baseman who can be shifted all over the infield or moved to any outfield position. 

“I can’t say enough about having him behind me,” Bryant said, “as a mentor and someone I learn a lot from (with) how he goes about his at-bats. Even though he’s a lefty and I’m righty, it seems to me – and to him – that they pitch us very similarly.

“That (MVP talk), honestly, is just a byproduct of us pushing each other and really expecting more out of one another.”

If Rizzo finds the right balance between goofy and competitive within the right clubhouse, then Bryant brings a cool sense of professionalism and purpose, a Rookie of the Year who blended in easily and blocked out the hype.

[RELATED: Joe Maddon has no interest in benching Jason Heyward: ‘He’s an absolute winner’]

“This guy’s work ethic is incredible,” said manager Joe Maddon, who won’t reveal his MVP pick. “He’s a very humble man, too. It’s not all about me. I know his picture’s everywhere, but he doesn’t act that way. He takes his craft seriously. He loves to play the game.”

Beating a nondescript Brewers team four times in almost a 48-hour window doesn’t say all that much about the Cubs, who have drained all the suspense from the division race, running away from the St. Louis Cardinals (13 games back) and Pittsburgh Pirates (14) while going 24-8 since the All-Star break and pushing their run differential to plus-209.  

But until now, the Cubs hadn’t gone on an 18-for-21 winning stretch since 1945, their last pennant-winning season. And having Rizzo and Bryant under club control through the 2021 season means that whatever happens, the party won’t stop in Wrigleyville.

“I was asked about (Bryant) when he was first coming up into the league,” winning pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “‘What do you got on this guy?’ I told them: ‘He’s going to be one of the top-five hitters in the game the day he makes his debut.’ I think that’s pretty accurate.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.