MVP

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

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USA TODAY

Cubs need Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to produce or else their reign as defending World Series champs is over

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the yin and yang of the Cubs lineup, the right- and left-handed forces that feed off each other, two huge building blocks for a World Series team, the smiling faces of the franchise, an ideal brand for social media and two friends close enough that Rizzo became a groomsman at Bryant’s Las Vegas wedding in January.

With the defending champs now down 0-2 in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series – and the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like an updated version of the 2016 Cubs – winter is coming if Bryzzo Souvenir Co. doesn’t start producing soon.

Like Tuesday night in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Take away the 9-8 outlier against the Washington Nationals – where an intentional walk, a passed ball on a swinging strike three, a catcher interference and a hit by pitch sparked a big rally – and the Cubs have scored 11 runs in six playoff games this October.

“Everybody in the lineup, they feel the same way: When you don’t produce, it’s like you let the team down,” Bryant said. “But that’s not the right way to feel, because not one person makes or breaks the team.

“I put that in perspective all the time, and realize it’s not what you do in the playoffs, it’s what the team does. And, obviously, we haven’t been getting it done so far in the series. But this is a totally unselfish team. I don’t think anybody here is pouting or down on themselves.”

Bryant (.179 average) has struck out 13 times in 28 postseason at-bats while working only one walk and hitting zero homers. Rizzo – who shouted “RESPECT ME!” at Dusty Baker and the Nationals during the divisional round and went 0-for-6 over the weekend at Dodger Stadium – dismissed the idea that he feels any extra responsibility to jumpstart the offense.

“I think that is selfish if you did,” Rizzo said. “One through nine, all 25 guys, we got to get going. Our pitching is doing a heck of a job. You need help from everyone in the lineup, not just one or two guys.”

But Bryant and Rizzo can certainly make Joe Maddon’s job a lot easier, not forcing the pinch-hitters as early for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, creating some breathing room for the middle relievers or just getting the lead and taking the guesswork out of the equation: Give the ball to All-Star closer Wade Davis.     

Even without launching home runs, Bryant and Rizzo also happen to be very good on the bases, with enough speed and instincts to make things happen when the Dodgers keep putting zeros on the scoreboard. The Cubs are already sacrificing offense for defense at second base (Javier Baez) and in right field (Jason Heyward) and don’t have their World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) in peak condition.    

Bryant is exceptionally available to the media, and usually shrugs almost everything off with an upbeat answer, but even he sounded and looked a little different in terms of tone and body language on Sunday night in Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse.

Whether it was the nature of that walk-off loss – Where’s Wade? – or the reality of a different Dodger team or the jet lag, the Cubs seemed a little shell-shocked.

It was almost exactly a year ago when Bryant stood in the same room in front of the cameras and purposely said, “Nope,” when asked if there was any sense of panic creeping into the clubhouse after seeing Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in back-to-back shutouts.

[MORE: Wade Davis won't second-guess Joe Maddon]      

But Bryant even admitted that defending a World Series title is more taxing than chasing a championship ring.  

“I wouldn’t say emotionally or mentally,” Bryant said. “Physically, yeah, I think some guys are tired. It’s been a really long year, (but) you only notice that before and after the game.

“During the game, there’s so much adrenaline and the fans cheering that you don’t really notice it. But then you sit down after a game, you feel pretty tired and beat. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.”

That has been the story of 2017 for Bryant, who followed up an MVP campaign with a 29-homer/.946 OPS season that drew attention for his lowered RBI total (73). But just like Rizzo, he has a tenacious competitive streak and a unique ability to separate one pitch from the next. The Cubs need all of that now, or else their reign as defending World Series champs is about to end.   

“I’ve put some good swings on some balls, but sometimes you just get beat,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you go through good stretches, bad stretches, stuff like that. I realize it’s all part of the game.

“It just stinks. You want to go out there and perform right now, because if you perform now, you’re winning. But you can’t force it.”

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

Kris Bryant won the National League MVP Award in his sophomore campaign, then promptly went out and got better in his third big-league season.

Bryant's career is off to one of the greatest starts in baseball history and is already one of the best players in Cubs franchise history.

And he won't turn 26 until January.

Bryant posted a .946 OPS in 2017, seven points higher than his MVP-winning 2016 OPS (.939). He didn't hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs (in fact, he only drove in 73), but he improved in almost every other offensive category.

Bryant set new career highs in average (.295), on-base percentage (.409), walks (95) and doubles (38) while lowering his strikeout percentage for the third straight year.

He scored 111 runs, good for the fifth-highest total in the NL and eighth-highest in MLB. He led all third basemen in runs and walks while finishing third in OPS, just behind Colorado's Nolan Arenado (.959) and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez (.957).

Bryant is also the 12th Cubs player to score 100 runs in multiple seasons, becoming the first to do so since Sammy Sosa from 1998-2002.

Only Giancarlo Stanton (7.0) and Anthony Rendon (6.9) have a higher WAR (FanGraphs) in the National League and Bryant (6.8) is fifth in all of baseball, with Aaron Judge (8.2) and Jose Altuve (7.5) leading the game.

"Everybody's been critical of KB, but he quietly is one of the top WAR-mongers in the league right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everybody's like, 'What's wrong with KB?' Nothing!

"Everybody looks at the fact that his RBI total isn't what it could've been, but everything else is in play."

There are several explanations for Bryant's low RBI total. He took 74.78 percent of his at-bats in the No. 2 spot in the Cubs order, hitting behind the pitcher's spot and a revolving door of leadoff hitters who combined to get on base just 32.5 percent of the time.

Bryant also hit just .239 with runners in scoring position, but he posted a .375 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage in such situations, making for a darn good .837 OPS overall.

Bryant called himself a "table-setter" earlier in the season and that is exactly what he did for the Cubs offense. As the team found its groove post-All-Star Break, Bryant hit .328 with a .975 OPS in the second half while striking out only 53 times in 68 games.

He became a smarter and more consistent player in 2017, truly learning how to take it one day at a time.

"You have to look at it that way," he said. "At times, I still find myself thinking ahead to certain series and that's when I kinda lose it and things aren't going my way, because I'm thinking about something I don't need to think about.

"That's a good characteristic of a good team, I think. You just stay where you are, stay in the moment and enjoy it. Play hard, but don't really worry about the future too much."

Bryant's also been remarkably durable, becoming the first player in Cubs history to appear in 150 games in each of his first three MLB seasons. He's only the 11th player in MLB history to accomplish that feat and since 2000, only Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have done the trick (with the latter two guys starting their professional career abroad playing in Japan).

Bryant is already tied with Dave Kingman for 25th in Cubs history with 94 career homers. He's the first player in franchise history to hit at least 25 homers in each of his first three MLB seasons.

He found himself in the MVP discussion as the season wore down, though some may devalue him based on his low traditional stats of homers and RBI in a year where baseball saw more longballs hit than ever before.

But Bryant has said in the past he models his game after Reds first baseman Joey Votto and the Cubs superstar took one step closer to that level of play in 2017.