Cubs

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

All-Star or not, Cubs expect Kris Bryant to be their Derek Jeter in second-half push to October and beyond

Derek Jeter is the headliner trying to corral enough heavy hitters to close a billion-dollar deal for the Miami Marlins, the sale of a dysfunctional franchise hanging over the All-Star Game this week in South Florida.

Kris Bryant is the National League’s reigning MVP, not invited to Major League Baseball’s showcase event, an awkward symbol for an underachieving Cubs team that won’t have a single player from last year’s World Series winner there on Tuesday night at Marlins Park.

But the glass-half-full look at the rest of this season begins with Bryant, whose relative downturn includes 18 homers, a .928 OPS that’s only 11 points from where he finished his MVP campaign and a WAR rating that still makes him a top-15 player in the NL.

Bryant also possesses the inner drive, natural calm and sense of responsibility that draws comparisons to Jeter, a player he publicly patterned himself after while being anointed as the franchise savior, trying to deflect credit and attention and defuse controversy.

“I think there’s a lot of similarities there between KB and Derek,” catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello said on this week’s Cubs Talk Podcast, remembering his time as a Yankee staffer on championship teams in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. “Derek’s focus, No. 1, was on the score. You never really heard about any personal achievements with him.

“It was about coming here to beat the other team, day in and day out, whether it be with a great play or a bunt or a smart base-running play. He was always looking for some way to change the game in a positive manner for our team.

“That’s the mark of a winner. They have to find some part of their game that’s going to effect the score in a positive way, whether it is defense or base running. Obviously, when (KB’s) swinging the bat, he’s a game-changer. But when those guys aren’t swinging the bat as well as they want, or getting the hits, they find a way to still effect the game and help the team win.

“I see KB that way. When KB’s hot, he’s hot, great. But what about when you’re not? And how does that affect you mentally? You watch Kris and he may be the best base runner on our team and his decision-making is always on point.”

Jeter is a far more complicated figure behind the scenes, but his brand became synonymous with winning, a baseball shorthand for how to handle yourself in the media spotlight, in the corporate world and in October.    

For Joe Maddon, it starts with the manager’s only rule about running hard to first base. As much as anyone, Bryant represents an idealized version of The Cubs Way, one of their best hopes that this 43-45 start is a fixable glitch and not a system-wide breakdown of a one-and-done team.     

“It’s hard to throw him out on a routine groundball,” Maddon said. “How about his effort to first base? I mean, he’s a Rookie of the Year, MVP, (25 years old). Um, I don’t want to say he doesn’t have to do that. But he doesn’t have to do that.

“He does it, every day, and he sets a wonderful example for this entire organization. Not just this club. I’m talking like everybody in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A. When they tune in the game and they see KB turning a routine groundball to shortstop into a bang-bang play, what does that mean?

“So when you go to spring training or guys come up and you talk about ‘Respecting 90,’ here’s the poster child right here, man. He does it as well as anybody. I always thought that about Derek Jeter. I see (Mike) Trout do that a lot. I’ve seen Jeter in the past hurt – bad foot, bad ankle – do that. And then he’d limp out to shortstop. The real guys do that kind of stuff and he sets a great example.”

Bryant obviously has years and years to go before coming anywhere close to matching Jeter’s five World Series rings, 3,465 hits, 14 All-Star selections and no-doubt Hall of Fame credentials. But Bryant already understands his role as an ambassador, saying “yes” over and over again to media requests and signing autographs in a mostly empty complex around 5 p.m. on the day pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Arizona.

“What you’re talking about is franchise players have instincts,” super-agent Scott Boras said. “There are few of them. And certainly it’s not something Kris tries to do. It’s something that Kris instinctively knows to do.”

Where Jeter dated models and actresses and enjoyed the New York nightlife, Bryant married his girlfriend from high school and likes to order in food and watch Netflix at home. Where this season already dented Kyle Schwarber’s legendary status and Addison Russell’s off-the-field reputation, Bryant is hitting .213 with runners in scoring position.

Bryant’s ability to ride the waves without crashing is exactly what the Cubs need now if they are going to make up those 5.5 games, catch the Milwaukee Brewers and chase that kind of Yankee dynasty.   

“I just feel very determined,” Bryant said. “When things aren’t going my way, there’s just a switch in me that makes me want it even more. And sometimes when you want it even more, you end up going the opposite way, so it’s a fine line there.

“But it’s just a matter of showing up and competing. You are the player who you are and things usually work out in the end. I think that goes for everybody in this clubhouse.”

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.