Cubs

Believe it: Kris Bryant kept Cubs in contention with another MVP-level season

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USA TODAY

Believe it: Kris Bryant kept Cubs in contention with another MVP-level season

ST. LOUIS – Kris Bryant doesn’t drink, but even he felt the World Series hangover, admitting there were times this season where he felt “completely beat” mentally and physically after playing into early November last year and handling face-of-the-franchise responsibilities as the National League’s reigning MVP.

But by the final week of September, the Cubs are where they thought they would be, still on the verge of celebrating their second division title after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. And Bryant is a money player who’s quietly moved to the top of the NL leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement (6.8) on FanGraphs.

If Bryant’s 2015 Rookie of the Year campaign proved he could live up to the hype, and 2016 became all about the quest to end the World Series drought in Wrigleyville, then 2017 again showed his internal drive, ability to adjust and unbelievable consistency.     

“Performing when the team needs you most down the stretch when you could be sluggish,” Bryant said, “or sometimes it’s hard to wake up and come to the field every day for a 1:20 game when you just had a night game, I take pride in those things.

“I just want to show up for my teammates when they need me most. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Where everything sped up on Kyle Schwarber to the point where he needed a Triple-A Iowa reset, and Addison Russell dealt with a series of injuries and off-the-field issues, Bryant remained steady, hitting almost .300, blasting 29 homers, getting on base 41 percent of the time and putting up a .954 OPS that’s 15 points higher than where he finished his MVP season.

The next five NL position players on that FanGraphs leaderboard: Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6.7), Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (6.5), Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton (6.4), Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon (6.3) and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (5.7).

WAR, what is it good for?

“I hear about it every day on TV,” Bryant said. “You can’t get away from it because of all these crazy numbers. I guess when you look at that on the surface, RBI is a really nice stat. It’s just been there for 100 (years) and however long this game has been played. But I guess when you look at the advanced stuff, it maybe doesn’t mean as much.”

Bryant hasn’t generated much buzz as an MVP candidate, probably because the Cubs underachieved during the first half of the season and Anthony Rizzo should get votes after putting together another 30-homer, 100-RBI season with Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Bryant’s RBI total (73) also won’t stand out to the old-school voters, though his evolving approach dramatically dropped his strikeout percentage – from 30.6 in 2015 to 18.9 this season – without draining power or losing patience.   

“I take pride in just being a complete player and doing everything that I can,” Bryant said. “Base running, defense, taking the extra base, I think all that encompasses into all these new numbers that are coming out. I guess it’s just a byproduct of me wanting to be that complete player.”

That all-around game will help push the Cubs into October for the third straight year. Where Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo never played in a postseason game during 33 seasons combined with the Cubs, Bryant has played 454 regular-season games for this franchise and not once has his team been eliminated from playoff contention.     

“I was just sitting there thinking about it,” Bryant said. “People go their whole career and never make the playoffs.

“Definitely got to take advantage of the opportunities where you do have a team that can make the playoffs – and go far in the playoffs. Not to be taken for granted at all.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.