Kris Bryant has always been a baseball gym rat, and he’s living out his dream here, but even he admits this can be completely draining.
“Each and every day is a mental grind,” Bryant said. “At the end of the day, it’s just like you’re brain-dead almost.”
Just imagine how fried Bryant would feel if he disappointed Cubs fans everywhere and didn’t live up to all the hype that made him a huge story in spring training.
Bryant headed to the All-Star Game after Sunday’s 3-1 win over the White Sox at Wrigley Field. Good luck decompressing in Cincinnati, where he will have so many media/marketing/family obligations, in addition to competing against teammate Anthony Rizzo in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.
Beyond the rookie wall, the bigger issue might be how much Bryant has been forced to carry the load offensively, stepping into the middle of a lineup that hasn’t gotten the expected production from veterans like Dexter Fowler, Starlin Castro and Miguel Montero (with each one hitting between .230 and .247).
“I really want to see us spread it out,” manager Joe Maddon said. “KB’s not going to be there every night. You got to spread it out, man. The whole thing about a different bus driver every night — I kind of love that — a different guy driving the bus.
“When a team’s going really well, you always talk about (how) every night there’s a different hero. That’s the kind of stuff you’re looking for, because you don’t want to just lay it on one guy, especially (someone) that inexperienced.”
Bryant missed eight games while doing his service-time penance at Triple-A Iowa, yet still leads the team with 51 RBI and only trails Rizzo with 12 homers. His average has dipped to .269, but he’s getting on base almost 38 percent of the time. His .848 OPS ranks fifth among big-league third basemen.
Once again, Bryant found a way to make an impact, even with his 100th and 101st strikeouts on Sunday afternoon, the day after looking overmatched against Chris Sale.
Bryant set the tone against Jose Quintana in the first inning by smashing a ball down the third-base line and into the left-field corner for a stand-up RBI triple. Bryant then scored on Jorge Soler’s single to make it 2-0. Those are the kind of tight games the Cubs have been playing throughout this 47-40 start, leaving almost no time for cruise control.
“Some nights, he’s been able to make the adjustments, some days he has not,” Maddon said. “It’s something new for him to be under this kind of a microscope, and all of a sudden he’s an All-Star, so there’s a lot going on there.
“Does he look tired? Sometimes he just looks like he’s upset with himself because he expects more. That’s what I see more than anything else. He’s got a real high level of expectation. And if he’s not meeting that, he doesn’t like it.
“But I’m very much aware that’s going to happen. He’s going to have his hard times. It’s going to be difficult and he’s going to look like a first-year player on occasion. Of course he is — that’s what he is.”
That’s easy to forget since the Cubs sold Bryant as a face of the franchise almost from the moment they drafted him No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013.
Bryant earned this All-Star selection the hard way, playing in a big market on a contending team and working at a demanding position (third base) that doesn’t always come naturally when you’re 6-foot-5.
“At least he’ll get two days off,” Maddon said. “The upside is to be involved there and understand I’m one of the best. I’ve actually been asked to come to this thing because I’m one of the best baseball players in the world. There’s that elevated confidence that can be derived from that, too.
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“I know there’s a lot of different takes on the Home Run Derby. Of course, you’d prefer guys in some ways not (participate). But then for the betterment of the game … hopefully a lot of kids are going to glom onto and want to be like Kris Bryant, want to be like Rizz.
“And then they’re going to be on center stage with this. I’ve talked about (how) the mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form. This is the perfect example of that. So I’m hoping that this helps accelerate KB’s thought process.”
Fair or not, how Bryant responds in the second half will say a lot about the 2015 Cubs.
“Any at-bat in the big leagues, you have a lot of people watching you,” Bryant said. “Any at-bat out there is a mental grind. Whoever’s more mentally tough will come out on top.”