What initially looked like a garbage-time home run for Kris Bryant – and day-after spin from Theo Epstein – actually summed up why the Cubs have a homegrown superstar and a franchise ready for another close-up in October.
It also helps explain how Bryant – at the age of 24 – became the first player in history to hit three homers and two doubles in a Major League Baseball game. Bryant set a franchise record with 16 total bases during Monday night’s 11-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, becoming the youngest Cub to ever have a three-homer game (or 10 days younger than Ernie Banks in 1955).
After the New York Mets swept the Cubs out of last year’s National League Championship Series, Epstein sat in a dingy Wrigley Field storage room converted into a media workspace for the playoffs. During that end-of-season news conference, the president of baseball operations highlighted Bryant’s final at-bat, how New York’s right-handers kept attacking him with changeups.
Cubs officials felt like they were beaten at their own game, impressed how the Mets did such a great job with advance scouting, breaking down numbers and executing that night’s plan. If Bryant appeared to be vulnerable to that weakness – and a little worn down at the end of an All-Star/Rookie of the Year campaign – he still had the presence of mind to make an adjustment in Game 4.
With his team down seven runs in the eighth inning, Bryant drove a changeup from a two-time All-Star reliever (Tyler Clippard) 410 feet into the left-center field bleachers for a two-run homer.
Bryant can grow up as the son of an old Boston Red Sox prospect who learned the science of hitting from Ted Williams – and have his own batting cage at his family’s Las Vegas home – and still not feel burned out from the game or create the wrong Sin City headlines.
Bryant can get drafted No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013, shoot a Red Bull commercial with a goat before his first at-bat in The Show and have his own billboards in Wrigleyville – and still not alienate himself from teammates or come across as having the wrong priorities.
Bryant is athletic enough to play third base, right field and left field during that 5-for-5, six-RBI, three-homer game. He can also get analytical and self-diagnose – without feeling paralyzed at the plate.
Bryant didn’t remember the NLCS as an eye-opening experience or give the Mets too much credit: “They all throw 96 (mph), which is kind of just where baseball is nowadays, too – a ton of people are throwing gas.”
For Bryant, it’s a constant process of self-evaluation, from his 0-for-4, three-strikeout debut last April, through the 21 games it took before hitting his first big-league homer, beyond hitting the rookie wall last summer (.639 OPS in July).
“It’s the peaks and valleys of baseball,” Bryant said. “From August and September last year, I had two really good months (.900-plus OPS). I didn’t really have the postseason I wanted to. But up until that point, I was swinging the bat really good. I was feeling really good about myself.
“I kind of just went back to what I did in college, a drill that kept me more flat to the ball. That’s what helped me. And then going into the offseason, I really wanted to expand on it. Just continue with it and see where it took me.”
After finishing second in the majors with 199 strikeouts last season, Bryant struck out 12 more times in 37 playoff plate appearances. He’s now on pace for around 160 strikeouts – with 21 homers and 57 RBI a week out from the Fourth of July.
“What he had been doing before was not going to work (long-term),” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not one of those guys (who says): ‘Hey, you can’t hit like that in the big leagues.’ I always used to hate hearing that from coaches. (But) the fact was that he had such an abrupt uppercut or chicken wing – whatever you want to call it – easily exposed by good pitching. Easily. And it had to go away.
“(He) worked through it. He knew how he was getting beat up at the plate. He knew what he couldn’t get to that he was able to get to before. He’s only 20-something years old, (but) he’s quick (and thinking): ‘I’m seeing the ball good. I just can’t get to it. What do I have to do to get to those pitches?’ Now he is.”
The Mets won the pennant, but their foundation might already be crumbling, with Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard reportedly dealing with bone spurs in their pitching elbows and Matt Harvey (4-9, 4.64 ERA) struggling to live up to his Dark Knight of Gotham persona after throwing 216 innings during last year’s return from Tommy John surgery.
The Epstein regime built a franchise around young power hitters like Bryant – believing that young power pitchers are inherently too fragile – and the Cubs could be 25 games over .500 when they get another shot at the Mets in an NLCS rematch that begins Thursday night at Citi Field.
“Obviously, the front office has done a really good job of getting good players,” Bryant said. “You look at the young talent around the room, it’s pretty cool to see that.
“They’re just good people. They drafted good people, signed good people, and I think that just makes it easier to go out there and play our game and be yourself.”