Cubs

Cubs: How MVP Kris Bryant conquered the baseball world

Cubs: How MVP Kris Bryant conquered the baseball world

Amid the celebration after the Cubs won their first National League pennant in 71 years, Kris Bryant’s father, Mike, walked out to third base and got into a defensive crouch because he wanted to view Wrigley Field through his son’s eyes.

Did you see this coming?

“You know, I’d be lying to you if I said no,” Mike said with a laugh. “(But) to envision this, boy, I don’t know, it’s madness.”

It’s only just beginning, with the Cubs still enjoying their World Series victory lap and Bryant winning the NL MVP race in a landslide, getting 29 of 30 first-place votes as the Baseball Writers’ Association of America revealed the voting on Thursday night, keeping him on the fast track that might one day put him in Cooperstown.

Just look at the resume before Bryant’s 25th birthday: He won the 2013 Golden Spikes Award — college baseball’s Heisman Trophy — and became the Arizona Fall League MVP that same year. He lived up to the hype as the consensus minor league player of the year in 2014 and headed into the next season as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect. The sequel to a unanimous Rookie of the Year campaign became an MVP season and an unforgettable championship parade through the streets of Chicago.

“I obviously want to continue to get better and win more World Series,” Bryant said on a BBWAA conference call. “But, yeah, I mean, it’s all downhill from here.”

Bryant is always the calm in the middle of the storm, a quality he gets from his mother, Sue, who has politely declined interview requests over the years, staying in the background and letting her chatty, energetic husband handle the media attention. It’s been nonstop from the moment the Cubs chose Bryant with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and immediately made him a face of their franchise.

The corporate sponsors followed, with adidas putting a “Worth The Wait” billboard up near the Wrigley Field marquee while the Cubs stashed him at Triple-A Iowa for seven games last year. During that April service-time drama, Bryant shot his “Down on the Farm” commercial for Red Bull, petting a goat as he’s about to board a bus headed for Chicago.

“That was incredible,” Mike said. “That kind of worried me a little bit — all this pressure.”

If Bryant ever felt that constant weight on his shoulders, he never really showed it. He is a baseball gym rat who absorbed the lessons his father once learned from Ted Williams as a minor-league outfielder with the Boston Red Sox.

Bryant grew up in Las Vegas, playing with and against Bryce Harper, last year’s MVP winner for the Washington Nationals. Bryant did his MLB Network awards-show hit from the batting cage at his family’s house.

Only three other players in big-league history have won the MVP a season after winning Rookie of the Year honors: Boston’s Dustin Pedroia (2007 and 2008), Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard (2005 and 2006) and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. (1982 and 1983).

“It’s very humbling,” Bryant said. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities along the way to kind of get me to that point. I’ll continue to work harder than I ever have before, to hopefully sustain that and win more World Series.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

Bryant built off his Rookie of the Year season with 39 homers, 102 RBIs and 121 runs scored. He made adjustments to his swing, cutting his strikeouts from 199 to 154 while boosting his batting average (.292) by 17 points and his OPS (.939) by 81 points.

An All-Star third baseman with a 6-foot-5-and-a-half frame, Bryant also played all over the outfield, filled in at first base, played one inning at shortstop and shifted across the infield for the team that led the majors in defensive efficiency.

“He’s been as steady as anybody’s been all year in his entire game,” manager Joe Maddon said during the NL Championship Series, after Bryant stood at his locker inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse and took all questions, insisting there would be no panic with the Cubs down 2-1 in a best-of-seven matchup. “Every day, he shows up.

“Last year was a great learning experience for him, being so young playing this deeply into the season. He’s in better shape mentally and physically right now going into this moment than he was last year at the same time. He learned from his experience. And that’s why I think when we have a bad moment, he knows: ‘Let’s just move it to the next 24 hours.’ He’s learned that very quickly.”

Bryant is a self-motivated, process-oriented student who likes to write goals down, becoming a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of San Diego.

Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod once met with Bryant in a hotel lobby in Stockton, Calif., during the West Coast Conference tournament and came away convinced that he had the right stuff to handle the scrutiny and temptations that would come with playing in Chicago. The Cubs lucked out when the Houston Astros took Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.

“It’s such a rare combination of athleticism, skill and makeup,” said Matt Dorey, a Cubs crosschecker during Bryant’s junior season and now the team’s amateur scouting director. “It just felt so right. These guys are typically the best bets in the draft at the top.

“And then when you get to know the player on that level, it gave us so much comfort that he was going to have the ability to come in and be really good instantly.

“But his developmental path was still crazy because I thought there would be more of a learning curve defensively at third than there has been, and that I think just goes to athleticism and makeup. He so wanted to prove to everybody that he could play third base because he heard and was aware of what people said.”

Just watch the replay from the 10th inning of Game 7 against the Cleveland Indians. Bryant charged the ball Michael Martinez chopped past the Progressive Field mound, slipped and threw across the diamond to first baseman Anthony Rizzo for the final out of the World Series, ending the 108-year drought.

Rizzo finished fourth in the MVP voting with 202 points, behind Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy (245 points) and Los Angeles shortstop Corey Seager (240 points). Because of that calculated Triple-A detour, “Bryzzo” will remain under club control through the 2021 season, making Cubs fans think they could be watching a potential dynasty.

“I’m so flipping proud of him,” Mike said. “It’s unbelievable, just to watch my son grow as a baseball player and as a man.”

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Wrigley it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi to talk all things Chicago baseball as the Cubs take on the Braves and the White Sox look to get a win in Boston.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: