Cubs

Cubs: Kris Bryant proves he's even better than the hype

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Cubs: Kris Bryant proves he's even better than the hype

Kris Bryant started playing guitar around the time the Cubs made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and immediately turned him into a face of the franchise.

People told Bryant he would need something to help get away from the game. The National League’s Rookie of the Year frontrunner tries to compartmentalize everything, binge-watching episodes of “Friday Night Lights” and “Game of Thrones” on Netflix and HBO to clear his head.

Bryant had shown enough potential as a student at the University of San Diego that he turned down the chance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship. He also doesn’t take things too seriously, shooting a Red Bull commercial with a goat and going undercover as a Lyft driver in Chicago.

All that helps explain why Bryant has proven he’s even better than the hype, becoming an anchor for a playoff contender that saw its magic number cut to two even with Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

“The scrutiny that KB was under in spring training was something I’ve never seen,” said catcher David Ross, who’s in his 14th season in the big leagues. “The way he’s handled it — and had a phenomenal year — has been really impressive.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs silenced by Zach Davies, can't complete sweep of Brewers]

Bryant blasted his 26th home run on Tuesday night, breaking the franchise’s rookie record held by Hall of Famer Billy Williams. Bryant needs to drive in only two more runs to reach 100, putting the offense on his shoulders at times and helping elevate Anthony Rizzo into an MVP candidate.

Anything less and Bryant would have been considered a big disappointment by the Cubs fans who’ve been burned by overhyped prospects before.

There would have been a major media backlash after super-agent Scott Boras and the Major League Baseball Players Association made service time such a big issue for the game’s No. 1 prospect.

Bryant Day finally came on April 17 against James Shields and the San Diego Padres, delaying his free-agency clock until after the 2021 season and dropping him into the Wrigley Field fishbowl.

“That was absurdly kind of blown up,” Bryant said. “I guess it’s just natural now in baseball with the social media. People were telling me that ‘SportsCenter’ would go to each of my at-bats. That’s just crazy to me.

“I don’t think anybody wanted (that). I definitely didn’t want that.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win]

Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts during his big-league debut, waited 21 games before hitting his first home run, batted .168 in July and could finish with close to 200 strikeouts this season.

But Bryant hasn’t wilted or pouted or let it impact his defense at third base. He’s unselfishly moved to the outfield and even made game-changing plays with surprising speed on the bases for a 6-foot-5 slugger.

“He does not wear it,” Boras said. “Bryant has the absolute professional approach where 'I’m going to show up, and I’ve got a routine to deliver. And I’m not going to worry about what happens.'

“He has that belief, that structure, that confidence. And it’s rewarded.”

Bryant also hasn’t relaxed too much or let all the attention go to his head or isolated himself in the clubhouse.

“I don’t think outwardly we’ve seen frustration from him,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs executive who oversees scouting and player development. “He’s a very professional, even-keeled guy.

“I’m sure when he was going through some of the struggles it was eating at him inside somewhat. But he’s got a process and a mindset of coming in and working every single day. And that helps him, I think, not get too low.

“Or when he’s hitting walk-off home runs, the next morning he’s going to be the same guy. He’s going to come to the park (and) work on his approach. And I think it takes a certain type of makeup to do that.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon brings zoo animals to Wrigleyville circus]

Bryant is clutch, beginning the day with a .956 OPS with runners in scoring position. He’s been hitting .368 with two outs and runners in scoring position, getting on base almost 50 percent of the time in those situations. He led all rookies in on-base percentage (.371) and slugging percentage (.505). He had 27 more RBIs than any other rookie in the majors.

“I’ve always been like this,” Bryant said. “I’ve always been a player that would just leave it at the field. I just try not to think about the previous game — or my successes or struggles or any of that off the field — because there’s really no need to.

“I don’t think we’re normal people. We live a crazy life. But I think anybody out there kind of just leaves their work where it needs to be.”

That’s why the Cubs believe Bryant will deliver in the biggest moments in October for years to come.

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

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USA TODAY

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

The same offense that was shut out the day before turned around and scored eight runs rather handily in Wednesday's 8-4 win over the Brewers. The Cubs put together this offensive explosion with both power and timely situational hitting, and that's the kind of offense that manager Joe Maddon believes is capable of emerging on any given day.
 
But since the All Star break, the Cubs had put together a -28 run differential on their way to a middling second half record, so the hope is that a big win over a division rival in a close race is the catalyst for the production the Cubs are looking for.
 
"I mean that’s who we need to be. We need to be that group. We need to be tougher to strike out. We need to not pull off pitches or expand or give the other team some escape hatches," Maddon said after Wednesday's game. "We got to get away from that. Every team wants it, but we were doing that, and now we got to get back to that."
 
Unlike so many of the past games this season, the Cubs were the first to score, putting together a mini-rally with two outs in the first inning. David Bote singled to left, and then Anthony Rizzo—bumped to the cleanup spot after spending much of this season leading off—homered to the opposite field in left center.
 
This is the kind of hitting that Maddon looks for, when his batters go to the opposite field. It means they're seeing the ball deeper into the zone, he has often said, and that usually yields better results. 
 
Along with Rizzo's opposite field home run in the 1st, Javy Baez went the other way in the 3rd inning when he tripled to right field. This put him in position to score on Jason Heyward's double.
 
In all, the Cubs had 13 hits against Brewers pitching. Maddon has on many occasions called this a "swarm offense" because of the way they string together timely hits and can easily overwhelm an opposing pitcher and his defense. 
 
The swarm offense was particularly effective in the 4th inning, when they rallied to score three runs and bulk up their lead to 7-2. In that inning, they benefited from a couple of bloop singles that landed just beyond the range of second baseman Travis Shaw, who is playing out of his natural position since the Brewers traded for Mike Moustakas. 
 
Albert Almora, Jr., who has struggled for much of the second half, chipped in an insurance home run in the 7th. He spoke to the frustrations of an offense that struggled to score in the previous game.
 
"The game of baseball is so unfair at times. You could have good at bats, and you’re out at the end of the day," Almora said. "I think we’re doing a really good job of putting together good at bats, and that’s all we really can control."
 
The approach worked in part because the offense as a whole does not allow themselves to get rattled by a dry stretch. They go to the plate each day with the belief that a run is always just around the corner.
 
"We just believe that we can get it done. It’s not always going to happen, it’s not easy," Heyward said after Wednesday's win. "We try to give ourselves more opportunities. The more we get, the more I like our odds."
 
The Cubs still have a lot of games against division opponents, nine against the Brewers and Cardinals in September, but they're not living and dying with each win or loss at this point.
 
"We’ve played a lot of meaningful games, so we know not to hang our hat on one," Anthony Rizzo told reporters after his 2-4, 3 RBI day. 
 
This attitude is a product of three straight years of postseason appearances and a World Series title, and it comes from the top.
 
"You can’t overreact. If you want to ride the emotional roller coaster, man, it will wipe you out," Maddon said. 
 
He lauded the pitching of Kyle Hendricks and the defense that featured dazzling catches in the outfield from Heyward and Ian Happ and a bare-handed grab and throw at third from Bote, but Maddon said that for the best results, pitching and offense need to work in tandem more consistently, like they did Wednesday.
 
"For us to really get on that road that you’re looking for, you’ve got to see them simultaneously," Maddon said.
 
The hope is that this kind of win becomes contagious and propels the Cubs into a much-needed winning streak to put some distance between them and the rest of the NL Central. 

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

These are commonly called the dog days of summer, and after having played through roughly two-thirds of the season, especially so for baseball players. For Albert Almora, Jr. batting fifth in Wednesday's lineup, this tough stretch of the year has been made even tougher thanks to a prolonged slump.

Almora is hitting just barely above .200 over the last thirty days. August has been even worse, at .185 going in to Wednesday's game against the Brewers. But despite these struggles, Almora is working to keep it all in perspective so that he can turn things around.

"The mental grind of it is obviously overwhelming at times, but if you’re struggling a little bit or seem not to be having a lot of luck, you just think of the positives day in and day out of what you go through," Almora said.

Admitting that this is sometimes easier said than done, Almora said that it helps being on a team that does a very good job of turning the page when things go badly. 

A big help in not letting his struggles at the plate weigh on him too heavily, Almora said, has been his family. Almora and his wife Krystal have a son, AJ, who was born late in the 2016 season, and she is pregnant with their second child. A health scare for her took Almora away from the team for a couple of days in mid-July. Thankfully all turned out well, but it's the kind of thing that puts anyone's life into perspective.

"You rely on family. Obviously my son’s a big part. He’s at a point where he just wants to play with Dad, and we have a lot of fun," Almora said. "He doesn’t really care, and that puts it into perspective for me. I go home, at the end of the day it’s just a game."

All the same, the task of preparing day in and day out and trying to stay productive in the midst of a period of struggle isn't easy when the hard contact he's making lands in gloves rather than grass or among the bleacher faithful. 

"You always try to think about it as a game," Almora said. "This is a game we’ve been playing since we were kids, but it does get away from you at times. You press for a little bit, so it does wear on you a little bit if you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to."

But there are positive signs for Almora. After striking out in a pinch-hit appearance on Tuesday, he drew two walks and hit a homer the next day. And whether the slump continues or not, he hasn't lost faith in himself.

"I have confidence in myself that I’m pretty good at this," Almora said. "And I’ll be alright."