Kris Bryant had already crushed a Felix Hernandez changeup in the first inning when he homered a second time against the Seattle Mariners. Billy Williams turned to Rick Sutcliffe during that Cactus League game in March and said: “We got to call him Roy Hobbs.”
Williams is a Hall of Famer who first joined the Cubs organization in 1956. Sutcliffe is the ESPN analyst who won Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards and threw almost 2,700 innings in the big leagues. Moments like that set the baseline expectations: Bryant would do unbelievable things for the rest of his career.
“The Natural” has become it’s natural for young players to wear down and look lost while trying to find their way out of slumps. The mental grind is so intense that Bryant has said you almost feel “brain-dead” at the end of every day.
“I don’t want to come out here and be Babe Ruth in my first season,” Bryant said. “I want to embrace the struggles and learn from it. I think I’m setting a benchmark so that I can improve on a lot of areas.”
Bryant generated so much buzz as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, Baseball America’s top prospect heading into this season and a national story in spring training.
But Bryant is trending in the wrong direction now, heading into Thursday’s huge game against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field with two homers since the Fourth of July, watching his batting average drop to .246 while his OPS plunged 86 points down to .786. His 130 strikeouts led the National League.
“It’s probably a combination of first time in the big leagues and really good pitching and making adjustments,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “And also probably some fatigue, both mental and physical. He’ll snap out of it.
“We’ve seen Anthony (Rizzo) have a swoon and come back out of it. We’ve seen Addison (Russell) start to come back out of his struggles. I have no doubt Kris will as well. Guys go through it, and he’s really kind of going through it for the first time.”
Bryant comes across as so polished that it’s easy to forget this is only his second full season in professional baseball. And remember the Cubs looked at the service-time clock last year and didn’t make him a September call-up, pulling the plug after 138 games combined at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa.
“I do believe you hit a wall, but I also believe you do catch a second wind,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s so talented. He’s going to be good for so many years. But when your confidence takes a hit, how do you get it back?
“And then furthermore, playing more games, under more scrutiny, going to the All-Star Game, being part of the Home Run Derby, family in town, text (messages), phone calls. It’s crazy. So get back into your routine, take a deep breath and understand what’s going on here.
“Part of catching a second wind is being in things — like having a legitimate shot to win.”
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Bryant carried so many responsibilities as the Cubs emerged as a potential playoff team, hitting in the middle of the order, going all-out while running the bases and playing good enough defense at third base. All this for a marquee franchise in a major market with all eyes on him.
“It’s good to go through the struggles,” Bryant said. “I’ve been through struggles in every year of my life in baseball, and I’ve learned from it. I’m going to come back here stronger from this.
“It’s all a learning process. We’re winning along the way. My teammates are picking me up — and that’s all I can ask for.”