Kris Bryant delivers another MVP performance for red-hot Cubs

Kris Bryant delivers another MVP performance for red-hot Cubs

It’s only the middle of August, but the Cubs are already getting questions about October lineups, the odd man out of the playoff rotation and how soon before the best team in baseball starts thinking about shaping the postseason roster.

This is really all Kris Bryant knows as a Cub. No rebuilding seasons, no wait until next year, just a realistic expectation to win the World Series now and keep winning later.

If not for his partnership in Bryzzo Souvenir Co., Bryant might be the National League’s clear-cut MVP favorite, instead of potentially splitting the Baseball Writers’ Association of America vote with Anthony Rizzo.

Bryant launched two more home-run balls during Thursday afternoon’s 9-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field, going 5-for-5 with five RBI and falling a triple short of hitting for the cycle. That made Bryant the fifth player in franchise history with 30 homers in an age-24-or-younger season, joining Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa and Rizzo.

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“He always jokes around with me, saying: ‘You know, when Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, Prince Fielder was hitting behind him,’” Bryant said. “He always tells me: ‘I’m your Prince.’”

Bryant leads in homers (30-25) and batting average (.296-.291), while Rizzo has driven in eight more runs (86) and posted a fractionally higher .OPS (.960-.956). Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber defender at first base, while Bryant is an All-Star third baseman who can be shifted all over the infield or moved to any outfield position. 

“I can’t say enough about having him behind me,” Bryant said, “as a mentor and someone I learn a lot from (with) how he goes about his at-bats. Even though he’s a lefty and I’m righty, it seems to me – and to him – that they pitch us very similarly.

“That (MVP talk), honestly, is just a byproduct of us pushing each other and really expecting more out of one another.”

If Rizzo finds the right balance between goofy and competitive within the right clubhouse, then Bryant brings a cool sense of professionalism and purpose, a Rookie of the Year who blended in easily and blocked out the hype.

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“This guy’s work ethic is incredible,” said manager Joe Maddon, who won’t reveal his MVP pick. “He’s a very humble man, too. It’s not all about me. I know his picture’s everywhere, but he doesn’t act that way. He takes his craft seriously. He loves to play the game.”

Beating a nondescript Brewers team four times in almost a 48-hour window doesn’t say all that much about the Cubs, who have drained all the suspense from the division race, running away from the St. Louis Cardinals (13 games back) and Pittsburgh Pirates (14) while going 24-8 since the All-Star break and pushing their run differential to plus-209.  

But until now, the Cubs hadn’t gone on an 18-for-21 winning stretch since 1945, their last pennant-winning season. And having Rizzo and Bryant under club control through the 2021 season means that whatever happens, the party won’t stop in Wrigleyville.

“I was asked about (Bryant) when he was first coming up into the league,” winning pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “‘What do you got on this guy?’ I told them: ‘He’s going to be one of the top-five hitters in the game the day he makes his debut.’ I think that’s pretty accurate.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.