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Kris Bryant embraces the Cubs hype, lives up to big expectations

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Kris Bryant embraces the Cubs hype, lives up to big expectations

PITTSBURGH — Kris Bryant had his own adidas billboard across from the iconic marquee before he played his first game at Wrigley Field. Bryant also shot a Red Bull commercial two days before he found out he would be promoted from Triple-A Iowa.

“That’s pretty solid, man,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that anticipatory moment that he had to go through, and I thought he dealt with it extremely well. Couldn’t have dealt with it any better than he did.”

Bryant embraces the hype — and sometimes even feeds into it — while living up to the big expectations. That helps explain why there’s a completely different vibe around this Cubs team now.

Even if Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have the same offensive fireworks or a dramatic late-inning comeback at PNC Park. It ended with Bryant striking out swinging with the potential game-tying run on first base, but his at-bats are already becoming must-see events.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs move Kris Bryant to center field after Dexter Fowler's injury]

Win or lose, it’s not hard to make Bryant the story. He broke into his home-run trot in the first inning, mistakenly thinking he hooked a ball inside the left-field foul pole for his first big-league bomb. The 6-foot-5 third baseman also walked, doubled, scored two runs and played center field in the eighth inning.

Bryant knew super-agent Scott Boras would rip the Cubs, but he didn’t get his hands dirty during the service-time dispute in spring training. Bryant petted that goat, holding it on a leash while waiting for a bus to Chicago in that clever “Down on the Farm” spot for Red Bull.

Bryant is also hitting .409 (9-for-22) with a 1.143 OPS through his first six games in the majors, showing no signs of being in awe of his surroundings.

Bryant should have crossover appeal at a time when Major League Baseball is desperate to connect to the younger generation — and the Cubs have baseball plans directly dependent on a business model that hinges on box-office sales, a renovated Wrigley Field and the promised TV megadeal.

[MORE CUBS: Edwin Jackson earning bigger role in Cubs bullpen]

“Kris has a unique personality in addition to having a unique talent,” Boras said. “He’s the kind of guy that’s very focused on the game and what he does and how he does it.

“He’s a baseball player. He really is. All the other things, I think, are enjoyable. Like you go in and you do something like that (commercial). You take a few hours and you put on barn boots and you go try to milk a cow and the goat thing.

“To me, that brought a message about a very historical thing for the team he plays for. He did it in (his own) way and also managed all the other things that went on in spring training by staying completely out of it: ‘I’m going to go play baseball. I’m going to do my best.’

“In dealing with your questions, which are appropriate, and managing it a particular way, he just has a unique sense for it. (It’s) being able to turn that off — and turn that on — and go out and play and do all the things he did.”

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

Bryant grew up in a stable, two-parent family and noticed the way Derek Jeter always stayed on message, keeping his reputation intact over the years and retiring as a New York Yankees icon.

Bryant could be seen signing autographs for fans throughout spring training, understanding that’s one of his responsibilities.

“Absolutely,” Bryant said. “I remember going to games when I was a kid and being the kid asking for autographs and what it was like when people would turn me down. And what it was like when people would come over and sign for me.

“I like to give people that respect. They’re here watching me play and rooting me on, so that’s a small thing that I can do for them.”

The bottom line: If this team gets hot, everyone can keep getting rich, the Cubs, Bryant, Boras Corp. Bryant’s father, Mike, loved how adidas rolled out the “WORTH THE WAIT” message on Addison Street.

“That was awesome,” Mike said. “Everybody made a big deal about it. It wasn’t. They had the billboard bought six months ago, for crying out loud. You can’t get billboard space in three days. Come on. Adidas has been really good to Kris, and they’re all about the Cubs winning, too. We want the Cubs to win.”

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

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USA TODAY

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Live from Gallagher Way it's Cubs Authentic Fan Night!

Ozzie Guillen and Doug Glanville join Leila Rahimi live from Gallagher Way for this edition of Baseball Night in Chicago.

Listen to the full podcast episode in the embedded player below: