Cubs

One year later, Kris Bryant reflects on big-league debut

One year later, Kris Bryant reflects on big-league debut

It's hard to believe it's been just one year since Kris Bryant made his big-league debut.

Thanks to a mature personality and a polished game on the field, Bryant seems more like a seasoned veteran than a second-year player.

Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Bryant's overhyped arrival to Major League Baseball, but the Cubs insist they didn't utilize the new Wrigley Field party room to celebrate the occasion (prior to the series finale against the Colorado Rockies, at least).

Bryant said he realized on Friday that his "big-league birthday" was coming up and admitted it often feels like he's been in the majors for more than a year though at the same time, the days are flying by.

"It's been a good year for me," he said. "I learned a lot along the way. I'm far from where I want to be, but I can look back and be pleased with what has happened."

It's been a roller coaster 12 months for Bryant - waiting almost a month before his first big-league homer and then cruising to an All-Star nod, a trip through the Home Run Derby, a wild pennant race, a thrilling one-game victory over the Pirates to kick off the playoffs and then the euphoria of beating the Cardinals in the NLDS before getting swept out of the NLCS by the Mets.

Bryant capped it all off by braving a winter storm to accept his National League Rookie of the Year Award in New York. 

Bryant was also honored prior to Sunday's game with the Players Choice Award for 2015 NL Outstanding Rookie.

Somehow, through it all, Bryant is able to tune out the hype - even while appearing on billboards and in commercials while becoming one of the faces of baseball.

"They're all just words," Bryant said of the hype that surrounds him. "You've gotta do it on the field. I've always been about action and doing it on the field. I'm not worried about what people are saying about me or any of that, because I know deep down, I want to do better than what they're saying about me.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't have that type of mentality and desire to just continue to learn and be better and become an all-around baseball player. It's just what pushes me."

Bryant has turned into an all-around force on the diamond. From his prolific baserunning to silencing doubters about his ability to play quality defense at third base, the 24-year-old has proven he's more than just a slugger.

"He's just different," Joe Maddon said. "No preteniousness about him whatsoever. He's a baseball player. He loves to play. Comes ready. He doesn't whine. He doesn't complain. And it's just been one year."

Over his first 162 career games, Bryant has posted an .853 OPS on a .274/.367/.486 slash line, hitting 28 homers and driving in 104 runs, good for a 6.7 WAR (by FanGraphs' metric). 

Bryant has also surprised some with 13 stolen bases and while he's struck out a whopping 209 times in his big-league career, he's also walked 83 times and has already cut down on his strikeout rate in 2016 (only 10 whiffs during his first 50 plate appearances).

In spring training, he said he felt like this season was just a continuation of 2015, only with a three-month break mixed in. 

Bryant has helped stay grounded by reminding himself that no matter what level, it's still the same game. There are just more people watching and paying attention in the big leagues.

"He's very mature," Maddon said. "The way he goes about his business, it's beyond his years. That's the best way I could tell you, man.

"He's subject to moments - like we all are - when things aren't going well, but he's pretty good at putting down yesterday and playing today. He's pretty good at putting down the previous at-bat or making a mistake on defense and coming back.

"I have a lot of faith in his ability to move on to the next moment. You gotta be that kind of guy."

Bryant said he couldn't point to one particular moment when he truly felt like a big-leaguer, but he had plenty of memories that will stick with him forever.

"There's really too many good ones and plenty of bad ones," he said. "You tend to remember the good ones. All of them. From my first game all the way until my last game [in 2015], even though we lost the last one. It was just a lot of fun.

"Walk-off home runs. Those are always fun. And then obviously making the postseason for the first time in a long time. 

"A lot of stuff to reflect on and learn from. I'm very grateful for it."

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

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AP

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

As a team, the Cubs do well with letting go of bad losses quickly and celebrating the good wins just as quickly, and then moving on. Except after David Bote’s two-out, two-strike grand slam to win Sunday night’s game against the Nationals, the team is still basking in the afterglow. Joe Maddon held his third annual “Try Not to Suck” celebrity golf outing at the Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood on Monday, and like the rest of Chicago, Bote’s miraculous handiwork dominated the conversation. 

“Yesterday, the group at the golf tournament were effervescent just based on David's home run.” Maddon said prior to Tuesday’s game. “That's all they could talk about." And at the top of the Cubs organization, Vice President Theo Epstein offered perspective on what has made Bote successful beyond just Sunday night. “He's got a big barrel,” Epstein said. “It just comes off hot more often and he's just a combination of the way his hands and wrists work in his swing and the swing plane that he's got now, it's a huge barrel.”

 Bote leads the majors in average exit velocity, and he has always hit the ball hard. Adjustments to his swing leading in to the 2017 season helped to get the ball in the air more, so displays of power like his dead center homer two days ago are more common. “He was hitting the ball down into the ground. Getting the swing on a little bit better plane, he's been able to pull that off while continuing to barrel up balls, so you're seeing balls just explode all over the park,” Epstein said. “He has opposite field power, he's routinely hitting the ball over the right fielder's head. You don't see guys hit the ball in the middle of the field as far as he did. And obviously when he pulls the ball, good things happen, too.” After Sunday’s win, Bote said that after being beaten by low sinkers on Saturday, he was keyed in to Nationals closer Ryan Madson’s four seam fastball. That slight adjustment helped him to create the moment that won the game. 

And on the whole, Bote has offered the kind of depth that has helped the Cubs to be a perennial playoff contender for several years in a row. Not many teams can offer that. “Sometimes we have two starting caliber players on the bench, sometimes we've had one, sometimes we've had three,” Epstein said. “The more you have the better because it just makes you more dangerous when you're writing off the lineup any given day.” Bote’s future is a bit in question as Kris Bryant continues to prepare for his return to the lineup, but as he showed, Bote is fully capable of producing off of the bench or when called upon in the bottom of the 9th. “As you saw with Bote the other day,” Epstein said, “pinch-hitting, to be able to create that matchup in that spot, I don't think a lot of teams would have that ability.”