Why the Cubs and Kris Bryant feel ready to face Giant pitching

Why the Cubs and Kris Bryant feel ready to face Giant pitching

Kris Bryant – a “Game of Thrones” binge-watcher – likes to imagine the pitcher on the mound as a nameless, faceless opponent. Bryant is too polite to give the Jake Arrieta answer – “Who gives a s---?” – but he really wouldn’t stress over Johnny Cueto or Bartolo Colon.

Those blinders – and that innate sense of confidence – helped Bryant evolve from a unanimous National League Rookie of the Year in 2015 to a likely MVP this season. That helped transform the Cubs from the happy-to-be-here team the New York Mets dominated during last year’s NL Championship Series to a 103-win machine expected to roll down Michigan Avenue in the parade.

The Big Boy Games start on Friday night at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs will face Cueto and the San Francisco Giants in a best-of-five series. The even-year Giants did it again, surviving Wednesday night’s wild-card game at Citi Field as Madison Bumgarner added to his legend with a 3-0 complete-game win over the Mets.

But after New York’s power pitching didn’t allow the Cubs to take a lead at any point during that four-game sweep last year, Bryant feels ready for whatever the Giants throw at him now.

“I’m more comfortable with it,” Bryant said. “You see the big-name guys on the mound and you know that you’ve faced them before. It’s not anything new or crazy.

“With the No. 1 and 2 guys, you just got to go out there and battle, have good at-bats, wear them down. And I think this whole team has been doing that all year long.

“But then you look at last year and the Mets – it felt like (that with) every one of their pitchers. They had four pitchers who were all aces. I don’t know if it’s going to be like that this year. But we’re certainly a lot more prepared for it.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Bryant went 6-for-34 (.176 average) with two homers in nine playoff games last year, but he’s a different hitter than the one who led the NL with 199 strikeouts during the regular season.

Bryant cut that strikeout number down to 154 this year, even while getting 49 more plate appearances, and without sacrificing his power, boosting his home-run total from 26 to 39 and seeing his OPS jump 81 points to .939.

“His bat’s on plane more – it’s not as steep in and out of the zone,” an NL Central scout said. “He understands the league now and how people pitch him. Having (Anthony) Rizzo on the other side of the diamond really helps him with his preparation and what to look for and how to go about his business. The talent is coming through.”

“Mentally, he’s the best guy (they got) in the clutch,” an NL East scout said of Bryant. “It doesn’t matter if he’s having a good day or a bad day at the plate, he doesn’t let that affect his game.”

The Cubs were never going to face all of New York’s aces, because Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz are all recovering from season-ending injuries. With Bumgarner, Cueto, ex-Cub Jeff Samardzija and lefty Matt Moore, the Giants lurked as the more dangerous opponent, even as they stumbled toward the finish line and didn’t clinch a wild-card spot until the final day of the regular season.

But that’s why the Cubs invested $253 million in Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, to diversify a lineup anchored by Bryant and Rizzo and Addison Russell, who also made year-over-year improvements, putting up 21 homers and 95 RBI during his age-22 season.

The Cubs led the NL in walks and on-base percentage (.343), trailing only the Colorado Rockies in runs scored (808). Their strikeouts dropped from 1,518 last season – or 174 more than the next NL team – to 1,339 this year.

This should be a more sustainable offense. But the Giants still seem capable of giving the Cubs flashbacks to the 2015 Mets.

“Their pitching was unbelievably good,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s it. I’m not trying to be smart in any way. They were just good. They just pitched that well. You would hope to not run into that same method of pitching among the entire group. I was part of that also with the Angels against the White Sox in 2005 – their pitching was absolutely phenomenal.

“When you run into hot pitching like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. … Their pitching was just that good. There’s no lesson to be learned, I don’t think. You just hope that the team you run into is not that hot with their pitching.”

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

The news on Brandon Morrow might not be so positive, but the Cubs did receive very good reports on their injured ace this weekend.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game against a couple of his Cubs teammates Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, tossing 45 pitches in total. In between "innings" of the sim game, Lester was also working out on the side in an effort to ramp up the intensity and simulate more of a game feel to see how his injured left hamstring will respond.

Lester initially went on the injured list two weeks ago after he was removed in the third inning of the Cubs' home opener on April 8, when he hurt his hamstring running the bases.

"[The sim game went] really well," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "I thought he looked very good. Pretty amazing where he's at already. ... Did not hold back at all, so it's very encouraging."

Maddon also said he thought Lester's stuff looked good from where he was watching behind the catcher and pointed out that the Cubs ace was "hypercritical of himself," indicating that Lester's focus was on competing and making good pitches instead of worrying about his hamstring or any physical limitations.

The Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Lester just yet, as they will see how the 35-year-old feels Sunday after the "rigorous" activity Saturday.

There is currently no timetable for his return, but Maddon didn't rule out the possibility that Lester would be able to pitch sometime in the coming week.

The Cubs rotation has looked very good since Lester went down — combining for a 0.96 ERA in the last 7 games before Yu Darvish struggled early in Saturday's tilt with the Diamondbacks.

Tyler Chatwood gets the ball for the Cubs Sunday to close out the series against Arizona and then the team has Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels lined up for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers when they come to town Tuesday night. 

The Cubs won't need a fifth starter in the rotation again until next Saturday, April 27, so that could be a date to circle for a possible Lester return if all continues to go well in the veteran's recovery.

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Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Cubs shut down Brandon Morrow after setback

Brandon Morrow will not be ready to join the Cubs bullpen in the near future.

It was expected the closer would miss at least the first month of the season after recovering from November elbow surgery, but now the Cubs say Morrow has suffered a setback and they're shutting down the 34-year-old pitcher.

Morrow threw a bullpen at the Cubs' complex in Arizona earlier in the week and experienced some of the same issues in his arm after.

"The bounceback after the last time out wasn't as good, so we gotta back off him once again and just slow things down," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "It's just where he's at. It's not unlike what had been going on earlier.

"It was all trending very well and this last time, just not as good. So we have to pay attention to what he's saying."

Morrow will not pick up a baseball for a little while, though the Cubs didn't specify exactly how long that would be. This obviously pushes Morrow's timeline back significantly and raises serious questions about his status moving forward this season.

He has not appeared in a game since July 15 last year, hitting the shelf with what was classified as a biceps issue initially and then later revealed as a bone bruise. The surgery in November was a debridement procedure similar to what Yu Darvish underwent in September for his own bone bruise.

The Cubs have been very conservative with Morrow throughout his entire recovery, especially given his long injury history. 

Yet even with that conservative approach, nine months away from game action to let the injury recover and the procedure on his elbow to clean things up, Morrow is still experiencing similar issues to what he went through in the second half of last year. As he tried to come back and join the Cubs' pennant race last August and September, Morrow also struggled bouncing back after throwing sessions.

It will be a bit until the Cubs have any sort of definitive timeline on Morrow, but in the meantime, they'll continue piecing together a bullpen that has found its footing lately after a brutal stretch to begin the season. 

The Cubs also have some reinforcements on the way soon in the form of veterans Xavier Cedeno and Tony Barnette, who both signed free-agent deals with the team over the winter. Cedeno, a 32-year-old lefty, is throwing another rehab game in Double-A Tennessee Saturday while Barnette — a 35-year-old righty — is expected to make his first rehab appearance with Triple-A Iowa Sunday.

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