Cubs

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.”

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

A Hobbled Hero: Baez, Cubs keep finding wild ways to win

Javy Baez has only seen one pitch in the Cubs-Phillies series, but that's all he needs to make a major impact.

"El Mago" notched his first walk-off RBI since May 8, 2016 in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night, lacing the only pitch he saw from Juan Nicasio down the right-field line. Baez had missed the entire series to that point due to a heel injury he suffered Sunday in Washington D.C. and actually underwent an MRI before Tuesday's game to make sure there was no other damage.

Baez's single put the finishing touches on the Cubs' first win this season when trailing after eight innings. They now lead the majors with five walk-off victories.

After another blown lead by the bullpen (the third in the last week), the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but Kris Bryant led off with a walk and then Anthony Rizzo doubled. After a Willson Contreras flyout, Jason Heyward was intentionally walked and then Albert Almora Jr. hit a tapper in front of home plate that Bryant just barely beat out at home to tie the game.

Then came Baez, as Joe Maddon opted to go to the hobbled star in place of Daniel Descalso, who was 0-for-4 on the evening to that point.

Prior to the ninth inning, Maddon wasn't sure if Baez would even be available to pinch hit in the game, but trainer P.J. Mainville taped up Javy's foot/ankle at the start of the inning and gave the Cubs skipper the all-clear.

"Just give PJ some credit on the tape job," Maddon joked. "This is right out of the Lombardi era kind of stuff. Tape and aspirin — go ahead and play. That's what everybody's football coach said."

If Baez hadn't delivered the walk-off hit and the Cubs wound up in extra innings, Maddon said he didn't know if Baez would be able to even play the field on his injured heel and the only player left on the bench was backup catcher Victor Caratini.

"In moments like that, you can only think it so far," Maddon said. "And then at some point, you gotta throw it at the wall and see what happens."

Maddon doesn't know if Baez will be able to play Wednesday night, but plans to make two lineups and then check with the shortstop to see about his status when he arrives at the field.

Baez's Cubs teammates are no longer surprised at the ridiculous things he does or how easy he makes some very difficult tasks look. Bryant joked he was actually upset Baez didn't hit it over the fence for a walk-off grand slam.

"I don't even know what's going on with him half the time anyway," Bryant said. "It's like, 'oh, Javy's pinch-hitting. And then I was debating like, 'don't swing at the first pitch," but I was like, 'no, it's Javy.' 

"It was awesome. He just like goes up there and swings the bat. If he didn't have to run to first base, he wouldn't. It's just like, 'I'm so good, I'm just gonna get this hit and then we're gonna go home.'"

However awe-inspiring Baez's Kirk Gibson impression was, the only reason the Cubs were even in the spot to win the game at that moment was because of the hustle and aggressive baserunning from Bryant. 

His game-tying run on Almora's tapper in front of the plate was huge, but his first trip around the bases was even more impressive. 

With Bryant on second base and Rizzo on first in the first inning, both runners were off on the full-count pitch to Contreras, who hit a routine grounder to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura. As Segura made the throw to first to retire Contreras, Bryant never hesitated around third base and scored on some heads-up, aggressive baserunning that looked like a page right out of the El Mago Playbook.

Bryant said as he was running, he thought about what it's like to play the left side of the infield on such a routine play and felt like he could catch the Phillies by surprise.

"I saw [third base coach Brian Butterfield] holding me up, too, and I just kept going," Bryant said. "I almost felt like I had eyes in the back of my head. It was kind of like one of those experiences that it's hard to explain, but I just kept going."

That run was all Jose Quintana and the Cubs needed for six innings, until Carl Edwards Jr. came on in relief for the seventh. Edwards allowed a leadoff single and then a double two batters later, giving way to Brandon Kintzler with two outs.

Kintzler gave up a groundball single up the middle to Andrew McCutchen and just like that, the Cubs' thin 1-0 lead had evaporated in the blink of an eye. And with the offensive issues (they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Baez's hit), that looked to be enough to send the Cubs to their second straight defeat in frustrating fashion.

But the magic of El Mago and Bryant allowed the Cubs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and send fans home happy and with a little more belief that this just might be a special summer on Chicago's North Side.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Jake Arrieta discusses his return & Mark DeRosa talks the leadoff spot

Hear from Jake Arrieta after his first start as a visitor at Wrigley Field, including his thoughts on facing his former teammates and the standing ovation he received during his first at-bat (1:30). Then, Luke Stuckmeyer is joined by MLB Network's Mark DeRosa to discuss the Cubs' leadoff spot, the team outperforming expectations so far, and much more (8:15).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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