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.”
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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.”