Christian Yelich

Kris Bryant is better than ever

Kris Bryant is better than ever

If the season ended today, these would be all the categories Kris Bryant would set new career highs in:

Batting average
Slugging percentage
OPS
OPS+
Strikeout percentage
wRC+
wOBA
ISO

On top of that, he's on pace for a career high in runs scored and doubles and on track to approach career bests in homers, walks and WAR. 

Even if you don't know what some of those stats mean, the conclusion is clear: Kris Bryant is better than ever.

Yes, that includes his 2016 MVP campaign.

Consider this:

In '16, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554, good for a .939 OPS with 39 homers, 102 RBI and 121 runs scored.

In '19, he's hitting .299/.408/.565, good for a .973 OPS and on pace for 34 homers, 79 RBI and 125 runs scored.

The season isn't ending today, but there's actually a strong chance Bryant even improves on those numbers given the way he's been trending.

Since receiving a day off on June 12, he's slashing .369/.458/.660 (1.119 OPS) with 16 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and 24 runs scored in 28 games. He's also reached base safely in 36 of his last 38 contests.

That includes a solo homer off Sonny Gray to kick off the scoring in Wednesday's Cubs victory.

"KB's been playing really well," Joe Maddon said. "Shoot, for a month-and-a-half now he's been kinda toasty. That ball was properly struck off Gray. Then he continued with base hits, good at-bats, his baserunning again is spectacular, a good play in left field. He's playing pretty much at the top of his game right now."

As Maddon alluded to, Bryant does so many different things to help the Cubs win, from his exceptional baserunning (like going first to third on an infield hit Wednesday) to playing solid defense all over the field. 

In the three-game series against the Reds, Bryant started at three different positions — right field (Monday), third base (Tuesday) and left field (Wednesday).

"It's not an easy thing to do," Jason Heyward said. "When you move around the field, it's not easy to keep the defense. It's gonna take time for anyone to settle in. He takes a lot of pride in offense, obviously, but he takes a lot of pride in being a winning baseball player — he runs hard, hustles and a lot of those things he does don't always show up in the box score. 

"The year he won MVP, obviously he had home runs, he had the numbers, but he hustles, he runs down the line. He wants to make good plays on defense and just gives us another opportunity to move people around and give somebody the day off — like [Kyle Schwarber Wednesday]."

Bryant can also hit just about anywhere in the Cubs lineup and he's been particularly..."toasty," to borrow Maddon's phrase...since he moved to the three-spot in the order just before the All-Star Break.

In those nine games where Bryant has hit between Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, he's posting a .424/.537/.909 line (1.446 OPS) with 4 doubles, 4 homers and 11 runs scored while walking more than he's striking out (8 to 5). 

Even with all Bryant has accomplished this season, he still might not finish any higher than third in National League MVP voting this year, as Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are playing out of their minds.

Still, the Cubs will certainly take what Bryant's given them this season — a deserving All-Star after missing more than 60 games a year ago with a shoulder injury.

The Cubs offense still has some work to do to become more consistent, but a healthy and thriving Bryant has been a large step in the right direction.

"It's huge," Heyward said. "Anytime you don't have an MVP in the lineup and have him missing that kind of time is huge. Let alone, it's Kris Bryant. For him to bounce back — All-Star season, all those things is awesome, but just him being healthy, being out there and competing with us, it goes a long way."

The unsung hero of the Cubs' 15-inning win over Brewers

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USA TODAY

The unsung hero of the Cubs' 15-inning win over Brewers

When everybody looks back on the Cubs' 15-inning victory over the division-rival Brewers Saturday, they'll remember Willson Contreras' walk-off homer, Tyler Chatwood's gutsy performance in relief and the cold/rainy weather.

They might even remember Cole Hamels' dominant start or David Bote's "El Mago-esque" slide.

All those guys deserve the credit they'll get, but it was Cubs third-base coach Will Venable who will go down as an unsung hero of the 5-hour affair. 

In the bottom of the fifth inning with the Cubs trailing 1-0 in the game, Bote reached on an infield single with two outs. Albert Almora Jr. came up next and served a soft liner into the gap in right-center and Bote motored all the way around from first to score, even though Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich cut the ball off well before it reached the wall. 

The ball beat Bote home, but his incredible slide dodged the tag from Yasmani Grandal and the Cubs had their first run against the Brewers in the series. (It wound up being the only run until Contreras' walk-off blast in the bottom of the 15th inning.)

As Bote rounded third, past baserunning advice from Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed through his head: "Don't just slide, slide to be safe." Bote said he was thinking to himself: "Find a way to get safe and that was just how my body decided to do it."

You don't often see a guy score from first base on a hit that doesn't even get by an outfielder, but this wasn't a conventional play and the Cubs don't even make it to extra innings without it.

With Hamels on deck and the Cubs offense struggling to score runs, Venable was sending Bote all the way to try to make something happened.

And it worked.

"He let me know early we were going," Bote said. "In my head, I'm like 'Score.' I go until he stops me. About halfway to third base, I see we're going, so it wasn't a hesitation — he was convicted about it. It was a great, great call. Obviously it ends up being a huge run for those last 10 innings."

Venable is normally the team's first-base coach, but has seen a lot of time over at third base the last couple weeks while veteran coach Brian Butterfield has battled illness. This is only the second season for the 36-year-old Venable on a coaching staff of any kind after playing in the big leagues from 2008-16. 

"Tremendous," Joe Maddon said. "He knew who was on deck, he knew the out situation, he knew everything about it. Bote had it in his head, also. Albert with a nice piece of hitting. That was absolutely the right thing to do and I know Butter was very proud of the whole moment."

The Cubs also seemed to catch the Brewers by surprise a bit on the whole play, as Yelich kind of nonchalantly got the ball back into the infield and it didn't look like second baseman Hernan Perez was initially planning on going home with the relay.

Part of that can be credited to Venable, who may have let Bote know to keep motoring home, but wasn't cluing the rest of Wrigley Field onto the decision. He motioned to Bote once and then kind of casually put his hands on his knees and watched as Bote flew past him. You typically see third-base coaches waving their arms around like crazy in situations like that to get the message across that they want the guy to score.

Venable was unavailable for comment after the game, but Maddon didn't think he was trying to purposely deke the Brewers at all.

"Probably not," Maddon said, smiling. "There might've been consternation, concern — 'what should I do here?' kind of a thing. If you've never coached third base and you do it here [in the big leagues] for the first time, that ain't easy. The guys that do it for a long period of time, I have so much respect for."

Maddon has coached third just one game in the majors while filling in and admitted "it's weird." But he has coached it a bunch in the minor leagues and knows how it can take some getting used to, so he empathizes with the difficult on-the-job training Venable has had to go through in a very short period of time.

Things are easier at Wrigley, however, as the Cubs dugout is very close to where Venable stands, so Maddon can often relay messages to his coach without even signing.

"I can just say it to him, which we've been doing, so that helps a little bit," Maddon said. "But he's done well. There was a sequence in Miami [last month] where I did a whole bunch of different things — he nailed every one of them and we came out pretty good. 

"He's a very sharp guy. This just adds to his resume. This makes him a better coach — the mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form. All this matters for him. He's doing wonderfully."

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How Xavier Cedeno's addition impacts Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen

How Xavier Cedeno's addition impacts Mike Montgomery and the Cubs bullpen

The Cubs showed up to Wrigley Field Saturday with a drastically different bullpen than they had to begin the week.

Actually, the Cubs' bullpen has shifted dramatically even in the span of one day with Xavier Cedeno's addition into the mix after dealing with a wrist injury for the last couple months (Allen Webster hit the IL with a radial nerve issue in his right arm).

While the Cubs are still trying to maneuver everything without closer Pedro Strop (who hit the injured list Wednesday with a hamstring strain), they now have a trio of lefties in the bullpen after spending more than a week with Kyle Ryan as the only southpaw.

Cedeno's arrival changes the equation for the entire bullpen, but he will have a significant impact on how the Cubs will use Mike Montgomery. 

Montgomery was activated off the injured list in Strop's spot Wednesday and threw 5 innings of relief Thursday after Yu Darvish, shutting down the Marlins in impressive fashion.

With Cedeno in the fold, that permits the Cubs to keep Montgomery in a long relief role if they choose (which could include piggybacking Darvish's starts in the short term) without having to rely on him for a one- or two-batter stretch against an opposition's tough lefties.

"To have the other lefty really permits the wild-card moment that Monty's capable of doing," Joe Maddon said. "He was good the other day. He was really good. I told him right afterwards, I loved his assertiveness, his confidence. Everything about him was just like, whoa. Really lasered in - his focus was that good. He maintains that, you're gonna see him do that often. That's not an anomaly moment for him.

"That's as good as I've seen him in a while, period. We had heard he threw like that in the minor leagues, came back up here, the guys told me in the bullpen was spectacular and then we saw it in the game."

Montgomery got off to a slow start in spring training because of a shoulder issue that prevented him from getting as stretched out as he - or the team - would've liked heading into the season. He started the year in the bullpen and struggled, hitting the injured list with a lat issue after only a week of action.

The Cubs took their time bringing Montgomery back, letting him get stretched out in the minor leagues to the point where he threw 6 innings and 76 pitches in his final rehab outing. 

Now he's available for length out of the bullpen in extra inning games, if a starter is knocked out of a game early or even as an option to piggyback after Darvish, who is averaging just over 4 innings a start to date. Montgomery's length also allows the Cubs to give him a spot start if a need comes up or even go to a six-man rotation, though Maddon said the team probably wouldn't add an extra starter into the mix until after the All-Star Break at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Cedeno and Ryan form a valuable southpaw duo in the bullpen for shorter outings (though Maddon acknowledged Montgomery could still be available for brief appearances based on the availability of the other two lefties on a given day).

Ryan is solid against lefties, but induces a lot of weak contact and groundballs against right-handed hitters, too. He's had a tough week, but overall has a 2.04 FIP to go with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings and it did not take him long to enter Maddon's circle of trust.

The 32-year-old Cedeno has permitted a .223 batting average and .583 OPS against left-handed hitters over the course of his eight-year career. He was really good last year for the White Sox and Brewers, going 2-0 with a 2.43 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 48 outings. 

Cedeno can be particularly effective for the Cubs as they finish out their series with the Brewers, who have some tough lefties - led by Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas in the starting lineup, but also guys like Travis Shaw and Eric Thames off the bench.

After this weekend, the Cubs then move on to Cincinnati where some guy named Joey Votto resides and poses a big threat as a left-handed hitter.

This is exactly why the Cubs went out and signed Cedeno to a big-league deal right before spring training started.

"I've watched this guy pitch for a bit; been a big fan for a while," Maddon said. "He permits us to really match up left on left, however he's able to get righties out, too. Love his veteranship. It's exciting."

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