The silver lining of the Cubs' bullpen meltdown in the ninth inning Monday night is it actually helped lead to the most encouraging signs yet that Kris Bryant is back playing at an MVP level.
Tuesday night's walk-off in the bottom of the ninth inning didn't hurt in that regard, either. The 3-run shot on a frigid night at Wrigley marked the third straight game Bryant homered, the first time he's ever done that in his career.
"Yeah, it was a cold one," Bryant said some 15 minutes after his teammates savagely dumped three buckets of Gatorade over his head outside the Cubs' dugout. "I honestly didn't want to play extra innings. Nobody would like that. I was thinking back to [the 15-inning game in] Arizona, I was like nope, we're not gonna have that today. That was fun. I really enjoyed that.
"Walk-offs are so fun, regardless. It's just a time to beat up on your teammates and nobody knows who's doing what. They got me good, but in the best way possible. It's been a couple years since I've done that. It's nice to experience that again."
The Cubs star is fully healthy after a shoulder injury sapped his power and kept him out of the lineup for more than 50 games last year, but his home run stroke has still been slow to develop this season.
For the first four weeks of the 2019 season, Bryant had only 1 homer, but he's now gone yard 5 times in the past 10 games.
That includes this blast Monday night over the nuveen sign in left field:
Bryant turning on a pitch with authority is a positive sign in itself, but even more than that, it was the hardest he had hit a home run since July 16, 2017:
Tuesday's walk-off was his first since Aug. 24, 2015.
When Bryant walked out of Wrigley Field on April 25 to head on the Cubs' most recent road trip, he had only 1 homer and a .366 slugging percentage to his name in 2019. He now has 6 homers and a .508 slugging percentage less than two weeks later.
"I think any time early in the season you look at the scoreboard and things fluctuate so much and then you're trying to get 4 hits in 1 at-bat because you want to see things change," Bryant said. "I think we all have experienced that. Fortunately, I've gotten off to pretty good starts the previous four years, so I haven't had to really worry about that, but this year was a little different.
"So i think that's the main thing - you're so impatient and you want things to come to you so quick, but I realize that that's not the way to go about things. It's always good when you learn from your mistakes."
Do you really need any more proof that Bryant is BACK?
How about this:
He has reached base safely in 17 straight games, his longest streak since an 18-game stretch in August-September, 2017.
Including Monday night's blast, Bryant has 5 homers in his last 10 games. The last time we saw him show off that kind of power was a year ago, when he hit 5 dingers in an 8-game stretch last May.
Yes, he got off to a slow start at the plate and sure, he's still only hitting .248. But this is also his season pace at the moment:
123 R, 54 2B, 29 HR, 113 RBI, 103 BB
And he has a .381 OBP out of the 2-spot in the lineup. Those may not necessarily be MVP numbers, but it would certainly put him in the conversation and almost any player in the league would be ecstatic to achieve that stat line.
So what's changed over the last couple weeks after getting off to a slow start?
"A better approach at the plate," Joe Maddon said recently. "A better method, a better beginning of what he's doing — the stance and everything he's doing right now. He's putting himself in a better position to be successful.
"He's giving himself more time to read pitches. When he sees his pitch, he's on time. It's gonna keep getting better, by the way. I like what he's doing a lot."
What Maddon is alluding to with Bryant's stance is something the veteran manager saw while doing research on the Cubs organizational video system — Ivy — and took to Bryant.
To put it simply, Maddon just wanted Bryant to get back to his 2016 form at the plate and cut down on any extra movement while he's in the batter's box.
"That's something Joe saw back in 2016," Bryant said. "It's just about my philosophy of hitting to not have as much movement — be very still. I think it shows in my swing. That little movement I had is kinda what I got back to. It's nice to just hit the ball hard all over the field and see that's working."
"KB, I just thought got off track a little bit and he's getting back to where he had been, obviously," Maddon said. "... When you're working with really good major league players, it's always important to go back to what they look like when they first got here. That matters, because they got here for a reason."
It's not just all about the hard contact, either. Bryant is currently walking at the best rate of his career (14.8 percent) and striking out at the lowest rate of his career (19 percent).
Now that Bryant has heated up and is looking a lot more like the 2016 NL MVP version of himself, the middle of the Cubs lineup is as formidable as any in baseball. So even as the bottom part of the order — Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, etc. — start seeing their numbers fall back to Earth a bit, Bryant's ascension is enough to help keep the Cubs offense among the best in the game.
"I don't think anybody in there doubted it," Jon Lester said. "We've all played through injury and struggled. I think you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your teammates. It's just good to see him in that good spot right now...
"It's nice to see that, but definitely nobody in that clubhouse doubted that he would be back to being Kris Bryant."
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