Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Kris Bryant to Eric Thames: ‘Dude, we got to hit together’

Eric Thames now has an open invitation to "The Bryant Man Cage" this offseason.
 
Thames had been so far off the baseball map that Kris Bryant didn't realize they both live in Las Vegas and used to play in the West Coast Conference. But where Bryant's fast track made him a Rookie of the Year, National League MVP and World Series champion within three-and-a-half years of leaving the University of San Diego, Thames has bounced around since the Toronto Blue Jays grabbed him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of Pepperdine University. 

Traded to the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Selected off waivers by the Houston Astros and released three months later. Putting up 124 homers and 382 RBI in the Korea Baseball Organization led to a three-year, $16 million commitment from the Milwaukee Brewers. 

If they had no idea who this guy was, the Cubs know now after clawing back for a 7-4 victory on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where Thames looked like the Triple Crown candidate for small sample sizes.

"I was talking to him at first," Bryant said. "I was like: ‘Dude, we got to hit together.' But he's on some type of run right now. It's impressive to watch.

"Everybody has a story. He had to go to Korea for three years. And it's hard not to feel happy for a guy like that who's worked his butt off to get back to this point and things are paying off for him."

Maybe Thames will stop by the house where Bryant grew up and his father, Mike, gives lessons and passes on what Ted Williams once taught minor-leaguer hitters in the Boston Red Sox organization. Dexter Fowler has worked out there and Shane Victorino lives in the neighborhood. 

Against the defending World Series champs, Thames went 6-for-11 with three doubles, three walks, a homer and six runs scored during this three-game series. There will be cynical reactions.  

After Thames homered in his fifth straight game on Monday night, USA Today reported a representative from Major League Baseball's drug-testing program approached him in the visiting clubhouse.  

"Random, right?" Thames told USA Today, laughing. "Guess it comes with the territory, right?"

Manager Joe Maddon called the production "Bonds-esque" and compared Thames to the zone Daniel Murphy got into when he became a new Mr. October and the New York Mets swept the Cubs during the 2015 National League Championship Series.

"If you want a guy that's really disciplined and knows the strike zone, you probably have to draft it or buy it," Maddon said. "It's hard to create it or nurture it. My experience is that with a guy that's more of a swinger, it's easier to get him to not strike out as opposed to accept the walk. That's just in their nature.

"You could get them somewhat better. But to go from being an absolute free-swinger to a disciplined hitter, that's rare. That's absolutely rare. Maybe it's his situation, going away from the limelight and just getting into a little bit more secluded area that he could test things."         

Until Opening Day this year, Thames, 30, last appeared in a big-league game on Oct. 1, 2012, the end of a season that saw him generate nine homers and a .672 OPS and 87 strikeouts in 290 combined plate appearances for Toronto and Seattle.

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Veteran catcher Miguel Montero – who never played in the American League – had the same reaction as Bryant: Who is this guy?

"He's swinging a hot bat," Montero said. "He doesn't really have a lot of holes in his swing. We went in, he covered inside. We went away, he covered outside. We went breaking ball, he covered breaking ball. 
 
"When you're swinging good, it doesn't matter what they throw you, you're going to hit it. Obviously, we need to find a way to pitch him better next time."

Imagine what some time in "The Bryant Man Cage" might do to Thames' game.

"I think we're just excited when we get him out," Bryant said. "We all go through runs like that where you feel like you just hit everything on the nose – outs, hits, homers – and you just got to ride the wave because they don't happen all the time."

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

The Cubs gave Kyle Schwarber time to sort things out by sending him down to Triple-A Iowa, and Schwarber's first game back in the minors shows he may need some time.

Schwarber's first game with the Iowa Cubs was a forgettable one. He struck out in his first three plate appearances before singling in his last at-bat. He struck out looking in the first inning before striking out swinging his next two times up.

Schwarber batted third in the lineup and played left field. Iowa won 1-0 against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

He last played for Iowa in 2015, but only spent 17 games there. He hit .333 with three homers and a 1.036 OPS in that short stint. Before getting sent down Schwarber was hitting .171 with the Cubs with 12 home runs, but also 75 strikeouts in 64 games.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”