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.

[BUY TICKETS: Get your Cubs seats right here]

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."

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.