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."

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

Cubs: Is Joe Maddon turning Kyle Schwarber into a platoon player?

LOS ANGELES – Joe Maddon doesn’t want to put the platoon label on a young hitter who became a World Series legend before his 24th birthday. But the Cubs manager also isn’t planning to start Kyle Schwarber against left-handers anytime soon. 

“If people want to say that, I can’t avoid it,” Maddon said Friday at Dodger Stadium, where Schwarber sat against lefty Alex Wood, who took a 20.1-inning scoreless streak into this National League Championship Series rematch. “I’m going to do that until I feel good about him, because I don’t want to lay too many at-bats on him in a negative situation.

“If he’s not swinging the bat well against righties, it’s a bad assumption that I’m going to think he’s going to swing it well against lefties. Then I’m just putting him in a deeper hole by throwing him out there, just based on really bad logic.

“I’m just trying to pick his spots right now to get him going. Once he goes, he can play against anybody.”

[MORE CUBS: The 'friendly rivalry' between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman]

Schwarber – who’s hitting .181 with a .656 OPS and 55 strikeouts in less than 200 plate appearances this season – will start Saturday against Dodger right-hander Brandon McCarthy. But even with Clayton Kershaw looming on Sunday, Maddon didn’t want to give Schwarber the entire weekend off, the way Jason Heyward mentally reset last August at Coors Field.

“I don’t think it’s there yet,” Maddon said. “I’ve had good conversations with him. I think it’s a different set of circumstances.”

For the Cubs, this doesn’t really change their overall evaluation of Schwarber as a core player and potentially one of the most dangerous left-handed sluggers in the game. But Maddon has been backing away from the idea of Schwarber as a leadoff hitter, trying to reboot the player who had been such an intimidating postseason presence.

“My concern when the guy is struggling a little bit is you don’t want him to get him too many at-bats,” Maddon said. “It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mental, physical and numerical hole. By not getting him as many at-bats, it will be easy to get back to a number he’s more comfortable with.

“I don’t care about that – I really don’t. I’m looking at his past, process, what he’s doing for the team in regards to on-base, everything else. But for the guy himself, he looks up at the scoreboard and he sees numbers everywhere and they evaluate themselves based on numbers.

“I don’t want him to do that. I just want him to get back into the process of having good at-bats.”

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

The ‘friendly rivalry’ between Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman with Cubs, Dodgers becoming NL superpowers

LOS ANGELES – A man stepped to the microphone during a Q&A session at Cubs Convention and called Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman “the two boy geniuses.” The fan told Epstein how his friends used to call the Dodgers baseball boss “your Mini-Me,” asking about their personal rivalry and if beating L.A. in the playoffs had any extra meaning.

“We have a friendly rivalry,” Epstein told a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago in January. “First off, didn’t he interview for an internship with us and we turned him down way back in the day?

“And then like nine months later, he was GM of the Rays. When he was with Tampa and I was with Boston, we never spoke, because we were in the same division. It was kind of a heated rivalry. We literally never called each other on trades or anything like that.”

But where it’s so difficult for the small-market Rays to keep up with the ultra-rich Red Sox – and replace Friedman’s vision and Joe Maddon’s star power and survive a string of wasted first-round draft picks and find a long-term stadium solution – the Cubs and Dodgers are positioned to be superpowers for years to come.

That’s what makes this Memorial Day weekend showdown at Dodger Stadium so compelling beyond the National League Championship Series rematch. It’s not just upcoming free agent Jake Arrieta returning to the site of his onesie no-hitter on Friday night, a reigning MVP (Kris Bryant) and Rookie of the Year (Corey Seager), two of the best closers on the planet (Wade Davis and Kenley Jansen) and a classic Jon Lester vs. Clayton Kershaw matchup on Sunday afternoon.

The Cubs eliminated the Dodgers less than a month after Epstein finalized a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $50 million, likely surpassing Friedman as the game’s highest-paid personnel executive.

“Jed developed a pretty good relationship with him, because I didn’t like talking to him,” Epstein said, referencing GM Jed Hoyer, another Boston transplant on the Cubs Convention panel that day. “But then when I came out here with the Cubs, a different league and everything, I developed a much better relationship with Andrew and we became friends, so now it’s much more of a friendly rivalry.

“I will say that losing to the Dodgers would have been a bitter pill to swallow on a number of fronts, including that one. But they’re developing a powerhouse out there.

“We see them as a team we have to go through each year to get where we want to be.”

[MORE CUBS: Summing up the Cubs' impressive, potentially season-altering homestand]

Backed by Guggenheim Partners’ financial muscle and flush with new TV money, the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and 90-plus games each season while ramping up a farm system that’s now ranked fourth, fifth or sixth by Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com.

“Everyone’s got their own style and their own approach,” Epstein said. “Ours was more kind of bottom-up (where) they needed to keep it rolling at a high level in the big leagues while retooling their system and nurturing the talent that was already there.

“We had to go out and transact and bring some stuff in. We were at different points of the success cycle. They’ve done a really nice job of winning while kind of establishing something new at the same time.”

The blue-blooded franchise that produced 17 Rookie of the Year winners last month rolled out Cody Bellinger, a 21-year-old, left-handed first baseman with nine homers in his first 28 games in The Show. Julio Urias – who might be the next Fernando Valenzuela – is supposed to be conserving some innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City for another October where the Cubs could be standing in the way of the Dodgers’ first World Series title since 1988.

“They’ve been producing great young talent for a long period of time,” Epstein said. “If you go back and look at some of the young studs they have in the big leagues that (former scouting director) Logan White and (the previous regime) brought in, some of the guys are still coming.

“They’re stocked and the Dodger tradition runs really deep. With Andrew and his front office, we know they’re going to be dynamic. They’re going to have more resources than anyone. And they’re a big threat to the whole league for a long period of time.”