Chicago Cubs

Kris Bryant's laser focus could be key to unlocking Cubs offense

Kris Bryant's laser focus could be key to unlocking Cubs offense

Kris Bryant got the faux in-game interview from his Cubs teammates in the Wrigley Field dugout on Tuesday night, with Tommy La Stella up close and personal with the reigning National League MVP, Ian Happ gripping a boom microphone held together with white tape and Javier Baez holding an imaginary TV camera over his right shoulder.

Did La Stella ask Bryant about his numbers with runners in scoring position?

Bryant had just launched a Robert Gsellman changeup into the left-center field bleachers for a three-run homer that allowed the Cubs to exhale in the fourth inning of an 8-3 win over the New York Mets and maintain their slim leads on the St. Louis Cardinals (2 games) and Milwaukee Brewers (2.5 games) in the National League Central. 

“I didn’t even know there was negativity around,” said Bryant, who until that moment hadn’t homered or driven in a run in September, including an ugly three-game sweep over the weekend where the Brewers outscored the Cubs by a 20-3 aggregate. “I just don’t pay attention to it. I’m glad I haven’t seen it or heard it. 

“Nobody’s talking about it here, so it just comes with the territory. We signed up for this. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

To be clear, Bryant isn’t the problem here as the Cubs try to rewire their offense for October, but he will always be part of the solution, because he can impact the game in so many different ways. Pulling out his RBI total – he got his 63rd with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to the warning track in center field in the eighth inning – and batting average with runners in scoring position (.212) doesn’t tell the entire story.

“It doesn’t feel right, but you’re going to have years like that,” Bryant said. “It just feels weird taking more walks with runners in scoring position. Obviously, we’re baseball players and we want to hit the ball, but it’s important to take your walks when they give ‘em.

“I feel like I’ve been able to do that this year. I’ve probably had a handful of times where I could have put some pitches in play – just to get a run in – but I took the walk. It’s kind of a fine line there.”

This is part of the evolution of Bryant, who leads the team in runs scored (96), walks (87) and OPS (.929). His .402 on-base percentage is 17 points higher than where he finished during his MVP season. He recognizes and attacks his weaknesses, steadily chopping down his strikeout percentage from his 2015 Rookie of the Year campaign (30.6) to his MVP year (22) to this season (18.9). He remains an excellent base runner and a solid defender at third base and all over the outfield.

Manager Joe Maddon made the analogy to Jake Arrieta trying to live up to the impossible expectations set during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. Bryant (26 homers) sees the parallels with Cincinnati Reds technician Joey Votto, who hates giving in to pitchers, understands who he is as a hitter and ignores Marty Brennaman’s hitting lessons. 

“There’s no need to press about it,” Bryant said. “Sure, it would be nice to go out there and hit .300 every year with runners in scoring position and just do everything right. But this game’s hard. It’s not going to come that easy to you every year. I wish it would.

“Actually, I don’t know if I wish it would, because then it wouldn’t be fun. You kind of enjoy the ups and downs in this game, because when you’re in a down spot and come out of it, it just feels so much better. It’s important for us to realize that.” 

Bryant said that with a nod and walked out of the clubhouse with his phone and a book in his left hand, Shawn Green’s “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph.”

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

Sprinting toward October, Cubs close in on another division title

MILWAUKEE – “Yeah, that really killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” John Lackey said sarcastically late Friday night, dismissing a question about what’s happened to the Cubs since the Milwaukee Brewers made their statement against the defending World Series champs two weekends ago. “Come on, dude, it’s 162 games. Things happen.”

The Cubs are 9-1 since then, but Lackey was in no mood to talk about this finishing kick in the National League Central race, probably because manager Joe Maddon gave him the quick hook in a Big Boy Game, pulling him with a runner on and no outs in the fifth inning. But that’s what’s happening here, the Cubs sprinting away from the Brewers and peaking at the right time.

The Brewers are gasping for air after these pulsating back-to-back nights at Miller Park, the Cubs again coming from behind to win in 10 innings and close in on their second straight division title and third playoff appearance in a row, something this franchise hasn’t done since the run capped by the 1908 World Series title repeat.

After a hard-earned 5-4 win, the Cubs knocked the Brewers back to third place and chopped the magic number to eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals down to five, meaning the clinch party could be in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse next week.

“We played fine that series, actually,” Lackey said, referencing three games where the Cubs lost 2-0, 15-2 and 3-1, allowing the Brewers and Cardinals within two games of first place. “S---, you can lose in this league and still play good. That’s why it’s the big leagues.”

Actually, it looks like the Cubs responded to the challenge from an upstart team, the crowd of 40,116 and a playoff environment.

“It’s been amazing,” Carl Edwards Jr. said. “It actually felt like last year’s World Series when I came in the 10th inning.”

Edwards notched the last five outs this time – with All-Star closer Wade Davis unavailable because he did the same thing the night before – part of a group effort that included a guy whose right elbow hadn’t allowed him to pitch since Sept. 8 (Hector Rondon) and a lefty swingman who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning three days ago against the Tampa Bay Rays (Mike Montgomery).

Lackey’s response when asked about the bullpen’s performance – three runs allowed in 11 innings – halfway through a four-game showdown: “They’ve been asked to do a lot…and they’ve really stepped up and done a great job.”

“In order to win, you’re going to need contributions from non-All-Star players at times,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re going to have to get contributions from players stepping up because of someone else’s bad performance or someone else’s injury.

“You want your best players to play best in these situations. But ultimately that won’t always happen. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re going to need some contributions from other guys.”

That’s been crucial for the 2017 Cubs. The game-winning run scored when Tommy La Stella – the pinch-hitter who had been dealing with a groin injury recently and personal issues that led him to walk away from the organization last summer – drew a bases-loaded walk against All-Star closer Corey Knebel.

If you want to see a grinding approach for October, just look at Jon Jay’s 15-pitch at-bat against Milwaukee starter Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning, which led to a leadoff single, Ben Zobrist’s two-run single up the middle and a 4-3 lead after Lackey’s slow start.

Yeah, the Cubs look locked in now.

“I’m so proud of the way our guys (respond),” Maddon said. “They get hit a little bit, maybe something to the solar plexus, but we still keep going.”

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

The Godfather, Anthony Rizzo, lays down new law in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE – Javier Baez broke the code of silence when he mentioned to reporters the latest thing for a Cubs team that designed a Party Room for their state-of-the-art clubhouse at Wrigley Field, turned Jason Heyward’s Rain Delay Speech into World Series mythology and interviews each other in the dugout for pretend TV segments after hitting home runs.

“He doesn’t know how the Italian way works,” Anthony Rizzo said. “There are supposed to be team things that stay with the team.”

Baez let it slip before Friday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, replaying the dramatic 10-inning comeback victory from the night before at Miller Park. If you see the Cubs instantly disappear from the dugout, or a TV camera shows a shot of an empty dugout…    

“We got this new thing,” Baez said. “I don’t want to be the one saying it. I’ll just let him say it. But it’s really fun. When somebody’s mad, everybody walks in and we do some fun things that get us hyper. You guys ask Rizzo.”

The Godfather gave a cryptic response. Omerta is expected to be part of The Cubs Way.

“It’s a team retreat,” Rizzo said. “It’s not just me. It’s anyone who needs to let out some steam this late in the season. It’s a team thing. It’s a long season and you go through ups and downs. And there’s times where you get to that boiling point where you just want to kill anything in your way.”

Rizzo needed to vent and called his teammates into the visiting clubhouse on Thursday night after striking out with two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game that could swing the National League Central race.

“Throughout the year, you go back in the tunnel probably 25 times,” Rizzo said. “You got to take it out somewhere. You can only stay sane so long. It’s September. It’s a team (thing) now.

“It’s worked. We’re 3-for-3 on it. But it’s not me gathering. It’s just whoever feels like it’s time – you’ll see the team rushing off the bench and going for a nice little retreat.”

In many ways, Rizzo sets the clubhouse tone with his laid-back vibe off the field and intense competitive streak on the field. Tom Verducci’s book, “The Cubs Way,” detailed a scene before last year’s World Series Game 7 where Rizzo got naked, played “Rocky” music, quoted movie lines and shadowboxed until reliever Hector Rondon joined “in on the hijinks, picked up an aerosol can of shoe cleaner and sprayed it in the direction of Rizzo’s groin.”

“This is strictly in-game,” Rizzo said. “You can’t do it, though, and be selfish and go on a nice little retreat when we’re winning. It’s got to be the right timing. It helps, too, because it’s been fun the last couple weeks since we started doing it.”

One obvious benefit: There are no annoying TV cameras. Like in late July when frustrated pitcher John Lackey bumped into Rizzo in the Wrigley Field dugout and exchanged words with the face-of-the-franchise first baseman.

“We’ve come together now,” Rizzo said. “It’s not about anyone. It’s about us. When things go wrong for a certain individual, we rally around him. And that’s what we got to keep doing from here on out.”