After forcing us to question the Copernican view of the solar system yesterday, the general mania surrounding Kris Bryant had cooled significantly heading into Saturday’s game. But while the results weren’t necessarily there, the young Cub’s at-bats showed that he’s more than just a big-swinging power hitter.
Some might look at the three strikeouts and bemoan Bryant’s contact rates, but others saw him working deep counts and falling victim to a combination of adrenaline and James Shields’ changeup. The advanced approach continued on Saturday, but with decidedly different outcomes.
In six at-bats, Bryant saw 37 pitches and worked the count full four times. The only AB’s without seeing a 3-2 pitch? Why, those would be the ones that brought his first two MLB hits and first RBI. It’s not the way he’d have drawn it up, I’m sure, but the lanky slugger sure showed excellent plate coverage on that first knock.
How many of you had duck snort and weak infield grounder in the “What will Bryant’s first two hits be?” pool? Probably not what you were expecting out of a man known for his prodigious power, but they were only a part of what ended up being a very odd game.
As if to make up for his new colleague’s power outage, Miguel Montero — who hadn’t had a multi-homer game in five seasons — cracked two shots in the game. The first seemed to just get up in the air and keep floating just over the basket in left-center. The second was a laser beam that even Gwen Stefani knew was gone as soon as it left the bat.
Speaking of doing things twice, Anthony Rizzo swiped two bases in the game, the first time he’s ever done that. I tend to think of him as more lumbering than lithe, but Rizzo took aggressive leads and looked good on the basepaths. As testament to the Cubs’ new speed-heavy philosophy, Jonathan Herrera and Matt Szczur also collected steals.
As for change, the revamped starting rotation got most of the coverage in the offseason with the additions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel. So far on the young season, however, it’s been the bullpen that has really held things down for the Cubs. The losses of Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez really showed this afternoon though.
Kyle Hendricks had pitched masterfully after making an early mistake to Matt Kemp and then Jason Motte and Pedro Strop worked hitless innings to take the Cubs to the ninth. But things went off the rails when Phil Coke took the bump to start the 9th.
The lefty reliever gave up 2 runs (both earned) on 2 hits without recording an out and quickly gave way to closer Hector Rondon. Normally a lock-down pitcher, Rondon was just as ineffective, giving up 2 more earned runs on 4 more hits.
When it comes to lock-down closers though, it doesn’t get much better than Craig Kimbrel, the man at the center of Padres GM AJ Preller’s Opening Night wizardry. Brought on to hold the tie in the 11th, Kimbrel recorded only one out before loading bases on a combination of the Bryant excuse-me single and walks to Rizzo and the light-hitting David Ross.
Even Kimbrel’s wild pitches had a sense of irony Saturay, as one of his junk balls found home plate umpire Bill Welke’s, well, junk. If only that throw had come about 26 hours earlier. I love watching Kimbrel pitch because he’s so flipping unorthodox. The dude looks like Michael Phelps coming off the blocks with the way he leans forwards, arms hanging down and somewhat akimbo.
I particularly love the way he pitched today though. That second free pass set the stage for Starlin Castro, a man who had been playing stellar defense and had already collected 2 hits from the 6th spot in the order. For what it’s worth, I love him at 6 and really like the way this lineup works with him there. I’ll love it more when Addison Russell is up playing 2nd base and batting 5th or 7th.
With the remaining fans crowding into the seats being graced by whatever sunlight was still left on the chilly late afternoon, one of the best shortstops in baseball sent them home happy.
All told, it was kind of a weird game. I went from being so excited that a friend texted me to ask whether I was drunk after seeing my barrage of odd tweets to sitting in silence fearing another Fiesta Forever marathon. In fact, the only thing really fitting about this contest is that it was Castro who got the winning hit, since it allowed him to simply walk off rather than run it out.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the young woman in the crowd who caught a foul ball in her mostly-full cup of beer. Like a true Cubs fan, or just someone unwilling to waste the $9 she’d shelled out, the triumphant spectator just went right on chugging, ball and all.
But in all seriousness, this Cubs team is doing all the little things it takes to win, even on a day when some of them seemed to be actively trying not to. We’re seeing great at-bats from guys like Soler, Rizzo, Bryant, and, yes, even Castro. The left side of the infield, thought to be a weakness, really showed out too.
Even the most starry-eyed among us would have chalked this up as a loss if the 9th-inning collapse had taken place in one of Theo Epstein’s first few years on the job. But now the Cubs feel like a team that not only can win, but that actually knows how to.
We’re 10 games in and have already seen two walk-off hits and a game-winning home run on road. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Cubs might be out to make us think they’re actually pretty good.