David Banks/Getty Images
We already know what happens when Kris Bryant looks like one of the very best hitters in baseball. We know because we saw it.
And maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to see it again.
Bryant was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2016. The Chicago Cubs won a historic World Series title.
Now Bryant has six home runs in his last 12 games. He’s been on base 25 times in those dozen outings. And the Cubs? Their 4-1 Thursday win over the Miami Marlins was their 10th in their last 11 games, pushing them into first place in the NL Central ahead of this weekend’s series with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s still way early in the season, but we’re playing our best baseball of the whole year,” Bryant told reporters after the Thursday victory, per Mark Gonzales of theChicago Tribune.
It’s still way early in the season, but it was even earlier in the season when it was tempting to write off both Bryant and his team. They started 2-7. He homered on opening day but then went 21 games without another. As recently as April 16, he was hitting .217 with more strikeouts (16) than hits (13).
On April 15, the Cubs had plummeted to 18-1 odds (13th in MLB) to win the World Series, according to the Westgate SuperBook (via betchicago.com).
It looked like a continuation of last year, when Bryant’s power disappeared for long stretches and the Cubs disappeared from the postseason in a 1-0 Wild Card Game loss to the Colorado Rockies.
When they made no signings and basically disappeared from the free-agent market as well, it was fair to wonder whether they could still be one of the best teams in the game. It was fashionable to look at the other quality teams in the Central and pick somebody else to win the division.
Bryant’s walkoff home run Tuesday night had the Cubs celebrating.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Even now, questions exist.
While the rotation has shown improvement, Yu Darvish had another subpar start Thursday, lasting only four innings while continued command issues resulted in six more free passes. With closer Brandon Morrow and fill-in closer Pedro Strop both on the injured list, the back end of the bullpen is enough of an unknown that manager Joe Maddontold reportershis list of late-inning candidates was “the wild, wild west.”
Then again, the Cubs bullpen was a question at this point in 2016, one they answered with a midseason trade for Aroldis Chapman.
At this point in 2016, Bryant had six home runs, 25 RBI and an .851 OPS. Those numbers now: seven, 24 and .918.
Chicago’s hot streak is a reminder the Cubs should never be left off a list of World Series contenders. And Bryant’s hot streak feels like a sign that his underwhelming 2018 numbers stemmed mostly from a sore shoulder that twice sent him to the disabled list.
“When you’re playing sporadic, getting days off, on the DL, changing your swing, you don’t really get into that good rhythm that you want,” Bryant told ESPN’s Jesse Rogersin early May.
Others stepped up, and Javier Baez nearly became the MVP. The Cubs still won 95 games. But without Bryant as a major force, they weren’t the same team.
Now Bryant is hitting, and they’ve started looking like that team again.
A shoulder injury last year meant Bryant had to spend too much time watching rather than hitting.Duane Burleson/Getty Images
Greater challenges lie ahead, starting with this weekend’s three-game series against the just-as-hot Brewers. But it’s not like the Cubs only beat up on the awful Marlins the last couple of weeks. Their seven-game winning streak came at the expense of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals—three teams that were all over .500 at the time.
It was during that series in Arizona when Bryant began his current hot streak. As reported by The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma, it started right after he broke his bat in the April 26 game. He switched to a different bat, an Axe Bat used by Mookie Betts and George Springer, among others.
On the very next swing, Bryant hit his first home run in nearly a month.
“And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll stick with it.’ And I have since then and I just feel really good about my swing,” he told Sharma.
He feels good. The Cubs feel good.
Just like in 2016.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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