How often do we see a baseball player make a crucial error in a game, only to atone for his sin with a huge hit later in that same game? Seems like a lot. That’s exactly what happened to Kris Bryant the Cubs Wednesday afternoon. Except he did it in the opposite order.
When Bryant stepped to the plate in the 8th inning, he was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a GIDP next to his name and the Cubs were down 2 runs with 2 outs and a man on. It was one of those situations you play out as a kid, the conquering hero getting the chance to lift his team after struggling a bit early. And Bryant did some lifting all right, namely of a J.J. Hoover curveball.
Bryant hit a line drive in Tuesday night’s game that I was sure would go out, particularly with the wind helping it. But it died on the track and I was left a bit shocked. As you can see from the video above, the ball he hit Wednesday was nearly put into orbit and my assumption was that the moon’s gravitational pull would prevent it from going too far. Kris Bryant cares little for either my judgment or the laws of gravity though, so he launched a ball into a parabolic arc that would have made Archimedes proud.
Assuming that Bryant had popped into the final out of the inning, I left the room to grab a snack and a drink. As I walked back to enjoy said items, the ball was just descending into the waiting hands of fans in the bleachers and the phenom had further distanced himself from the pack of his fellow rookies. That homer, Bryant’s 22nd, also broke a tie with Ernie Banks for the 4th most by a rookie in Cubs history.
Next up on the list are the immortal Walt Moryn and the decidedly mortal Geo Soto (both with 23), followed by Billy Williams (25). Seeing Soto up there is weird because you sort of forget about how good he really was before he fell off a cliff, production-wise. He hit .285/.364/.504 with 86 RBI in that 2008 season, but could never really maintain his health or consistency after that.
Barring a colossal flameout, Bryant should easily surpass Williams’ home run record. He’s also within 11 RBI of Charlie Irwin’s rookie club record of 95, set back in 1894. In all likelihood, Bryant will finish 2015 with the best rookie season in Cubs history, which means that he’ll be the Greatest Of All Time (at least among that first-year-player sample). But here’s the thing about fame and success: they’re fickle mistresses, a truth Bryant learned all too well in the 9th inning.
Hector Rondon needed only 4 pitches to record the first two outs of the final frame and it was looking as though the Cubs would get a chance at another walk-off win. But then, as if taunting the blue-collar pitcher, Jason Bourgeois doinked a 12-foot single back toward the mound to extend the inning. Lefty-hitting Jay Bruce worked a 2-0 then fired an at ’em ball right to Bryant, a play that should have ended the inning.
I’m not sure whether he was thinking of the throw before he made the play or what, but Bryant just completely whiffed on it and the ball went through the 5-hole and into left field. I’m not even being defeatist when I say the error seemed to portend very bad things, perhaps because it brought the best hitter in the world in the second half of the season to the plate. That’s not hyperbole either; Joey Votto came into the game slashing .399/.581/.739 (1.320 OPS) with a 29.8% walk rate, a wRC+ of 250, and 4.0 WAR.
That’s absolutely insano-cheese, man. We’re not talking a small sample here either; those freakish stats came in 198 plate appearances over 44 games. That means Votto had reached base 115 times (55 hits, 59 walks, 1 HBP) in the last month and a half. That’s nearly 1.5 BB/game. Ah, if only Joe Maddon had chosen to have Rondon add one more free pass to that total.
You just can’t put a fastball over the heart of a plate to a guy who’s doing exactly what Lee Elia had hoped his Cubs would do in 1983. Votto absolutely annihilated Rondon’s 97 mph two-seamer, much to the delight of Thom Brennaman, thus justifying the sinking feeling many of us had when Bruce played croquet with Bryant.
It’s certainly not the end of the world, but this was a game the Cubs just shouldn’t have lost. Sure, the Pirates got thumped by the Brewers and Clayton Kershaw absolutely owned the Giants, but when you’re fighting for a playoff spot you have to beat the bad teams on the schedule. Dropping 2 of 3 to the Reds is really frustrating, regardless of the minimal impact on the standings. I don’t mean to lay this at Bryant’s feet either, since the Cubs wouldn’t have even been in a position for his error to kill them if his home run hadn’t first resurrected them.
This game was an example of just how quickly fortunes can change, both for an individual and his team. But the thing about Joe Maddon is that he won’t let his players dwell on the loss. Likewise, Bryant has already shown an ability to overcome poor performances and prolonged slumps. The Cubs will be fine, but I’d be lying if I said this loss didn’t sting a little bit more than most.
Of course, a lot of that is just knowing that the Brennamans are happy about it.