When the Cubs were flailing offensively back in April, Kris Bryant seemed like the lone bright spot in a lineup that otherwise looked like a caricature of everything that had broken along the lines since 2017. In June, however, Bryant has been hitting at a level considered disappointing even by the Cubs’ low standards for the month. He headed into Tuesday’s win over Cleveland hitting just .123 with a 22 wRC+ and only one homer in 64 plate appearances.
The normally patient Bryant had seen almost nothing to hit and it was causing him to expand his zone, which led to fewer hits and walks alike. He had drawn walks in only four of 17 games while posting an inconceivably and unsustainably low .154 BABIP, a clear sign that he was swinging at bad pitches in an effort to make something happen.
After seeing his superstar walk twice Monday night, however, manager David Ross felt something was about to click. It was the smoke before the fire, especially for someone like Bryant who has always prided himself in working solid plate appearances. Forcing pitchers to be more honest is the quickest way to get back to hitting like an MVP.
“You expand a little more and then a little bit more,” Bryant said following the much-needed victory. “And then you find yourself chasing pitches that you don’t want to swing at, and then you’ve got to backtrack and rewind and get out of that hole.”
Bryant wasn’t patient at all in his first trip to the plate against rookie Eli Morgan, jumping on a first-pitch fastball slightly up in the zone for a foul popout. That’s been his MO this season, though, ambushing early strikes. The next time up, Bryant took strike one on a rare middle-middle fastball, then evened the count by taking a slider down and away.
When Morgan came back with that same belt-high four-seamer, the super-utility All-Star jumped all over it and sent it soaring into the bleachers. Though it took a while for the fuse Bryant lit to reach the rest of the team, there was a sense that something had suddenly changed for the Cubs. They ended up scoring four in the 6th inning — one more than they’d totaled in three previous games combined — to hand Kyle Hendricks an easy win.
“It’s just a matter of time, man,” Hendricks said. “There’s going to be ups and downs. You know if you just keep them in it and keep it close, it’s just a matter of time until they break out. You kind of saw that tonight. We finally got some balls to fall in.”
The win was Hendricks’ eighth in a row and brought him into a tie with Aaron Civale — who got a no-decision Monday — for the MLB lead at 10 apiece. Heading into that streak, Hendricks was 2-4 with a 6.23 ERA with 30 strikeouts, 10 walks, and 11 homers allowed through seven starts. He’s got a 2.25 ERA with 40 strikeouts, seven walks, and eight homers allowed in the time since.
What’s more, it’s as though Hendricks has stepped up in light of his team’s offensive struggles, shutting out his last two opponents and holding the Cardinals to just two runs. This time the bats actually saw fit to give him more breathing room after he’d left, hanging a rare crooked number and making the win a foregone conclusion.
Tuesday’s victory felt more like what the Cubs were doing in May, stringing together hits and scoring in bunches with contributions from all over the lineup. A Sergio Alcántara double led off a 6th inning that saw six consecutive Cubs reach base as they scored four times without the benefit of the longball. Back-to-back jacks from Willson Contreras and Patrick Wisdom capped the scoring two innings later and saw to it that Craig Kimbrel got the night off.
It was the kind of balanced effort this team had turned into a habit last month before backsliding into futility over the last three weeks or so. And while one game does not a resurgence make, I think we can all agree that Bryant isn’t going to maintain a .123 average for long. Sometimes all it takes is one hit or inning or game to remind a player or team that, yeah, they can do this.
With Hendricks continuing to pitch like an ace and Bryant hitting dingers while playing every position on the field, perhaps the Cubs can get back to winning and stop relying on the Brewers to stumble.