Column: Bryant HR stirs Cubs comeback talk: 'Why not us?'
Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant hits a home run during the fourth inning of Game 5 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the Cleveland Indians Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
CHICAGO (AP) Success was practically stamped on Kris Bryant's DNA.
Long and lean, the son of a former minor leaguer was on almost everybody's All-America team in high school and college and validated that promise quickly by grabbing the National League Rookie of the Year trophy last season at 23. This season, Bryant is the favorite to add the NL MVP award to a growing collection of hardware.
That's what made his struggles from the start of this World Series – an .071 batting average and a pair of throwing errors at third base in the same inning of Game 4 – so confounding.
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''Obviously, I haven't been swinging the bat too great,'' Bryant said, ''so it was nice to get one to kind of help us all out.''
His fourth-inning home run off starter Trevor Bauer awakened a hibernating Cubs offense and helped deliver a 3-2 win Sunday night that sent the Series back to Cleveland for Game 6 on Tuesday with the Indians holding a suddenly slippery 3-2 edge.
For all the things Bryant has soaked up about baseball, history is low on that list. So when he was asked whether the Cubs could join the short inventory of teams that came back from a 3-1 Series deficit to win, chances were good he couldn't name even one.
That hardly dented his confidence.
''Why not us?'' Bryant asked, the hint of a smile creasing his lips. ''I feel like we play our best with our backs up against the wall. … Hopefully we can get out there and win Game 6, because you never know what can happen in a Game 7.''
No, but with history as a guide, we can hazard a good guess about the challenge in climbing out of a 3-1 hole.
Only five teams have turned the trick in a best-of-seven Series, the last one being the 1985 Kansas City Royals. The last team to do it winning twice on the road, as the Cubs will have to do, was the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet even those long odds aren't likely to trouble Bryant.
''We're all about writing our own history,'' he said.
He comes by that steeliness honestly. His father, Mike Bryant, kicked around the low minors in the Red Sox organization for two years, but got the education of a lifetime from no less an authority on hitting than Ted Williams. Retired by then, Williams was a roving instructor whose philosophy was soaked up by Mike Bryant and then distilled to a single phrase for his own sons: `'Hit it hard, and hit it in the air.''
By age 12, Kris had already mastered both skills. He's been refining them ever since.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon knew the Indians' staff, which relied heavily on breaking pitches to keep Bryant off balance, wouldn't get away with the tactic much longer.
''I like the fact that he wasn't just swinging at anything,'' Maddon said. ''That's what we all have to be able to do. That's the kind of thing that could get him rolling.''
It certainly did that for the hitters behind Bryant. Anthony Rizzo followed the fourth-inning homer with a long double, and three of the next four hitters chipped in with singles. Just as important, that kind of discipline at the plate is the centerpiece of Maddon's strategy. By grouping his best hitters – Bryant usually bats second, followed by Rizzo and lately by Ben Zobrist – Maddon forces opposing pitchers to throw them strikes.
When anyone in that grouping starts swinging at bad pitches – as the Cubs did consistently throughout the first four games – the chain reaction extends all the way down the lineup. The shift to Cleveland will allow Maddon to re-insert slugger Kyle Schwarber to the mix as the designated hitter, which effectively lengthens the most dangerous stretch of the order.
''The lineup again is always about protection … and being able to utilize Schwarber, all of a sudden, those games get a little bit longer and a little bit thicker,'' Maddon said.
Whether it's confidence or simply youth, the suspense is what Bryant and the rest of these young Cubs thrive on.
''This team is a special one, and we look at so many times throughout the year where we haven't been playing good, but I feel like we turn that around,'' he said.
''Someone told me today that 17 times this year we lost a game and went on to win three in a row,'' Bryant added a moment later. ''So why can't we do that now?''
Why not indeed?
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and https://Twitter.com/JimLitke .