Bryant, Baez and other young Cubs critical in title chase
CHICAGO (AP) Kris Bryant says he gets chills every time the fans at Wrigley Field shower him with ''MVP!'' chants.
The 24-year-old just doesn't show it - a common trait among his young teammates. If anything can overwhelm these kid Cubbies, they haven't faced it yet.
Bryant was one of five players 24 or younger in the starting lineup for the Cubs during Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, and that group is showing maturity beyond its years. Keep this up, and they could give Chicago a party generations in the making.
Bryant has already established himself as one of the game's top power hitters. Javier Baez (23 years old) made one spectacular play after another in the infield while winning NLCS co-MVP. Addison Russell (22) is an All-Star shortstop with power and Gold Glove aspirations. Catcher Willson Contreras (24) and outfielder Albert Almora Jr. (22) are rookies getting at-bats with a heavy World Series favorite.
And so the Cubs are seeking their first championship since 1908 fueled by players too young to remember the first time a Clinton vied for the U.S. presidency.
Chicago beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS for its first pennant since 1945, and now faces the Cleveland Indians in the World Series with a chance to end the sport's longest title drought.
If Chicago's youngsters feel any jitters before Game 1 on Tuesday night in Cleveland, don't expect to see them.
''Our young players are playing like they're 32-year-old veterans,'' 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta said. ''It's just fun to watch. I get to play one out of every five days, but to really see the way our guys go about taking care of business makes me really appreciate the guys I'm able to play with.''
Bryant and the other burgeoning Cubs helped Chicago lead the majors with 103 wins in the regular season, and it's been more of the same in October. After pulling out 14 victories in their final at-bat during the regular season, the Cubs did it twice against San Francisco in the NL Division Series, then rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat the Dodgers.
Veterans like Jon Lester have done their part, but the younger players have had plenty of pivotal moments, too.
None more so than Baez, a breakout star this postseason with his lightning-quick tags and preternatural decision making in the field.
He shared NLCS MVP honors with Lester after leading the Cubs to their 17th pennant and is batting .342 this postseason. He hit a winning homer off Johnny Cueto in Game 1 of the NLDS against San Francisco, then had a go-ahead single in the series-clinching victory in Game 4. He had four doubles and five RBIs in the NLCS, too.
Baez's biggest moments, though, mostly came outside the batter's box. He stole home during Chicago's win in Game 1 of the NLCS, turned a heads-up double play by letting a soft liner bounce in front of him with two on in Game 2, and made a fantastic barehanded scoop to rob Adrian Gonzalez of a hit in Game 5.
Baez is doing all that after emerging as a super utility player for manager Joe Maddon this season. Baez cut down on his swing and hit .273 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs in 142 games, and as important, he embraced a role shuffling between positions.
''This guy never faltered,'' Lester said. ''He accepted his role as being a bench player and kind of a platoon guy. That's hard to do at 20 or whatever he is.''
Bryant is on the short list of NL MVP candidates after joining Rogers Hornsby (1929), Hack Wilson (1930) and Derrek Lee (2005) as the only players with the franchise to get at least 120 runs, 35 doubles, 39 homers and 100 RBIs. He's 13 for 39 with a homer and six RBIs in the postseason.
Russell is only starting to make an impact in October, busting a 1-for-24 slump by going 6 for 13 with two homers in the final three games of the NLCS. Contreras, meanwhile, hit his first career playoff homer against Clayton Kershaw in the series clincher.
''You should not change what you're doing regardless of the time of the year,'' Maddon said after Game 6. ''You want to come out in the middle of October and play the same game we've been playing all summer.''
The youngsters have given the Cubs a lot of good games so far. Four more, and as Maddon said, ''We can really have a party.''