Wearing any glove, Bryant a key for Game 5

October 14th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants’ Kris Bryant loves how a sport based on exact proportions -- 90 feet, base to base -- fosters irregularities, even when those affect him.

Bryant had been a fixture with the Cubs, but at the Trade Deadline, he found himself shipped west. Since arriving in San Francisco, he has played third base and all three outfield positions. But for Game 3 of the National League Division Series, he found himself at first base for the first time as a Giant and just the 33rd time in a career that has spanned seven seasons.

“I like the randomness of it -- keeps me on my toes,” said Bryant, 29, who, at the end of the season, is eligible to enter free agency -- a wild ride that usually ends with a substantial paycheck for players of his caliber.

There is a certain order to the Giants and Dodgers meeting in a deciding fifth game Thursday night, each with 109 wins since Opening Day, to determine who will face the Braves in the NL Championship Series. But the games between the rivals have been tight and unpredictable.

When first baseman Brandon Belt sustained a left thumb fracture late in the regular season, Giants manager Gabe Kapler knew Bryant would pick up his scooper mitt with no hesitation.

“My first call with Kris after we acquired him from the Cubs, he said, ‘I'll play any position, I’ll hit anywhere in the lineup -- I just want to help this team win,’” Kapler said. “He’s been very flexible, which is nice. Getting a bat of that caliber and that quality, and knowing that they can play anywhere and they are going to be ready to go gives us the flexibility to do a lot of things. So I guess it’s not just Kris, but also what that does for the rest of the roster and how we can construct our lineups.”

Bryant’s time with the Giants is an example of tumult that’s sometimes merry, sometimes not.

The Giants brought in Bryant -- a four-time All-Star, including this year while still with the Cubs, who was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the NL MVP in '16 as Chicago broke its World Series drought -- for more than his ability to go with the flow.

Bryant carries a .298 batting average and .973 OPS against lefties in his regular-season career. Acquiring him was important to the Giants, who were trying to counter Dodgers lefty starters Clayton Kershaw (out for the postseason with elbow/forearm pain) and Julio Urías, who figures to pitch bulk innings in Game 5 after righty Corey Knebel serves as opener. Urías held San Francisco to one run in five innings of L.A.'s Game 2 victory at Oracle Park. Bryant sparkled with a 1.137 OPS against lefty pitching over 91 plate appearances this season with the Cubs.

After the trade, his OPS vs. lefties plummeted to .581 -- including a .200 batting average with one home run and two doubles -- over 62 plate appearances. Then again, even with a lineup that includes veteran right-handed hitters Buster Posey and Evan Longoria, the Giants are 11-11 against lefty starters since the All-Star break (including Game 2 against Urías), after going 16-10 against southpaws in the first half. The problems go beyond Bryant.

Kapler isn’t acknowledging that his Giants have a lefty problem. They simply must find a way against a lefty in Urías who earned a Major League-leading 20 regular-season wins this year and has posted a 1.29 ERA in seven postseason games over the past two years.

“I would chalk up some of our ... I wouldn’t call them struggles, but more recently us not being all that explosive on offense to running up against some really good pitchers, and I think that’s what happens in the postseason,” Kapler said.

Bryant went 0-for-4 in Game 2. But here’s the thing: even with all his rough numbers, including a 6-for-35 (.171) finish in his final 10 regular-season games, Bryant is certifiably a dangerous bat right now.

In the series, Bryant has gone 6-for-13 with a home run, two RBIs and a walk. It’s almost as if Bryant’s embrace of the disorder that baseball fosters has allowed him to push aside his post-trade struggles, relax and produce when it matters.

Bryant has a .247 batting average and .309 on-base percentage in 43 postseason games -- not exactly world-beating numbers. But he also has seven home runs, eight doubles, a triple, 18 RBIs and 18 runs scored. He’s made his hits count.

In the postseason, and in whatever plate appearances he has against Urías on Thursday, Bryant just has to find the swings that have made him a postseason asset.

“You just know what to expect,” Bryant said of the postseason. “You just look at the scores and they’re super low-scoring games. It’s really, 'Who can have the one really good at-bat when the team needs it most?' It’s just weird how the playoffs end up working that way.”