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Grateful Bryant reunites with college coaches

Third baseman visits USD before Cubs' three-game set against Padres

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant planned to return to college on Monday. He'll drive by the classrooms where he studied finance, stop at Fowler Field where he starred for the University of San Diego and enjoy some of his favorite eats, including a drive-through Mexican restaurant.

Before the Cubs open a three-game series against the Padres at Petco Park on Tuesday, the rookie third baseman decided to take advantage of an off-day to visit the USD campus, baseball coach Rich Hill and his staff.

"I liked hanging out with [the coaches] and supporting the program and having friends there who I can call when I need to talk about this crazy game," Bryant said. "They were always there for me. I can't wait to see them."

Video: PIT@CHC: Bryant takes Locke deep with three-run homer

Hill didn't have a tough time convincing Bryant to come to USD as opposed to other schools that recruited him, including LSU, Arizona State, UC Irvine, Stanford, Clemson, Auburn, USC and Vanderbilt. Bryant also had the option of going pro after the Blue Jays selected him in the 18th round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2010.

"It was getting close to the signing deadline, and I went through my whole spiel, and [Bryant's mother] Susie looked across the kitchen table and said, 'Coach, thank you for coming out here to our home, but you have nothing to worry about. Kris is going to college, guaranteed,'" Hill said Saturday, recalling his visit to the Bryant's Las Vegas home. "And [Bryant's father] Mike and Kris didn't say a peep. It was always college."

It's a decision Bryant does not regret. In 2011, he was named co-Player of the Year in the West Coast Conference and co-Freshman of the Year. In 2012, Bryant was named first-team all-WCC and first-team All-American. In 2013, he earned the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate player in the country, plus the Dick Howser Award, and he was also named first-team All-American and WCC co-Player of the Year.

Bryant's USD bio said he picked the school partly because of the beach and the weather.

"The beach was nice, the weather, the academics, the baseball program was good and the coaches were awesome when I met them," Bryant said Saturday. "All the other schools made it seem like political. [The USD] guys were so down to earth and said, 'You're going to come here and get better, and you're going to play every game.' They promised me all these things and kept their promises."

Video: PIT@CHC: Bryant makes a nice play to retire Alvarez

In June 2013, Bryant was the second player taken overall in the First-Year Player Draft, and the Cubs have no regrets, either.

Through Sunday, Bryant was batting .327 with a double, a triple, four homers, 14 RBIs and 12 walks in his last 14 games dating to May 4. He also ranked among the Major League leaders in pitches per plate appearance and on-base percentage. The third baseman did leave Sunday's game against the Pirates early because of dehydration, but manager Joe Maddon downplayed the incident.

None of the success Bryant is having in the big leagues surprises Hill.

"He's so humble and so grateful for everything the University of San Diego did for him," Hill said. "He's the poster boy for what we're about, which is a value-based education. We're all excited he's coming back to San Diego."

One of Hill's messages to his players is: "Where my feet are, I'm here." It's something Bryant applies now, focusing on staying in the present.

"We spent a lot of time on the mental game in our program," Hill said. "Most of the conversations between Kris and myself in the three years centered on that and not really the mechanics of hitting a baseball or fielding a baseball. He really bought into what we were doing."

Said Bryant: "[Hill] was really big on that, and that's where I learned my approach to the game. He always has a lot of different quotes and inspiration that he shares at the beginning of each practice or game. I definitely remember him saying that."

Hill introduced Bryant to sports psychologists, peak-performance coaches and yoga during his three years at USD.

"He applied everything we were doing," Hill said. "That was the message -- wherever you're at, if it's Iowa, if it's Boise, if it's the Arizona League, if it's Chicago, you're going to kick open the door and embrace the day. The game doesn't change, the situation doesn't change. He's a very, very grounded young man, very balanced."

Video: NYM@CHC: Bryant crushes a huge homer to left field

"I never did yoga until there," Bryant said. "It was good for us -- a lot of flexibility. I don't do it now, and I probably should. [Hill] loves that stuff. He's all about sleeping in and getting enough sleep and yoga and getting your mind ready and then play baseball."

What college kid wouldn't want a coach who encouraged sleeping in?

Cubs fans knew about Bryant's power, especially after he belted 43 home runs last season in the Minor Leagues. What's also been impressive is how advanced he's been in other aspects of the game, such as baserunning and defense. Hill wasn't surprised.

"People ask, 'What's your favorite Kris Bryant moment?' and it happened in about one hour [of a game]," Hill said. "[Bryant] made a play at third base. The [batter] executed a great drag bunt, and Kris flew in, barehand, on the run, twist and turn, and threw the guy out.

"The next inning, [Bryant] came up and drew a one-out walk and went from first to third in the center fielder's face on a ball up the middle, headfirst slide," Hill said. "His next [at-bat], he hit a 400-foot home run. That's when I turned to my assistant and said, 'Oh, man.' The athleticism on defense and the speed -- he's as good as anybody. And obviously the light-tower power."

Was it something Bryant learned at USD? Hill points out that Bryant, who majored in finance, had a grade-point average over 4.0 at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas.

"He's extremely intelligent," Hill said. "Everybody is a visual learner, but he could learn auditorily. You could tell him something, and he just absorbs information, and he's able to go out, practice it. ... He's very smart."

Video: NYM@CHC: Bryant hits his first Major League triple

Hill and others from USD got a suite at Petco Park for Tuesday's game. Then, it'll be back to work. The Toreros are the top seed in the WCC Tournament, which gets underway Thursday in Stockton, Calif.

"All the coaches there were amazing for me," Bryant said. "Coach Hill helped with my defense and the mental side and all around, and coach [Ramon] Orozco was great, because he treated me so great. I'm just really excited to see them and let them watch me play."

And they're just as excited to see one of their star pupils.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast.
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