One reason the Cubs have been able to maneuver through a series of injury setbacks has been Kris Bryant's willingness to move all over the diamond. On top of that, Bryant has been hitting at an MVP-caliber level again this season.
But in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss at Progressive Field, the Cubs were dealt with an unexpected scare when Bryant was replaced in the sixth inning against Cleveland. The Cubs announced that he exited due to being “under the weather,” but it was nonetheless a concerning development for an already-depleted club.
“He was having trouble breathing out there,” manager David Ross said. “He was dealing with some sinus stuff for a couple innings. And it just wasn't getting better."
Ross expressed hope that the illness is “nothing major,” adding that he does not expect the situation to be COVID-related. But even if Chicago has dodged a significant issue, Bryant's exit is a reminder of how fragile the roster is right now and how important the role players have been.
Prior to Tuesday's game, the North Siders placed center fielder Jake Marisnick on the 10-day injured list with a strained right hamstring. Marisnick joins outfielder Ian Happ (rib contusion) and infielder Nico Hoerner (left forearm) on the IL.
The Cubs also were forced to scratch shortstop Javier Báez from Tuesday's lineup due to back tightness, which flared up on Saturday. Right fielder Jason Heyward took the field on Tuesday night, even though an issue with his right hand developed late in Sunday's game against the Pirates.
“Definitely, we've had some guys out, and continue the 'next man up' mentality,” Ross said.
Infielder Eric Sogard, a late addition to the lineup in place of Báez, launched a solo homer off Cleveland ace Shane Bieber in the fifth. Outfielder Nick Martini, who entered the game in the sixth after Bryant’s exit, singled off hard-throwing closer Emmanuel Clase in the ninth in a last-minute rally that fell short. Matt Duffy -- an unsung hero to date -- added two hits as the de facto third baseman.
“If you look around at some of the past championship teams, that's what they have,” Marisnick said of the bench players stepping up. “Every good team needs that. We definitely have that going on right now. I mean, you've seen it with just kind of how we're a little banged up and we've got guys playing in different roles.”
It’s not only happening on the field, either. Starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay -- who was solid over six innings opposite Bieber -- noted that Duffy pulled him aside after he'd given up a two-run homer to Cesar Hernandez in the fifth. The pep talk helped Alzolay regain his focus, and he went on to log a clean sixth inning.
“Hats off to Matt Duffy, man,” Alzolay said. “He got me out of that hole that I was getting into in that moment and just brought me back.”
Bryant went 1-for-3 with a double before exiting, collecting his Major League-leading 14th double in the third off Bieber. That also gave him an MLB-high 23 extra-base hits on the campaign.
At the time of his exit, Bryant was batting .308/.396/.650 with the third-highest WAR (1.9 per Fangraphs) in the Majors. He had nine homers, 22 RBIs and 26 runs scored, with a 179 wRC+ (meaning he has been 79 percent better than MLB average offensively).
Bryant is a third baseman by trade, but he has not played at the hot corner since April 20. Since then he has bounced around the outfield (nine starts in left and four each in center and right) and manned some first base, helping Ross navigate the roster issues.
As things stand, this is the only season in Bryant’s career in which he has played more outfield than third. It started with him filling in for Joc Pederson when Pederson was on the IL and continued when Happ went down. On Tuesday night, Pederson returned the favor, shifting to center from left once Bryant was off the field.
Marisnick said that having a player of Bryant’s stature take on such a wide-ranging role has an impact on other players.
“Definitely. He's a lead-by-example guy in this clubhouse. He's a leader,” Marisnick said. “You see him go about his business and put his head down, move around, and do what's necessary to help this team win. Stuff like that's contagious.
“You've got younger guys looking up to him. They see him do that, and you can't ask questions and you can't complain. You've just got to go out and do it. He's setting that example for this team.”