Bryant goes boom: Slugger delivers walk-off HR

May 8th, 2019

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant smiled wide as he rounded third base and watched his teammates pouring out of the dugout and running to home plate Tuesday night. After the Cubs third baseman tossed his helmet aside, Albert Almora Jr. jumped high into the air, landed and then gave Bryant a push toward the awaiting mob.

That is when the chaos that comes with a walk-off home run ensued. Anthony Rizzo wrapped his arms around Bryant from behind. Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber closed in from the sides with jabs. Jason Heyward pounded on the third baseman's back. Almora yanked at Bryant's jersey, causing the buttons to concede their fight to keep the uniform together.

"You don't really know who's doing what," Bryant said after his three-run home run delivered a 5-2 victory over the Marlins at Wrigley Field. "They got me good, but in the best way possible."

For Bryant, the home run off fireballer Adam Conley was more than just a game-winning blast in the bottom of the ninth. It felt like confirmation that the third baseman -- even after trending up over the past couple of weeks -- was officially out of his early-season slump. The blast followed a ninth-inning shot Monday and an eighth-inning grand slam Sunday.

The shot also came off a 98.7 mph fastball from Conley, marking the third-hardest pitch that has been launched for a home run this season, according to Statcast. That added another layer to the building confidence that Bryant has indeed regained his offensive footing, because it was hard heat that often caused him fits, and led to whiffs, over the first few frustrating weeks of this season.

"It's just good to see him kind of in that good spot right now," said Cubs starter Jon Lester, who spun six strong innings in the win. "He's been having some good at-bats and hitting the ball hard. He hasn't had the results here lately until probably this homestand. So, it's nice to see that.

"But, definitely, nobody in that clubhouse doubted that he would be back to being Kris Bryant."

The ninth inning began with Jason Heyward drawing a walk against Conley, who then hit Kyle Schwarber with a pitch to put two aboard out of the chute. By the time Bryant stepped to the plate three batters later, runners were at the corners with a pair of outs in the book. Conley got Bryant to foul off a pair of elevated fastballs and worked the slugger into a 1-2 count.

Then, Conley's decisive heater headed middle-in and Bryant deposited it into the left-center bleachers.

"I didn't even give myself a chance," Conley said, "hitting Schwarber and walking the leadoff guy. Really, that's my biggest problem. I shouldn't even be facing Bryant in that situation."

Bryant wanted that situation, just as he said he wanted the eighth-inning at-bat that led to Sunday's grand slam in a 13-5 rout of the rival Cardinals. Dating back to Chicago's last road swing through Arizona and Seattle, Bryant had been making more consistent hard contact, even though the results were not always going his way. The prime example was a quartet of balls with exit velocities of at least 105 mph on May 1, but only one hit to show for it.

Unlike the first few weeks of the season, though, Bryant said he has done a better job of focusing on process over raw results. On top of that, he has been ironing out some kinks in his swing. Manager Joe Maddon examined some video of Bryant from 2016 and compared it to this year, and discussed calming some of the movement with the third baseman's bat in his setup.

Bryant made mechanical adjustments, studied how pitchers had been attacking him (one trend was feeding him elevated fastballs or aiming for the outer third of the zone when he fell behind in the count) and worked on ignoring the statistics on display on the big board.

"Early in the season, you look at the scoreboard and things fluctuate so much," Bryant said. "And then you're up there trying to get four hits in one at-bat, because you want to see things change. And I think we all have to experience that. Fortunately, I feel like I've gotten off to pretty good starts the previous four years, so I haven't had to really worry about that. But this year was a little different.

"I think that's the main thing -- you're just so impatient and you want things to come to you so quick. But I realized that that's not the way to go about things. It's always good when you learn from your mistakes."

Prior to April 19, Bryant had a .668 OPS and was swinging and missing at pitches in the strike zone 22.3 percent of the time, per Statcast. That rate had dropped to 10.4 percent in 15 games since April 19, excluding Tuesday's showing. With his triple and three-run homer against Miami, Bryant now has a .286/.438/.696 slash line across his last 16 games, with five homers, 12 extra-base hits, 17 RBIs and more walks (14) than strikeouts (10).

Bryant's hard-hit rate (38.2 percent per Statcast) going into Tuesday was his best mark since 2016 (38.9 percent), when he won the National League MVP Award. His contact percentage on pitches in the strike zone, which had dropped under 70 percent in early April, has climbed back over 75 percent. His expected slugging percentage (.525) is also higher than his actual slugging (.508), backing the idea that his numbers have not backed the quality of his balls in play.

"He's been doing better," Maddon said. "I think the West Coast trip got him right. He's just hitting the ball a lot more consistently hard. And, with that, his confidence is going up. That's the big thing with him and a lot of young hitters. Confidence matters. It always matters."

A walk-off party at home plate can do wonders for a player's confidence, too.

"That was fun," Bryant said with a smirk. "I really enjoyed that."