Bryant's HR sparks sputtering Cubs offense

June 23rd, 2021

CHICAGO -- A few hours before Tuesday's game, Cubs manager David Ross praised for the approach on display in his plate appearances the previous night. Ross then had a prediction for reporters surrounding him in the Cubs' dugout.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he gets hot here real soon," Ross said.

In the fourth inning, Bryant connected with a fastball from Cleveland's Eli Morgan for a no-doubt homer that helped ignite a 7-1 victory at Wrigley Field. The blast snapped a prolonged power outage for Bryant and contributed to a much-welcomed offensive outburst that backed a strong start from Kyle Hendricks.

Bryant's home run was his 14th of the season, but ended a career-long drought of 49 at-bats (56 plate appearances) without an extra-base hit. Bryant's last extra-base hit was his previous homer back on June 4 in San Francisco.

Bryant's recent slump was glaring for the Cubs, given the team's recent offensive slide back to a version resembling its bitter cold April. Heading into Tuesday, Chicago had not scored more than three runs in nine straight games. In that stretch, Chicago was batting .146/.218/.272 as a team with 16 total runs (12 via homers).

Over that nine-game sample, the North Siders were striking out at a 30.3 percent clip and walking just 6.8 percent of the time. This team-wide funk followed a 40-game run in which the Cubs went 27-13 with a .254/.323/.438 slash line, just under five runs scored per game on average and a 23.7 percent strikeout rate (plus an 8.3 percent walk rate).

"I don't feel like we're slumping," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. "I know how hard we work. I know the fans want results. But, personally, I don't really care about it. It's a long season."

Contreras was referring to caring about criticism flying Chicago's way of late. There is no denying that the catcher cares about what is happening on the field, especially when witnessing the kind of at-bats he also contributed in Tuesday's victory.

After collecting two doubles on Monday night, Contreras came through with a run-scoring single to cap off a four-run sixth inning in Tuesday's win. Then in the eighth, he and Patrick Wisdom partnered for back-to-back home runs off reliever Trevor Stephan to put the game away for the Cubs.

"It's just a matter of time, man," said Hendricks, who logged six shutout innings and improved to 8-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his last eight starts. "There's going to be ups and downs. You know if you just keep them in it and keep it close, it's just a matter of time until they break out. You kind of saw that tonight. We finally got some balls to fall in."

That was the issue on Monday night, when the Cubs went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Chicago had a slew of baserunners, but did not find that breakthrough hit to pull out of the recent downward spiral. Still, Ross liked what he saw within his lineup's at-bats in the 4-0 loss.

"We're seeing some positives," Ross said before Tuesday's game.

To support Ross' optimism, the lineup found its spark when Sergio Alcántara led off the sixth inning with an opposite-field double to the wall in left. Rafael Ortega followed with a pinch-hit single to right to turn things over to the top of the order. From there, Joc Pederson (two-run double), Bryant (walk), Javier Báez (RBI double) and Contreras (RBI single) took over.

Contreras highlighted the flurry by carrying his bat up the first-base line, where he unleashed an emphatic bat flip before hustling up to second on right fielder Josh Naylor's throw to the plate.

"Putting together an inning like that, that's good for us," Contreras said.

And, really, it all could be traced back to Bryant's homer.

"The big home run from K.B. to get us on the board was nice," Ross said, "to kind of get us started."

In the 14 games leading up to Tuesday -- the stretch in which Bryant had zero extra-base hits -- he hit .109 (5-for-46) with a .320 OPS. His season OPS dropped to .875 from 1.004 in that time period, in which pitchers began refusing to give the Cubs' star anything to crush over the heart of the plate.

At the same time, Bryant said he found himself giving in against pitches he took during his torrid start to this season.

"You expand a little more and then a little bit more,” Bryant said. “And then you find yourself chasing pitches that you don't want to swing at, and then you've got to back track and rewind and get out of that hole.

"It's all cyclical. I think we all go through it. When you're going good, you just want to keep hitting, keep swinging. Sometimes, you have to do the opposite."

That is why Ross was so impressed by the two walks that Bryant drew on Monday night, leading to the manager feeling that a hot streak was right around the corner. Bryant made Ross look smart with the towering drive into the bleachers.

After the win, Ross laughed when asked about his pregame prognostication.

"Listen," Ross said, "that's not going out on a limb, I don't think, when you say that a former MVP, a guy that's got some of the better stats on your team, is going to have a good game."