Bryant stars defensively in hitless MLB debut
Cubs phenom goes down swinging in first three at-bats, finishes 0-for-4 in loss
CHICAGO -- If Friday's debut proved anything, it's that Kris Bryant can handle third base but wasn't quite ready for James Shields' changeup.
Promoted from Triple-A Iowa, Bryant didn't hit a home run in every at-bat, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. The No. 2 prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com, admitted he was anxious in his first big league game, which Chicago lost, 5-4, to the Padres.
"We did bring him up for his glove, didn't we?" manager Joe Maddon said of the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, who belted 43 homers last year.
Bryant got some of the jitters out of the way early when he started a double play in the first. The third baseman then ended the fifth when he snared Derek Norris' line drive with an acrobatic grab.
Perhaps the best play came in the seventh, when Bryant grabbed Will Middlebrooks' chopper just behind the bag, near the line, and threw in time to get him out to open the frame.
"I've been waiting for this moment my whole life, and I'm out there trying to do too much in those four at-bats," Bryant said of his big league debut. "It was a good day for me -- my first game and the guys were treating me great. I couldn't ask for a better day, honestly."
Shields struck out Bryant on three pitches in the slugger's first Major League at-bat, throwing a cutter and two changeups. He struck out swinging in the fourth and fifth, swinging at a changeup and a cutter, respectively.
"His train has been coming," San Diego manager Bud Black said of Bryant. "This kid has a lot of talent."
The Padres intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo with two on in the seventh so Dale Thayer could face Bryant, and he got the rookie to hit into a fielder's choice, forcing the runner at third. Bryant said he took it as a challenge.
"You have to embrace the times you're not doing well and realize it's a part of the game and hope to grow from it," Bryant said.
The crowd of 32,138 at Wrigley cheered Bryant from the time he trotted out for warmups to his last at-bat. They wanted a 5-for-5 day, not 0-for-4.
"It's important to be realistic," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Expectations are high. ... It's important to give players time to adjust and find their way. There are a lot of different ways for Kris to contribute to a win. We think we have a competitive team this year, and he has a chance to be a big part of that."
Bryant proved to Maddon that he can physically handle the game during Spring Training by hitting .425 with nine homers and 15 RBIs in 14 games. Now comes the tough part.
"Physically, talent-wise, he's ready to be a Major League baseball player," Maddon said. "How do you process the day mentally? That's what sets you apart. I think he's pretty good at that. Whether he does well or does not do well today is not really relevant because I know over a period of time, he will [do well]."
Bryant wore No. 17, which is significant. It's the same number his father Mike wore in the Minor Leagues for two seasons in the early 1980s as a member of the Red Sox organization.
It seemed fitting that he would open against the Padres. Bryant went to a lot of their games while attending the University of San Diego. He was trying to treat Friday as a normal day at the ballpark.
"There's no pressure in this game," Bryant said. "You let pressure creep in, you're not having fun. I play this game because it's fun.
"Who knows what the future holds for me? I'm just going to go out there and play as hard as I can and work on getting better every day. When you start putting expectations that are kind of way out there, you lose sight of what's really important in this game."
What was Maddon's message to Bryant before the game?
"He said, 'Forget about expectations. All I want you to do is go out there, show up on time and play hard,'" Bryant said.
Bryant's teammates tried to keep everything normal, although there was a definite buzz at Wrigley Field.
"Hopefully, he doesn't put too much pressure on himself," outfielder Dexter Fowler said. "I'm sure he knows it's the same game he's been playing."
But it is different playing in the big leagues compared to the Minors, or when Bryant first started at the age of 4.
"It is," Fowler said. "But I was his locker mate [in Spring Training] and he makes the adjustments. It's hard for younger guys to do that, and he did it well."
Bryant has a history of struggling initially when reaching a new level -- and adjusting quickly. Making his professional debut in the Arizona Rookie League on July 21, 2013, Bryant went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and three errors (two throwing, one fielding). Two days later, in his debut for the Class A Short Season Boise Hawks, Bryant went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts.
"We had to remind ourselves not to overreact to that, too," Epstein said of the Boise debut. "Sure enough, in a couple weeks he was dominating and moving up the ladder."
Bryant ultimately hit .354 with four homers and a .692 slugging percentage in 18 games with the Hawks.
Bryant can't wait for Day 2 in his big league life.
"Of course, your first game, you want to go out there and do everything, and hit four home runs in one at-bat and you want to show you're here to help the team win," Bryant said. "I didn't get any results today, but that's no reason to hang my head. I've had plenty of other debuts in my short career -- some good, some bad. That's the name of the game, really."
Said Maddon: "Believe me, he's going to be fine; he'll be very productive here. That's just one game."