It took less than an inning for Chicago Cubs’ third baseman Kris Bryant to prove his left shoulder was fully healthy in the Cubs’ Spring Training opener on Saturday. After missing 60 games last season with inflammation in that shoulder, one of the big story lines heading into the 2019 season was whether Bryant could bounce back from a disappointing season.
Across a career-low 102 games, Bryant hit just 13 home runs and managed a noticeably lower .460 slugging percentage after starting the 2018 campaign at an MVP-caliber level, contributing to the Cubs’ lackluster second half and one-and-done postseason appearance.
On Saturday, a little more than four months after losing to the Colorado Rockies 2-1 in 13 innings in the National League wild-card game, the Cubs hit the field against the Milwaukee Brewers looking to shake the bad vibes that have plagued this club over the winter.
From the Addison Russell situation to Joe Ricketts’ emails to the front office not having enough money to land even a mid-tier free agent, this off-season has been one to forget for Cubs fans. Nonetheless, Chicago hit the field on Saturday to face the Milwaukee Brewers on a beautiful, but chilly day at Sloan Park in Arizona.
The Cubs did not let the unusually chilly temperatures in Mesa slow down their offense early in the game. Starting five of their everyday players (Jason Heyward, Bryant, Baez, Daniel Descalso and Willson Contreras), the order also featured names like Taylor Davis and non-roster invitees Jim Adduci, Johnny Field and Jacob Hannemann.
With this being the first Spring Training game at Sloan this season, the Cubs’ regulars could bank on two at-bats at most, and that is exactly what they received. Despite the lack of live game reps in what has been an extremely long winter for the Cubs, Heyward wasted little time in lining a ball through the right side of the infield for a base hit.
Heyward, who has struggled mightily in his first three seasons with the Cubs, posted a 68 OPS-plus in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract in 2016 and has been progressing toward average at the plate. A .631 OPS in ’16 has inched forward over the last two seasons, coming in at .715 in 2017 and .731 last year. In response, each of his batting average, OBP and slugging percentage have also increased, culminating in a 92 OPS-plus last season for the left-handed outfielder. That number, while 24 points higher than the mark he posted in 2016, was still eight points lower than league average.
Still, improvement has been obvious for Heyward over the last two years as fans and the front office alike hopes 2019 will finally be the year Heyward gets back to his 2015 self at the plate.
Bryant, batting second on the evening, was 18 percent above league average in the OPS-plus department last season, a number that was 17 points lower than anything the young slugger has posted in his short career.
With much to prove after his worst season in the big leagues and perhaps in his baseball career, Bryant blasted a two-run home run in his first at-bat of the 2019 season.
Kris Bryant leaves the yard in his first AB of the spring. pic.twitter.com/Oq3R8c4pkw
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) February 23, 2019
The pitch, which came from Milwaukee starter Chase Anderson, was an off-speed pitch down and away that Bryant reached out and flipped beyond the left field fence, finishing with his signature one-handed swing, giving the Cubs a quick 2-0 lead in their spring opener.
A beautiful sight for Cubs fans everywhere, Bryant followed his first inning bomb with a solid single into left field in the bottom of the third inning before being lifted in favor of non-roster invitee Cristhian Adames.
The lead given by Bryant’s long-ball was short-lived as Brewer center fielder Corey Ray clubbed a two-run home run of his own in the top half of the second inning, tying the game 2-2.
That score held into the home half of the third inning, as both teams began to churn their rosters. Jen-Ho Tseng, the Cubs’ starter on Saturday, worked two innings as the right-hander continues to progress toward the big leagues.
Tseng, 24, was signed back in 2013 and has appeared in just three big league games for the Cubs spanning the 2017 and ’18 seasons. Even before then, however, Tseng has been named the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year twice in his tenure with the club, with those coming in 2014 and 2017.
A 2.54 ERA in 145.1 innings during that 2017 season earned Tseng a big league call-up where he amassed six innings in two appearances while allowing five earned runs and two home runs.
In 2018, Tseng carried over his lackluster 2017 big league experience, posting a 6.27 ERA in 26 starts and 136.1 innings, losing 15 games in the process. On the big league side, Tseng made one spot start for the Cubs, allowing three earned runs and four hits over two innings of work.
Looking to stake his claim within the Cubs system, Tseng did not pitch great in his first action of 2019. The aforementioned home run by Ray was one of four hits allowed by the right-hander over two innings before he was pulled in favor of Mike Zagurski.
Prior to the Cubs making whole sell changes in Saturday’s contest, they were able to squeeze across two more runs. Both of those came in the home half of the third when Descalso banged a ball through the right side of the infield, plating a run and giving the Cubs a 3-2 lead.
Descalso was lifted for non-roster invitee Phillip Evans after reaching base, putting Adames and Evans on first and third after Bryant reached earlier in the inning. Adames who will be sporting number 92 this spring, represented the Cubs’ fourth run of the game on a wild pitch.
Rowan Wick entered the game to begin the fourth inning as the Cubs’ third pitcher of the game, with Zack Short and Mark Zagunis joining Adames and Evans on the field, replacing Baez and Heyward respectively.
With their regulars out of the game, the Cubs were able to push four more runs across the board in what would be an 8-4 victory.
In the home half of the fourth, Adduci and Davis teamed up for back-to-back singles ahead of Field who walked to load the bases. Another wild pitch and a ground out by Zagunis pushed the lead to 6-2 for the Cubs.
An RBI double by Ryan Court in the seventh, who entered the game at DH for Contreras, made the score 7-3 in favor of the Cubs before an E6 plated the home team’s final run of the game just one batter later.
As one would expect in the first Spring Training game, the Cubs used 18 different position players and eight different pitchers to play a nine inning baseball game. While success from the regular players is expected, the same can not be said for some of the non-roster members in camp.
Nonetheless, both Evans and Court had solid games in the first action of 2019. Evans, who was a 15th round draft pick by the New York Mets in 2011, has just 34 games of major league experience under his belt. The 26-year-old is a career .241 hitter after after appearing in 15 games and collecting three hits for the Mets last season.
On Saturday, Evans nearly matched that total, racking up two hits in two trips to the plate while also scoring a run.
As for Court, a 23rd round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011, the 30-year-old has yet to reach the major leagues. A .262 batting average in 114 games last season was not enough to earn a big league a call-up for the utility-man. Nevertheless, Court collected an RBI double in the home half of the seventh that plated the Cubs’ seventh run of the game.
In all, Saturday’s win over the Brewers was an impressive return to action for the Cubs. While Tseng gave up two runs, the remaining seven pitchers to appear allowed just two additional runs as Wick and Matt Carasiti need a combined 13 pitches to make it through the fourth and fifth innings.
The Cubs move to 1-0 in Cactus League action while the Brewers drop to 0-1 with 33 games remaining on the schedule.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will face the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, February 24 at 2:05 p.m. at Scottsdale Stadium. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-handed pitcher Tyler Chatwood (0-0, 0.00 ERA).
To say Chatwood has a bad season in 2018 would be an understatement. Following a three-year, $38 million investment by the Cubs during the previous off-season, the right-hander promptly led the league in walks with 95 across 103.2 innings while at the same time posting a lofty 5.30 ERA. With those kind of numbers, Chatwood was relegated to the bullpen in favor of Cole Hamels where he made his final four appearances of the season.
This spring will be an important one for the 29-year-old Chatwood who currently has an undefined role in the bullpen with the Cubs picking up Hamels’ $20 million club option for the upcoming season. Chatwood’s future with the Cubs will likely hinge on how he performs this spring and early on in the regular season.
On Sunday, Chatwood will get his first shot to prove 2018 was a fluke.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports