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Bryant, Cubs Walk-off Marlins 5-2 on Chilly Night at Wrigley

Kris Bryant homered in the ninth as the Cubs walked off the Miami Marlins by a score of 5-2 on Tuesday. Daniel Shepard has the details of the victory here.

Three years removed from winning the National League MVP award, the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman finds himself on the bad side of Cubs Twitter. It has been well documented that the Cubs’ slugger missed 60 games last season due to a balky left shoulder, an injury that limited Kris Bryant to just 13 home runs and resulted in down power numbers for the former first round draft pick.

At what some would consider Bryant’s worst, the youngster still posted a .188 ISO and .460 slugging percentage, numbers that were solidly above league average. In a season that saw Bryant post a 125 wRC-plus (25 percent better than league average), the Cubs’ offense cracked down the stretch, helping the Milwaukee Brewers catch-up in the NL Central and eventually overtake Chicago in Game 163.

While no one blames Bryant for the Cubs’ offensive collapse in the second half of last season, everyone was hoping an off-season of rest and recovery would be enough to return their All-Star infielder to his former glory. Twice already in his career, Bryant has sported All-Star Game honors, adding those accolades to his Rookie of the Year trophy and aforementioned NL MVP award, distinctions that came in back-to-back seasons.

With his shoulder fully healthy and a slew of adjustment having been made by his teammates during the off-season, Bryant and the Cubs looked to take the Central division and entire National League by storm in 2019.

Not only did that plan quickly fail as the Cubs opened play with a 2-7 record across their first nine games, but Bryant followed his club’s play, beginning the campaign on a wrong note.

Across his first 74 plate appearances from Opening Day through April 18, Bryant posted some rough numbers that had some people wondering if his shoulder was bothering him once again. During that early stretch of play, Bryant slashed .219/.324/.344/.668 with just one home run and six RBI.

To go along with those lackluster numbers, Bryant racked up six extra base hits, a number that included his lone long ball and five doubles. That lack of extra base knocks resulted in the slugger posting a .125 ISO to accompany his aforementioned .344 slugging percentage, numbers that would back-up any narrative that Bryant could be dealing with shoulder issues once again.

Through it all, Bryant and Joe Maddon both maintained that the youngster was not experiencing any problems with his shoulder, but that he was just stuck in a drought at the plate.

Looking at the numbers tells us exactly why Bryant was not producing like many have grown accustom to seeing from the franchise cornerstone. Firstly, Bryant was striking out way too much, posting a strikeout rate north of 24 percent while at the same time logging a walk rate of 9.5 percent. While that is not a terrible walk rate, that first number would have been the second highest mark of Bryant’s career had it held for an entire season.

In addition, Bryant’s batted ball profile provided little room for error as the slugger struggled to once again find his groove. Through his first 74 plate appearances, Bryant was putting 45.7 percent of the balls in play on the ground while lifting only 34.8 percent of them into the air. Hitting the ball on the ground is never good, but for Bryant, it was much more so as the youngster owned a hard contact rate of 34.8 percent during the early part of the season.

For perspective, during his MVP campaign of 2016, Bryant posted a hard contact rate north of 40 percent, following a 2015 season in which he amassed a 37.5 percent mark. While a hard contact around 35 percent is not terrible, Bryant owned a lofty 58.7 percent medium contact rate, a number one does not want to see, especially with such a high ground ball rate.

Just about the only thing going good for Bryant during the rough patch displayed above was his willingness to shoot the ball into the opposite field. So far this season, the Cubs as a whole have displayed the same approach at the dish, ranking toward the top of the majors in opposite field contact rate. For Bryant, that number sat at 32.6 percent, the only mark that has remained unchanged since the slugger has turned his fortunes around.

A 5-1 Cubs win over the Arizona Diamondbacks served as somewhat of a jumping off point for Bryant’s turnaround. In that contest, the youngster went 2-for-4 with a walk, two RBI and a run scored, bringing his season batting average to .235.

Those two knocks helped keep what has become a lengthy streak alive for Bryant. After mashing a triple into right field on Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins, Bryant ran his on-base streak to 17 games, a stretch that was in its early stages on April 19.

Nevertheless, since that two-hit performance until first pitch on Tuesday, Bryant has seemed to return to his former self at the dish. Across 68 plate appearances since then, Bryant has slashed .275/.441/.627/1.069 with four home runs and 14 RBI. Two of those long balls have come in the Cubs’ last two contests, a grand slam on Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals and a ninth inning solo blast on Monday against Miami.

Due in part to those home runs, Bryant has amassed a .353 ISO during this current stretch of play, as the slugger has also managed to club six doubles over his last 15 games entering play.

Bryant’s biggest adjustment, and the driving factor behind his latest success has been his lack of ground balls. Prior to Tuesday’s action, Bryant was putting the ball on the ground just 20.9 percent of the time over his last 68 plate appearances. To go along with that, Bryant has increased both his line-drive rate (30.2 percent) and fly ball rate (48.8 percent) to lofty levels while at the same time posting an insane hard contact rate of 48.8 percent.

So summarize, Bryant has begun hitting the ball with authority in the air instead of putting it on the ground with only average pace. To back that statement up, during this recent stretch, Bryant’s HR/FB rate sits at 19 percent, a number that was sitting at 6.3 percent through April 18.

As mentioned above, through it all, Bryant has maintained his opposite field approach, posting a 32.6 percent opposite field contact rate, the exact same mark as he posted when he was struggling at the plate. That means as things stand right now, Bryant is sporting an opposite field contact rate north of 30 percent, a number that if it holds, would blow past anything the slugger has posted thus far in his career.

What has suffered more than anything because of that has been Bryant’s center field contact rate. Entering play, Bryant was hitting the ball to center field just 21.3 percent of the time, a mark that is better than 12 percent lower than his career average. Because of that, Bryant has maintained a pull rate right around his career norms at 46.1 percent (career average – 44.3 percent) entering play.

With his power-stroke seemingly back and a more opposite field minded approach in his back-pocket, Bryant looked to keep his recent streak of success alive against the lowly Marlins on Tuesday.

Just one day ago, the Marlins ended the Cubs’ seven-game winning streak with a three-run ninth. That rally was set up by three walks and a hit from Cubs’ closer Pedro Strop, a uncharacteristic performance by a reliever that has been so good for a long time.

Nevertheless, the Cubs fell 6-5 but not before Bryant added a solo home run in the Cubs’ half of the ninth inning. That long ball gave the slugger five on the season and his second in as many games. Additionally, it moved Bryant’s ISO to .226 while at the same time giving him a .470 slugging percentage on the season. While those numbers are still way below what he posted in 2016, they are starting to move in on Bryant’s 2017 numbers, a season in which he mashed 29 home runs and posted a .946 OPS.

Riding a 16 game on-base streak entering play on Tuesday, Bryant wasted little time in moving that number to 17 contests. Once again batting out of the two-hole in Joe Maddon’s lineup, Bryant shot a triple into the right field corner with one away in the bottom half of the first inning.

Off the bat at 94.9 MPH, Bryant’s first triple of the season traveled 348 feet, narrowly missing a home run as the wind continued to push the baseball away from the Marlins’ right fielder. Due to the ball’s 38 degree launch angle, Bryant’s exit base hit registered an expected batting average of only .050, meaning, more than likely, it should have been caught.

Luckily for the Cubs, Bryant’s ball found grass as the home team used that extra base hit to plate their first tally of the ballgame. Just two batters after Bryant, Javier Baez racked up his 27th RBI of the season, sending a ball onto the warning track in center field. That fly ball ended up being deep enough to score Bryant from third, plating the Cubs’ first run of the game in the first.

With their first inning run on Tuesday, the Cubs have now scored four such tallies in this four-game series against the Marlins. On Monday, the Marlins were able to fight back and tie the game, something they once again accomplished in the second game of the series.

Sending their ace to the mound, the Cubs had to feel pretty comfortable in their ability to walk away with a victory. Entering play, Jon Lester was sporting a sparkling 1.73 ERA, the seventh lowest among starters with at least 20 innings this season. In addition, Lester has both increased his strikeout rate and decreased his walk rate across his 26 frames compared to last year.

While the veteran lefty was forced to the IL with a left hamstring injury, the veteran has posted a lofty 26.5 percent strikeout rate, a number that would be the second highest of Lester’s career if it holds up for the entire season. To go along with that, Lester’s 6.9 percent walk rate entering play is almost a full percentage point lower than his career average and 1.5 percent better than the mark he posted in 2018.

Additionally, Lester entered his start against the Marlins with opposing batters hitting just .189 off him, coupling that with a 96.2 percent left-on-base percentage. What that suggests is this. Even when Lester allows a batter to reach base in 2019, he is more often than not going to strand him there, a big reason why his ERA is among the league leaders.

No matter his success, Lester yielded back-to-back singles with one out in the first inning on Tuesday, runners that would move to second and third following a ground ball. Like he has so much this season, Lester was able to work around those base runners, inducing a fly out off the bat of former Cub Starlin Castro to end the frame.

The second inning went much better for the big southpaw, as Lester sat the Marlins down in order, garnering his first strikeout of the evening in the process.

Staked to a lead, however, Lester was backed into a corner in the third inning due to some less-than-stellar defense in left field. Replacing Ben Zobrist who was removed from the lineup prior to the game for personal reasons, Kyle Schwarber whiffed on a fly ball with one away in the third.

That E7 put the Marlins in business with a runner on second base with only one out. Promptly, the Marlins made Schwarber and the Cubs pay for that mistake as Martin Prado laced a double into the right-center field gap, tying the contest at one.

Just two batters later, the Marlins grabbed their second lead of the series and first of the game courtesy of a Jorge Alfaro RBI single. Alfaro’s knock moved the score to 2-1 in favor of the visiting club, an advantage that would last mere minutes.

Never known for his power-stroke, Albert Almora stepped to the plate to begin the Cubs’ third inning. Entering play, Almora had hit just 17 career big league home runs across better than 1,000 plate appearances. That has resulted in a .403 career slugging percentage for the Cubs’ outfielder, a number that sat at just .313 for this season prior to Tuesday.

This season, Almora has been stuck in a deep slump, entering the contest slashing .241/.292/.313/.605 with one home run, four doubles and only seven RBI to his credit. Numbers aside, the wind at Wrigley Field on Tuesday was not friendly to batters lifting the ball to left field. Throughout the game, multiple hitters had their balls knocked down, indicating someone would have to really put a charge into something to clear the fence.

In the third, that is exactly what Almora did, juicing a 91 MPH fastball from Marlins’ starter Caleb Smith 398-feet into the left-center ally for a solo home run. Off the bat at 108.2 MPH, Almora’s blast landed in the basket in left-center, representing the outfielder’s 18th career long ball.

Now with the game tied at two apiece, Lester went to work to keep the Marlins at bay. Over the course of six solid innings, that is exactly what the southpaw accomplished. Of his 109 pitches, Lester threw 39 four-seam fastballs, 43 cutters and 10 change-ups, mixing in a total of five different offering’s on Tuesday.

All told, the lefty garnered nine swinging strikes on his pitches, getting another 20 called strikes from the home plate umpire. Four of those swinging strikes came courtesy of Lester’s four-seam fastball while 11 of his called strikes were on his cutter.

While the veteran allowed a decent amount of traffic by yielding eight hits to the Marlins, he did not walk a batter, further driving down his already tiny walk rate. Of his 109 pitches, 70 were strikes as the below image shows Lester was around the zone all night.

With the exception of a handful of pitches, even with Lester missed, he was near the strike zone, a feat that helped the lefty stay in command of the ballgame.

Lester’s final line looked like this: six innings, eight hits, two runs (zero earned runs), zero walks and six strikeouts on the aforementioned 109 pitches, helping the lower his season ERA to 1.41.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, they were tasked with facing a starter who entered the contest with the third highest strikeout rate (33.6 percent) among qualified starting pitchers. Trailing only Gerrit Cole and Blake Snell, Smith lived up to that number on Tuesday, striking out 11 Cub hitters over 6.2 solid frames.

In addition, Smith yielded just five hits and three walks as the Cubs managed only four at-bats with runners in scoring position through the first eight innings. For perspective, the Marlins finished nine innings, with 11 chances with men in scoring position, a situation where they racked up two hits.

Perhaps to cap-off his return party in fitting fashion, Bryant stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the game tied at two. Already having hit a long ball in two straight games, Bryant had runners at first and third after a fielder’s choice cut down the would-be winning run.

Just four pitches into his at-bat, Bryant identified a 98.7 MPH fastball that hung on the inner-third of the plate. If you have watched “KB” hit over the last four years, you would know that is exactly where he likes to hit them.

Well, Adam Conley found that out the hard way on Tuesday as Bryant turned the heater around, and sent it screaming into the cold night sky at Wrigley. Kicking off a choirs of “Go Cubs Go,” Bryant’s blast exited his bat at 101.7 MPH, landing half-way up the bleachers in left-center field and 404-feet from home plate.

With all the talk about opposite field approach that has surrounded this team and Bryant through the early portion of this season, it was nice to see the right-handed slugger finally pull a pitch with authority to left field.

For the Cubs, it could not have come at a better time as Bryant’s three-run shot afforded them a 5-2 victory over the Marlins. Perhaps more importantly, it signaled to the rest of major league baseball that Kris Bryant and his bat have returned to the middle of Chicago’s lineup.

Now with six home runs on the season, Bryant’s overall numbers are beginning to rebound after his slow start to the campaign.

Courtesy of Bryant, the Cubs move to 20-13 while the Marlins drop to 10-25 on the season.

Next Up for the Cubs

The Cubs will continue their four-game set with the Marlins on Wednesday at 7:05 pm at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be right-hander Kyle Hendricks (2-4, 3.93 ERA). The last time out, Hendricks tossed his best outing of the 2019 season, one that will likely go down as one of the best in the majors this season.

Hendricks, the soft-tossing righty, needed just 81 pitches to complete nine innings, allowing just four hits without giving up a run along the way. While the veteran only struck out three batters, he failed to issue a free pass for the first time this season, a promising step in the right direction for Hendricks.

Opposing Hendricks on the mound Wednesday will be Jose Urena (1-5, 5.45 ERA). Unlike the Cubs’ starter, Urena’s last outing was more of a grind. Across six innings, the right-hander yielded five earned runs on six hits while striking out four batters versus three walks.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports

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