After getting shut out for the second consecutive game by the Dodgers on a warm October night in Los Angeles, and falling into a 2-1 hole in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs, for the first time all year were not the favorites to win the World Series.
Not that anybody in the clubhouse seemed to panic, but the mood was conspicuously somber after the game, the room conspicuously lacking guys who played in the game.
With one notable exception: Kris Bryant, the second-year third baseman who had both Cubs hits (and a strikeout) against Dodgers starter Rich Hill that night, stood up to wave after wave of media asking similar questions – clearly tiring of the repeats but handling the moment with the poise and patience of a more-veteran Ben Zobrist or Jason Heyward.
- “We’ll figure it out.”
- “We’ve got more games to play.”
- “We’re here for a reason. Belief is a very powerful.”
Bryant reached base three times the next night as the Cubs routed the Dodgers and swept the final three games of the series to reach the World Series for the first time in 71 years.
Bryant’s huge bat – 39 home runs, a .939 OPS this year – has made him an All-Star in both his big-league seasons, and an MVP frontrunner most of the season.
But it’s everything else he does that makes so many others around him better that on Thursday night made him the Cubs’ first National League MVP Award winner since Sammy Sosa in 1998.
Bryant, who became the fourth player in history to follow a Rookie of the Year season with an MVP, received 29 of 30 possible first-place votes to beat out runner-up Daniel Murphy of the Nationals in a 415-245 runaway. Murphy received the other first-place vote.
Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo finished fourth, just behind the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and just ahead of Colorado’s Nolan Arenado.
Cal Ripken Jr., Ryan Howard and Dustin Pedroia are the others who won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in consecutive years.
“You can’t really put into words what this feels like,” said Bryant, during the announcement show, with his dad and fiancé at his side. “It’s just been an unbelievable year, for me, for the team, getting married — I don’t know, man. This is unbelievable.”
Beyond the numbers, Bryant’s value is measured in the fact the All-Star third baseman started and played well at four different positions this year, including 53 combined starts in the corner outfield spots – and measured in moments like that night in Los Angeles, when he took on the responsibility of the uncomfortable moment, and took pressure off teammates.
“I don’t know if that was his absolute intent,” manager Joe Maddon said of that night. “But that’s good to hear.
“He shows up,” the manager said.
It seems he always has.
Bryant, 24, is the first player in history to win national college player of the year honors, minor-league player of the year honors, Rookie of the Year and MVP in four consecutive years.
“I don’t know if that’ll ever sink in,” said Bryant, who joked: “It’s all downhill from here.
“To do that is very humbling,” he added, “and I’m so grateful for all the opportunities along the way to get to that point. I’ll continue to work harder than I’ve ever done before to hopefully sustain that and win more World Series and more games and have a lot of fun along the way.”
Bryant credited Rizzo, who batted behind him, and the rest of a strong lineup for helping him put up the numbers that helped him win the award.
“We feed off of each other,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that Bryant’s dad, Mike, was by his side during the awards announcement, at their batting cage behind the family home in Las Vegas.
“If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” said Kris of the former Boston Red Sox farmhand who was Kris’ and his brother’s primary baseball coach as they grew up.
“I wouldn’t be the player that I am, the person that I am. I wish more players would have a dad like mine.”
If Mike’s coaching was the key to Kris’ accelerated skills as a kid, that dynamic might be the secret to what’s behind the understated leadership and poise Kris has shown as a young Cub within a very young, championship core.
“He was always that quiet kid that was playing with older kids all the time, so he was always shy because he was playing with older kids,” Mike said. “Kind of like now, definitely. He’s very quiet, and he’s very observant, and he wants to learn.
“I think people naturally flock to a guy that’s quiet because they want to know what he’s thinking.”
After all the personal accolades, 26 postseason games for the Cubs in his first two years on the roster and the curse-busting championship, it’s hard to imagine what’s left for the young slugger.
“This year has certainly been one of the best years of my life,” said Kris, who plans to start the new year by marrying longtime girlfriend, Jessica Delp, in January.
For now, he’ll keep fielding late-night talk show requests, responding to congratulatory texts from guys like Peyton Manning and enjoying the other spoils of a season in which he hit .292 with a .385 on-base percentage, 102 runs batted in and a league-leading 121 runs to go with those 39 homers.
With at least five more years of club control, Bryant is at least a threat to become only the second two-time MVP winner in club history, joining Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks (1958-59).
“I’m so frickin’ proud of him it’s unbelievable,” Mike Bryant said during the Cubs’ magical run through October. “Just to watch my son grow as a baseball player and as a man. And he makes me a better dad, being around him.”
Kris Bryant is the first Cub in 18 years to win the MVP Award. The full list:
- 2016 Kris Bryant*
- 1998 Sammy Sosa*
- 1987 Andre Dawson
- 1984 Ryne Sandberg*
- 1959 Ernie Banks
- 1958 Ernie Banks
- 1952 Hank Sauer
- 1945 Phil Cavarretta*
- 1935 Gabby Hartnett*
Note: The MVP has been award by vote of the BBWAA since 1931. Before that, the Cubs had one winner of the League Award, “for greatest all-around service to his club” (Rogers Hornsby, 1929); and one Chalmers Award winner, for “the most important and useful player” in the league (Frank Schulte, 1911).
*-Qualified for postseason.