ST. LOUIS — They lit the night on fire without him in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s long-awaited division clincher. Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist singled, and Addison Russell brought them all home with a blast that went just inside the foul pole in left. Javy Baez doubled and Jason Heyward doubled back-to-back. Tommy La Stella found the gap with his own double, too.
Kris Bryant? Buried somewhere deep in the excitement of the inning, the Cubs’ best player was intentionally walked and didn’t score. Oh, well. Let the other guys shine.
By the time the Cubs were finished erupting for all five of their runs in a 5-1 victory over the Cardinals, they were well on their way to a champagne celebration. Make that yet another champagne celebration. The Cubs are getting used to these rites of revelry. Aren’t we all?
But there’s something special about Bryant’s role in all this. Something bigger than any one player ought to be. Perhaps more than a bit like former New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter, Bryant has hit the ground running in his career and done nothing except get better from there. And he has won. All he does is win.
Rookie of the year in 2015. National League MVP and World Series champion in 2016. Bryant is one of the brightest sports stars Chicago has seen. He’s nice. He’s impossibly handsome. Should we even get into his stats? Let’s just say he’s getting on base more than ever, striking out less than ever and leading the NL in WAR at 6.8.
And now he’s back in the hunt for glory, heading for a third straight trip to the playoffs while in one of his hottest stretches of the season.
He has become — undeniably — the face of the most talked-about franchise in baseball.
“Just to even be mentioned with Derek Jeter, I don’t know how to respond to that,” he said. “Coming in and playing for a good team and winning and being in a big market, all that stuff is kind of the perfect recipe with where I’m at.
“You play at all these other stadiums — nothing taken away from the other teams — but it’s just, like, I just feel so fortunate to be here with a team like this, in a city that gives us so much attention. I just think it’s the ideal scenario to be in, and that’s kind of why I am where I am.”
Where Bryant will be next is smack dab at the center of the division series against the Nationals — one of two leading men, along with Bryce Harper. Two young superstars, two former MVPs, two guys from Vegas, two old pals. One, Nats right fielder Harper, has often been portrayed as a self-centered hotshot. Third baseman Bryant is more along the lines of a fairytale prince.
There will be lots of talk about Rizzo, already a Cubs great on his own, and the team’s veteran starting pitchers. The Nats have a bevy of big-name players: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon. But Bryant’s and Harper’s names will be at the top of the marquee.
Bryant was asked about Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams. Even about former Cubs who experienced the postseason here and there — Sammy Sosa, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace — but never became synonymous with October baseball, or remotely close.
“You’ve definitely got to take advantage of the opportunities where you do have a team that can make the playoffs,” he said. “Just sitting here thinking about it, people go their whole career and don’t make the playoffs. … I’m sitting here very young in my career and have a chance to do for a third time.”
That became official as soon as Leonys Martin squeezed the final out of the game in center field. Bryant ran across the diamond and first met Rizzo with a hand-slap and hug. Then the same with Baez and Russell. Before long, Bryant was on the Busch Stadium mount waving a “W” flag.
All he does is win.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.