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Kris Bryant — remember him? — heating up for Cubs amid career-high scrutiny

PHOENIX — Before the Cubs’ game against the Diamondbacks on Friday night, Kris Bryant and his teammates gathered around the TV to watch the eagerly awaited debut of baseball’s top prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in Toronto.

It was the biggest headline in the game Friday, and one of the most hyped debuts in years.

“We were all in here watching it, and I had a moment where I was like, ‘Man, is this what was going on when I was taking my first at-bat,’ ’’ Bryant said. “I don’t know what he did in the game. Probably better than me.”

Guerrero doubled leading off the ninth to start the Blue Jays’ game-winning rally.

“OK, so he did better than I did,” said Bryant, who struck out three times in his 0-for-4 debut against the Padres at Wrigley Field.

Maybe. But Guerrero didn’t have a billboard outside the ballpark anticipating the call-up weeks before it came, either.

“I forgot about that,” Bryant said.

In fact, it might have been easy for some to forget in recent weeks just how big the third baseman was even before he reached the big leagues, how big he was as a rookie of the year during the 2015 playoff season, and how much bigger he got just one year later when he won the MVP as the Cubs went wire-to-wire in the National League Central on their way to their first World Series championship in more than a century.

Yeah? What have you done lately?

That’s been the theme of this season for Bryant almost from the outset as he returns from a shoulder injury that put him on the disabled list twice last year and sapped his renowned power during the second half of the season.

Not that the intense scrutiny now surprises him any more than the high expectations did three and four years ago.

“Nothing surprises me nowadays, it really doesn’t,” he said after a loss Friday night in which he homered for the first time since the season opener and drew a walk. “I learned that in the first 20 games. You’ve just got to go with it and smile.”

As Bryant went 79 at-bats and 95 plate appearances without a homer until Friday — his second-longest drought to the month after his injury last year — the questions and concerns only seemed to mount as people look for answers to the kind of stretch that players of all talent levels have experienced as long as the game has been played.

“For me, I can control my attitude and my effort and the work I put in,” said Bryant, a two-time All-Star who appeared on his way to a third before jamming his shoulder May 19 on a headfirst slide. “At the end of the day, when I do all that, I’m satisfied because I know that I did everything I can to put myself in a position to succeed. I might not succeed. But I’m trying. And that’s all I can ask for.”

It has been more than trying over the last eight games, during which he has gone 7-for-26 with five extra-base hits, including a 1-for-5 night in the Cubs’ 9-1 victory against the Diamondbacks on Saturday.

“That guy’s a stud, man,” said teammate Albert Almora Jr., who tied a career high with four hits Friday. “We all have a lot of confidence in him. It’s part of the game we’re in.”

In fact, Bryant was 0-for-12 in his career against Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray until his two-run homer in the third inning Friday.

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“I’m seeing [improvement],” said manager Joe Maddon, who as part of his new managing-millennials initiative communicates daily with Bryant and other players. “The conversations are good. He’s feeling better; he’s feeling progress.”

Bryant and team officials all have insisted repeatedly that the once-ailing left shoulder is healthy.

“I really have nothing to feel concerned about,” Maddon said.