How a hand injury might take Kris Bryant’s MVP game to another level for Cubs

Kris Bryant still feels it when he tries to crack the knuckles on his left hand.

“It’s like, `Oh, I slid into a third baseman’s foot last year. That’s why I can’t do that,’ “ he said.

Almost nine months after the Cubs’ third baseman injured his left hand sliding head first into third in Atlanta last July, he still gets those achy reminders in the sensitive area near the base of his pinky and ring fingers

But he wouldn’t choose to have it any other way.

Bryant

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“It’s just something I played through last year, and I’m glad I did, because my year turned out great,” the Cubs third baseman said. “At the end of the year, I can look back on it and be satisfied with it because I went through a lot to get where I ended up.”

Bryant said the residual effects of the injury — resulting from scar tissue, he has been told — aren’t noticeable when he plays. But they were noticeable last year, even though he missed just one game with what was called a sprained pinkie. His power numbers dipped, but he stayed in the lineup as the Cubs charged down the stretch to a come-from-behind division title and a first-round playoff series victory.

He finished the season with a .946 OPS. He also finished third among National League players in WAR (Fangraphs.com) and seventh in NL MVP voting.

After four consecutive seasons of Bryant winning awards as the top player in college, the top player in the minors, the top NL rookie and then NL MVP in 2016, the joke was about what new level he’d reach in 2017.

He thinks the injury might have been a measure of that new level. And if his start to this season means anything, he might be right.

“There’s always going to be something throughout the year that you have to battle through,” Bryant said, “whether it be your mental demons, your body’s not feeling right, you’re hurt, coming off an injury — all that stuff plays into how you feel out there.

“Last year, definitely, my hand didn’t feel great, but I was pretty proud of the way I came through that and learned how to deal with that. . . . I learned a lot about what I can tolerate, just from my experience last year.”

It was the closest thing to a significant injury he has had in his baseball career.

“I’ve never really had to play through pain before,” he said. “It’d be pretty easy to continue to get better if you just went out there and felt great every day.”

In fact, as he has returned to good health this year, he has made the first nine games of the season look almost easy. The most productive hitter during the Cubs’ grinding, 5-4 season-opening road trip, Bryant went 12-for-37 (.324) with six extra-base hits and eight walks.

He already has two games in which he has reached base five times (albeit one of them was a 17-inning game). That includes Saturday’s 5-2 victory in Milwaukee in which he hit a tying homer, tripled, had an infield single and walked twice (once intentionally).

“He’s just getting good at-bat after good at-bat,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think 95 percent of his at-bats have been good.”

Whether Bryant is headed for a third All-Star selection in his four seasons, he at least has reached another stage in his career.

“Our sport is unlike any other out there,” he said. “We’re playing every day, through the weather conditions — cold, hot, humid, whatever it is. But I think that ultimately makes us better players and better people, just because we do know what it takes to reach a goal that we set for ourselves. And playing through injury helps that.”