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Kris Bryant Effect: Rookie pairs with Anthony Rizzo to transform Cubs lineup

Anthony Rizzo doesn’t like to say much publicly about the methods or secrets behind why he looks like an early MVP candidate at the plate or why the Cubs have taken off as a lineup the last few weeks.

Among teammates, though: “He jokes around about the Bash Brothers, that kind of thing,” said rookie Kris Bryant – who might be the bigger influence in giving the Cubs’ lineup a competitive look and length it hasn’t seen since Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were in the middle of it.

Bryant, 23, has said since soon after his April 17 debut that he learns from watching Rizzo’s approach everyday, often from the on-deck circle.

But what Bryant has done for the lineup, batting on either side of Rizzo, in less than five weeks in the big leagues, is making the pair of young, left-right, middle-of-the-order hitters one of the most productive tandems in the National League so far – and doing for the lineup what the Cubs can only hope someone will eventually do for a shaky bullpen and top-heavy rotation.

“I’m definitely having a lot of fun with him so far,” Bryant said.

Either way, it’s a triumphant return Bryant makes this week to his college hometown, where as a junior for the University of San Diego only two years ago he out-homered 223 other Division I [ITALICS} programs [END ITAL].

“He’s a baseball player,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes to say about Bryant – who in the past 10 days has all four of his homers and three infield hits, including two on routine grounders.

“That’s what you want, a guy that plays the whole game, understands the concepts of offense and, and offense includes base running.”

As impressive as the pitching looked from veteran starters Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, during the just-concluded 6-1 homestand, what the lineup did against two of the top-three ranked pitching staffs in the majors might have been more impressive. It averaged nearly five runs per game – 6 ½ before A.J. Burnett an the Pirates bullpen shut out the Cubs in their lone loss Sunday, when Bryant was forced to exit after two at-bats because of illness.

If the players union decides to make good on its threat to go after the service time Bryant lost when the Cubs forced him to spend the first 12 days of the season in the minors, the top-ranked prospect in baseball has certainly helped their case in proving he was ready for the big leagues.

He’s hitting .291 with a .903 OPS, and despite missing the first eight games leads the team with 24 walks (tied for fourth in the league) and 24 RBIs (tied for ninth).

Four players who combined for eight starts at third base before Bryant (plus three pinch-hitters for them in those games), combined to go 5-for-29 (.172) with one walk, one extra base hit (a Mike Olt solo homer) and two RBIs.

If you choose to give Bryant full credit for the difference in the lineup since he was called up, he’s been worth about a half-run more per game.

The Cubs are hitting 31 points higher (.255) with an on-base percentage 19 points higher (.334) since he joined it.

Obviously, it’s a small sample size, but the eye test doesn’t lie. The Bryant Effect at the top of the Cubs’ order – in particular, how he and Rizzo have operated as a dual force – has been a difference maker.

“We all knew it was just a matter of time before he gets hot,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said during a seven-game homestand in which Bryant drove in eight runs, scored seven and had a 1.521 OPS. “As well as the rest of our lineup. It’s fun to watch right now.

“He’s extremely polished for his age,” added Arrieta, a former Baltimore teammate of young All-Stars Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Chris Davis. “He’s just a special talent, and it’s fun to watch him play every day. He made a couple great plays at third base. I just look forward to watching him grow.”

Rizzo already was off to a good start in terms of his quality of at-bats and reaching base. But after Bryant was added to the lineup – first in the cleanup spot, more often behind Rizzo, and more recently in the second and (occasionally) third spot – Rizzo’s production took off.

Asked about the effect he sees, Rizzo said, “I’m not into looking at that stuff, really.”

He is, apparently, into looking – and swinging – at better pitches to hit. After slugging .360 with a .240 batting average before Bryant showed up (albeit in a small sample size), Rizzo’s hitting .368 with seven homers and a .660 slugging percentage.

Even his on-base percentage has jumped more than 60 points compared to the first eight games.

Nobody’s making any predictions about how this is going to turn out over the next 4 ½ months (not even Rizzo, the man of guaranteed division titles).

Bryant said he’ll just keep working.

“I’m going to try to be a complete player,” he said. “I think I’ve improved a lot defensively, and I’m just working on that every day. So I’m pleased with my all around game right now.

“I think I can get even better.”