PHOENIX – If this is Kris Bryant’s idea of brutal, it’s hard to imagine what he thinks ease and comfort look like.
Two days after describing his lingering hand injury as “brutal,” the National League’s reigning MVP finished off a 9-for-11 weekend that helped finish off the Diamondbacks in a three-game series as the Cubs headed home back in sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
“It’s brutally fun to watch,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after a 7-2 victory Sunday that gave the Cubs two wins in three games against the best team that remained on their schedule.
Continuing to play through a sprain at the base of his left pinkie suffered three weeks ago on a head-first slide, Bryant went 3-for-4 Sunday with a walk and his first home run since July 30. He reached base 13 of 15 plate appearances in the series – raising his batting average to .294 and OPS to .935.
“I feel great,” said Bryant, who has taken off since a slight mechanical adjustment early in the road trip to keep his bat through the strike zone longer. “I feel my head’s clear. I feel good in the box, focused on every pitch. Sometimes during the year you kind of get away from that where you’re thinking too much and swinging at certain pitchers that you don’t want to. Now I don’t feel like that.
“You ride the wave as long as you can, but it’s not always going to be like that.”
He dismissed questions about his hand after Sunday’s game. “It’s fine,” he said.
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cubs, who have struggled offensively much of the year, then lost their hottest hitter, Willson Contreras, to a hamstring injury Thursday.
“He’s been our best player pretty much for the last couple months,” said Jake Arrieta (12-8), who pitched six strong innings to continue his own six-week surge. “I think we’re capable of holding down the fort especially until Willson gets back.
“We’ve got a lot of winners in this clubhouse who can pick up the slack for Willson and make it a little bit easier for him to not feel like he has to rush back.”
Arrieta has picked up the rotation since the start of July, going 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA in his last eight starts – a big part of the rotation’s 15-5 run since the All-Star break that has included a 3.16 combined ERA.
“Hopefully, Willson’a a fast healer, but I think we’ll be OK,” said Bryant, who could yet prove to be the key to filling the offensive void.
His heads-up running on the strangest play of the road trip gave the Cubs a first-inning lead Sunday they never gave up. At second base with two out, Bryant took off on a 3-2 pitch, then watched Diamondbacks starter Zack Godley strike out Victor Caratini but fall down as he threw the pitch – which, in turn, skipped past the catcher.
Bryant continued all the way around third to score.
The Cubs clung to a 2-1 lead until breaking it open late, including a 463-foot, three-run homer in the eighth by Javy Baez – the sometimes exasperating infielder who opened the trip with an inside-the-park-home run in San Francisco and on Saturday night made a critical throwing error on a routine play in a loss.
“There’s times he can be frustrating,” Maddon said. “Other times he hits three-run homers in the upper tank.”
The Cubs’ schedule softens considerably the rest of the way, including the next 13 games against last-place teams.
“I don’t look at breaks in the schedule. I don’t believe in that stuff,” Maddon said. “There’s always a trap in that thought.”
But taking a one-game lead over the Cardinals back home for a weeklong homestand and 46 games left in the season, the scoreboard watching, at least, has just begun.
“I thought it was going to bunch up,” Maddon said. “It’s going to be a real interesting finish to the Central this year.”
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub