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Overpowering pitchers from time he was small, Cubs rookie Bryant shows no signs of letting up

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CHICAGO — The owner made a beeline through the Cubs' clubhouse looking for his rookie slugger.

"Hey, take it easy," Tom Ricketts told Kris Bryant, trying not to laugh. "That thing costs a lot of money."

"Gotcha," Bryant smiled, trying not to blush.

"That thing" is a brand-new, 4,000-square-foot Jumbotron atop the bleachers and the ivy-covered outfield wall in left, an expensive piece of furniture in Wrigley Field's $500 million makeover.

In the eighth inning Wednesday night, with Chicago trailing Washington by a run, Bryant patiently turned an 0-2 count against reliever Aaron Barrett into 3-2. Then he turned around a waist-high changeup and launched it 463 feet — or 477, depending on the estimate — into the night sky.

"We thought it was over the board," Cubs manager Joe Maddon recalled. "Kind of got everyone stirring."

That the home run — Bryant's seventh this season — tied a game the Cubs went on to win was good enough for a fan base thrilled with second place in the NL Central, even if it's only May. That it hit the upper face of the video board while Bryant's own mug was prominently displayed made it a perfect tableau for the 23-year-old fast becoming the face of a franchise completing a makeover of its own.

Pitchers have the upper hand in baseball at the moment. That's one reason up-and-coming sluggers like Bryant and Washington's Bryce Harper — Little League opponents in Las Vegas a dozen years ago — arrive in the majors with more hype than ever.

If the just-ended three-game series matching the two stars were Home Run Derby, it would have ended 2-2. Instead, the surging Nationals took two of three.

Harper, nine months younger, arrived three years earlier and has already established his big league bona fides. Bryant has been there only five-plus weeks — the Cubs left him in the minors until April 17 to delay his free-agent eligibility by a season — but he's making an outsized impression.

Bryant is hitting a solid .275 with a .393 on-base percentage, along with 31 RBIs in 38 games.

Pairing power with discipline at the plate, he makes nearly every at-bat a test of wills. Armed with scouting reports, pitchers offer precious little to hit.

"It's the same game I've played my whole life," Bryant said. "I'm trying to hit it in the air. The pitchers want me to hit it on the ground. Up here, that means adjusting not just at-bat to at-bat, but pitch to pitch."

Across the locker room, veteran teammate Jason Hammel recalled watching Bryant tear through a succession of pitchers in spring training.

"I'd try to figure out how I'd pitch him," he said. "Pretty much the way guys are trying to get him now — sliders, curves, change-ups — basically, spinners.

PHOTO: Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant steps into his home run off Washington Nationals relief pitcher Aaron Barrett  during the eighth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant steps into his home run off Washington Nationals relief pitcher Aaron Barrett during the eighth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

"But he doesn't give in easy," Hammel added a moment later. "Seems like every time I look up, he's on a 3-2 count."

Like every other tool in his bag, Bryant came by his steeliness early. Mike Bryant, his father, recalls Kris banging balls off tees and against the same fences used by the older kids at age 8. Soon after, he sold his furniture business to take a 9-to-5 job and oversee the development of both Kris and older brother Nick.

Mike Bryant, whose own stab at baseball ended after two seasons in the low minors, put up a batting cage with lights in the backyard. Before his stint in the Red Sox organization ended — he hit .204, with four home runs — he had chance to learn the art of batting from Ted Williams himself.

Williams used to work with the minor leaguers, and Bryant distilled that education to a single phrase for his sons: "Hit it hard, and hit it in the air."

"Williams was 50 years ahead of the curve. All the sabermetric measures bear that out now," Mike Bryant said. "Kris swung that way naturally from the start. He was intelligent, very visual and I could talk to him about launch angles and such."

"He understood how the pieces of the swing were connected and how to put them in sequence. Honestly, I wish I had decent videos of his swing when he was 10," he added, "because if you looked at it, it would look very much as it does today."

Bryant shies away from comparisons to Williams.

"People made it sound like my dad said, 'Ted Williams did this or that every minute.' That's overblown," he said. "I watched Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez and lots of other guys, too."

But Bryant doesn't deny he knew by age 12 he was capable of similar — if still pint-sized — feats.

"That's when I started to separate from the other kids. I was bigger. I hit .714, or something like that, and broke the Little League record for home runs. That's when part of me said, 'I might be good enough to play in the major leagues someday.'"

Bryant kept breaking records, won nearly every important award youth baseball offers, and grew to 6-foot-5. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein was looking for a "dynamic" position player when he used the second pick in the draft on Bryant two years ago. Even he's been surprised, though, by how quickly the third baseman has adapted.

"It used to be once around the league before pitchers had enough information to figure out what to throw a hitter. Today, by the time you've gone around the Pacific Coast League once, there's a pretty thorough scouting report," he said. "What's unique about Kris is how fast he picks up on even the subtle changes."

Bryant's low-key demeanor has been almost as impressive. He's so humble he's already getting questions about how he stays that way. Asked whether that towering shot against Barrett and the Nationals was his longest ever, Bryant demurred. Asked whether it was his best since joining the Cubs, he settled instead for calling it the "most meaningful one."

Videos of the home run, the first ever to hit the video board, went viral soon after. Bryant learned about the fuss largely because of a text from his mother.

Maddon, on the other hand, is already planning for the next one.

"We should have somebody program that board to explode," he said. "I think we'll see that a few more times from this kid."

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