Kris Bryant stood 20 feet to the right of the on-deck circle, laser-focused on getting the timing down for a pitcher with whom he was quite familiar.
Paul Sewald had talked candidly before Friday night’s Mets-Cubs game at Citi Field about how he’d prefer to face Bryant, his old college teammate, in a low-leverage situation. Sewald had said, “Hopefully I can face Kris with nobody on so we can have some fun with it.”
It didn’t work out that way. With Ben Zobrist in scoring position, Bryant ripped Sewald’s first pitch to him for a single to rightfield, driving in Zobrist and giving the Cubs a one-run lead in the seventh inning en route to a 7-4 victory.
Despite the familiarity between friends, Sewald said he’s not sure how to pitch Bryant, a decision even the best pitchers in baseball struggle with. A fastball down the middle Friday certainly wasn’t the right way.
Before Friday, golf buddies Sewald and Bryant had gone toe-to-toe only once in the majors, just a few months after Sewald made his debut. With the Cubs ahead 4-3 in the top of the sixth inning at Citi Field on June 14, 2017, Sewald got Bryant to ground out to deep shortstop. Sewald also got Bryant to fly out in an exhibition game in March 2016.
“We always go back and forth, and going back to college, too,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a lot of intrasquad games against each other, so honestly when I face him, it’s almost like an intrasquad game in college again, and that’s how I approach it.”
Sewald, 28, said before the game that he doesn’t want to take many chances against the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
“I’ve gotten him twice in professional baseball so far, but if I could eliminate as many opportunities against him, that’d be better,” Sewald said. “But I’m going to give him my best stuff, and he’s going to bring it, so it should be a fun matchup.”
Sewald was all smiles before the game, beaming while recalling his formative years in Las Vegas playing alongside and against future National League MVPs Bryant and Bryce Harper.
Bryant, who won the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year award, the 2016 National League MVP award and the 2016 World Series as a member of the Cubs, is a close friend of Sewald’s — but that doesn’t mean the righthander was anxious to pitch to him with the Cubs in town for a four-game series.
“I would like to have friends who aren’t quite as good as him and Bryce, but obviously it’s fun,” Sewald joked. “It takes us back to being in Little League when we had to face each other, then in high school and college. To face each other on a stage like a major-league game is a lot of fun.”
Bryant and Harper always seemed to be on the fast track to the majors, “but me, not so much,” Sewald quipped. He said he could always tell that his childhood friends were destined for success at the highest level, and Bryant already has established himself as one of the game’s foremost sluggers in only his fourth season.
He’s a prodigious home run hitter who gets on base consistently and hits for a respectable average, the trifecta for top-shelf hitters in today’s game. These are traits that Sewald saw when the two were teammates at the University of San Diego — he said Bryant widened his stance and cut down on his strikeouts after his freshman season — and his rise to stardom hasn’t come as a surprise.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, the Cubs opted to send Bryant to the minors despite an eye-popping spring training so they could gain an extra year of control over their burgeoning star. Bryant made his debut on April 17, 2015, and immediately produced upon getting the call, slugging 26 home runs in his rookie campaign.
Since Bryant’s arrival, the wave of young talent has continued. Lineups continue to get younger, and Bryant’s Cubs exemplify that trend with a starting lineup that consistently features seven players south of 30 (Zobrist, 37, being the main exception).
Bryant’s meteoric rise may have paved the way for a youth movement, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily just about how I went about it,” said Bryant, who is primarily a third baseman but also has seen significant time in the outfield. “I think the game is kind of changing now. It’s going more and more young. You see that with the free-agent classes and teams just avoiding some of the older guys, which I don’t necessarily agree with by any means. You need older guys on the team for that veteran presence and the experience to help the younger guys. For me, it was the perfect combination of both, me being young and having a lot of older guys that I could lean on and rely on and learn from.”
Mentors such as David Ross, who retired after the 2016 season, helped guide Bryant, who said he doesn’t consider himself a veteran presence just yet. Part of his success, he said, is that his approach remains consistent.
“I try to be the same guy every day, the same guy I was when I first got here,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe in changing who you are fundamentally as a baseball player or as a person because you have a certain status now or any of that. I just like to be myself.”
The 13 active major leaguers who played high school ball in Las Vegas:
BISHOP GORMAN HIGH
Johnny Field, OF, Rays
Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
Joey Rickard, OF, Orioles
Paul Sewald, RHP, Mets
Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Chasen Shreve, LHP, Yankees
LAS VEGAS HIGH
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
Erick Fedde, RHP, Nationals
Chase Bradford, RHP, Mariners
Drew Robinson, OF, Rangers
OTHER LV HIGH SCHOOLS
Tyler Anderson, LHP, Rockies
Brandon Kintzler, RHP, Nationals
Tommy Pham, OF, Cardinals