DENVER — Sitting beneath a patio umbrella on a brilliant blue Monday afternoon just outside Coors Field, Chicago Cubs All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant’s face brightened when the topic changed from the trade rumors swirling around him to his former college hitting coach and recruiter, new LSU coach Jay Johnson.
The way Bryant tells it, he wouldn’t have been sitting there if it weren’t for many of the things he learned under Johnson at the University of San Diego.
“I can’t say enough about Jay,” said Bryant, who played Tuesday in his fourth All-Star game since being called up to the majors in 2015. “I would not be here as an All-Star or in the World Series or any of that without him.
“He had so much influence on my whole career — hitting, fielding. There’s a ton of drills I still do that he mentioned to me when I was in college.”
Bryant was a superb prospect growing up in Las Vegas and was selected in the 18th round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. But he cast his lot with the University of San Diego, hardly a national collegiate baseball power at the time, thanks in large part to Johnson’s dogged recruitment.
“I met Jay when I was a sophomore in high school,” Bryant said. “It was just the amount of interest he showed in me from the get-go. I was a good player, but there still was a lot to learn. He told me, ‘You’re going to play every single game in college. You’re our guy.’
“It was the way he approached the game and his philosophy, how laid back and calm but how smart and intense he was.”
Bryant would go on to be the No. 2 overall pick by the Cubs in the 2013 draft after a brilliant collegiate career with the Toreros.
He was a freshman All-American in 2011, hitting .365 with nine home runs and 36 RBIs. He was a first-team All-American in 2012, batting .366 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs. As a junior, Bryant led NCAA Division I with 31 home runs, hitting .329 with 62 RBIs. He won the Golden Spikes and Dick Howser awards, given annually to the college player of the year.
Johnson, who took the LSU job in June after leading Arizona to a second College World Series appearance in five seasons, built his reputation as a hitting coach. Johnson’s Wildcats ranked first in Division I this season in triples, second in doubles, fourth in hits, fifth in runs and seventh in batting average.
Just before his first college game in 2011 against Vanderbilt, Bryant said Johnson came up to him and suggested he make a change in his stance at the plate.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you widen your stance out? Let’s see what this does,’” Bryant said. “He said, ‘I think you’ll get to the lower pitch better and still cover the top (of the strike zone). It really worked.”
It still does. Bryant is a career .280 hitter, currently batting .271 with 16 homers, 17 doubles and 46 RBIs. Those numbers and his free agency at the end of this season have made him a hot potential trade commodity with the June 30 deadline approaching.
On the field it wasn't a memorable All-Star showing for Bryant. He came off the bench to replace the Cincinnati Reds' Jesse Winkler in the sixth inning and had the bases loaded with two outs but struck out. Remarkably, Bryant faced the same situation in the eighth. He swung on a 3-0 count but was victimized by an artistic sliding catch by Los Angeles Angels' left fielder Jared Walsh. The American League went on to a 5-2 victory, its eighth straight All-Star Game win.
Wherever Bryant plays the rest of this season and next, he won’t have forgotten what Johnson meant to his career when he steps into the batter's box. He is confident Johnson has some bright days ahead of him in his career at LSU.
“I’m so happy for him,” Bryant said. “I think LSU has an unbelievable coach, one who doesn’t really get a lot of credit.”
Perhaps that is about to change.