LAS VEGAS -- Paul Sewald stifled a laugh as Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant walked to the plate Thursday and a sold-out crowd serenaded him. Under normal circumstances, a Minor League reliever such as Sewald might quiver at the prospect of facing Bryant, the National League's reigning Rookie of the Year Award winner and, at age 24, already one of Major League Baseball's foremost sluggers.
Yet for Sewald, this wasn't intimidating. It was funny. Sewald and Bryant have been friends since Little League -- "he was already better than everyone else," the pitcher recalled -- and became college teammates at the University of San Diego. They remain golf buddies to this day. So when Bryant stepped to the plate amidst the crowd's adulation, booming the first pitch he saw for a deep flyout to Cashman Field's center-field swell, Sewald couldn't help but laugh.
"I didn't really appreciate that the crowd loved him way more than they loved me," he joked afterward. "Everyone got really excited. I just tried to keep my emotions in check and tried not to laugh, seeing him at the plate. It was fun to get to face him."
In so many ways, this was Bryant's day -- local kid comes home to share his successes with the community that raised him. But that could not obscure the fact that for Sewald, too, this was a homecoming. A Las Vegas native just like Bryant, Sewald estimates he had 10 family members and another 20 to 30 acquaintances in attendance Thursday for the first of two Mets exhibitions against the Cubs.
Sewald also received an ovation from those folks, even if it couldn't match Bryant's for decibels.
"It was unbelievable getting to pitch in front of the home crowd, my family, my girlfriend," said Sewald, who did not officially hear until Thursday morning that he would start in place of Jacob deGrom, who remained back in Florida to be close to his expectant wife. "Tons of friends came out, and it was amazing to get to pitch so well, and get to have that kind of audience."
Consider it the first of what should be many similar moments this summer for Sewald, who will open his season at Triple-A Las Vegas. Not since high school has Sewald pitched regularly in his hometown -- though he still spends his offseasons here golfing with Bryant, who calls him "an unbelievable person" and "one of the most underrated prospects in all of baseball."
Statistics suggest the Cubs slugger may have a point. A former 10th-round pick who saved 24 games with a 1.75 ERA for Double-A Binghamton last season, Sewald has reason to hope his homecoming in Vegas will be brief. That he pitched three shutout innings with three strikeouts against the Cubs only bolstered Sewald's confidence that his next meeting with Bryant could come at Wrigleyville or Flushing.
"It gives me a ton of confidence that I can get outs at the Major League level," Sewald said. "I've had a little bit of success in the last couple of outings in Major League camp before I went down to Minor League camp, and got my confidence up a little bit. I started to feel like I have everything going heading into the season. Then to face one of the best lineups in baseball and throw like that is obviously just a huge confidence boost."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.