CHICAGO — Kyle Schwarber played just two games during the Cubs’ 103-victory procession through the National League. An April 7 collision with teammate Dexter Fowler left the 23-year-old slugger with torn ligaments in his left knee, which required surgery that sidelined him for the season.
But the Cubs received an unexpected boost when doctors cleared Schwarber to swing, opening the door for a potential return just in time for the World Series.
“That was really a surprise to me and all of us,” manager Joe Maddon said before Game 6 of the NLCS Saturday, with the Cubs one win away from winning their first pennant since 1945.
Schwarber, 23, was sent to the Arizona Fall League Saturday where he was expected to be the designated hitter for the Mesa Solar Sox. He could be activated in time for the World Series against the Indians, giving the Cubs a potent lefthanded bat to stash away as the designated hitter.
“Playing an American League team in their stadium, being able to utilize a designated hitter and a quality hitter in Schwarber, it would be a big boost for us if he’s ready obviously,” Cubs righthander Jake Arrieta said. “Nobody wants to see a guy as important as Schwarber is to this organization go down again. But if he’s capable, if he’s in a position strength-wise to be able to help us in that situation, obviously that would be huge for our team.”
Schwarber has played leftfield and catcher, though his forte is not on defense. But at the plate, he’s proved that his lefthanded bat can be a force. As a rookie in 2015, he hit 16 homers in 69 regular season games before going on a run in the postseason.
In nine playoff games, Schwarber hit .333/.419/.889 with five homers. He had expected to be a key piece for the Cubs before his knee injury sidelined him in April.
But Schwarber has made steady progress. During this postseason run, he has quietly been gearing up for a last-minute push in hopes of helping the Cubs break their 107-year championship drought.
“He’s in the training room and the weight room three, four hours a day,” Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He wants to get back and be full strength as quick as he possibly can . . . That’s never been a question for us.”
Maddon said he has chatted with Schwarber often because he has been a regular presence in the weight room and training room in recent days.
“So he comes in the dugout and I say man, you look really good, next spring training’s right around the corner, and I’m trying to keep him pumped up about that,” Maddon said. “Then all of a sudden a couple of days ago, he goes for a checkup and the doctor said hey, he can hit.”
In batting practice and in simulated games against living pitching, Schwarber showed enough progress to warrant facing competition in the Arizona Fall League.
“The movement kind of stuff, running and change of direction, has all gone well,” Maddon said. “His arm’s fine. Again, I don’t know to what extent we would be able to use him or not. But right now we’re trying to explore all the possibilities.”
Of course, Schwarber’s ability to come back will depend upon more than his physical state. He must quickly get up to game speed after spending the whole season on the shelf. Even Arrieta acknowledged that Schwarber going from zero to 100 could be a “scary situation.”
“But if he’s ready to go, having that bat, that’s hard to turn away if it’s ready,” Arrieta said.