CLEVELAND — In the course of seven grueling months this year, Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber saved his season by devoting himself to hundreds of joyless tasks just like this one.
So after he scribbled a check for the visiting clubhouse attendant here, he took the extra minute to update his balance. Then he picked up the bulky gray knee brace he wore beneath his uniform pants and shoved it into his duffel bag, stashing away the only evidence of just how close he came to not getting here at all.
“People don’t really realize that what he’s doing is special,” teammate Kris Bryant said Wednesday night. “They’re going to make a movie about him.”
And why not?
The 112th World Series already demanded suspension of reality. It pits the Chicago Cubs against the Cleveland Indians, two of the game’s most star-crossed franchises. Until now, only Hollywood could turn them into winners, playing on the absurdity of chasing championships to create the films “Rookie of the Year” and “Major League.” But Schwarber’s tale is more remarkable. It’s based on true events.
Yes, this already unfathomable Fall Classic could hinge on a 23-year-old with enough determination and audacity to sell some of the smartest people in baseball on a crazy idea, one so outlandish that even he admitted to briefly harboring doubts about it. After missing all but the first three games this season with torn ligaments in his left knee, Schwarber believed he could help the Cubs end more than a century’s worth of darkness, and that he could do so with almost no preparation.
“He’s just fearless,” teammate Ben Zobrist said. “He believes in his swing, believes in his ability. He’s aggressive in the zone, and that’s what makes him so good. He’s proven that. He’s taking tough pitches, too, for such a long layoff.”
‘He hasn’t really missed a beat’
Now the World Series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 tied at one game apiece, partly because Schwarber has defied the bounds of reasonable expectation by reaching base five times in nine plate appearances. In Wednesday night’s 5-1 victory over the Indians, Schwarber went 2-for-4 and knocked in a pair of runs. As he had done the day before, when he collected a hit in his first game back, he did not reveal even trace amounts of rust.
“When you take a lot of time off in the game and you jump right back into it, it’s easy to kind of doubt yourself a little bit, especially in the World Series,” Bryant said. “I’m sure he’s had those feelings. But I’m sure he’s gotten rid of them really quick. He’s had some really good at-bats, really good takes. It just seems like he hasn’t really missed a beat.”
The statistics reflect the extent of his accomplishment. Schwarber has no hits in the regular season, one hit in the Arizona Fall League and three hits in the World Series.
“In this situation, I don’t know anybody has basically sat out all year and then gets put on the playoff roster,” Zobrist said. “Number one, most teams wouldn’t even do that, especially as a hitter. And then on top of that, to actually have quality at-bats and put good swings on them, there’s no one else in history that’s done that, right?”
Doctors have cleared Schwarber to hit, but he has not been cleared to play the field. Because the first two World Series games were played in the American League park, he was able to serve as the designated hitter, but that luxury will disappear now that the National League will host the next three games. That leaves the Cubs hoping Schwarber again can defy expectations by playing in the outfield so his potent bat can stay in the lineup.
Never mind that he hasn’t taken a fly ball in months, or that there was no sign of a glove at his locker. After what they had witnessed, his teammates knew better than to question whether he can do it.
“I’m sure that after these two games that he probably has the confidence to go out there and do it,” Bryant said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
‘Sometimes it’s almost too much’
Schwarber last played the outfield on April 7, when he mangled his left knee in a nasty collision with teammate Dexter Fowler, suffering tears in the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments. It was the Cubs’ third game of the season.
As a rookie, Schwarber hit .246 with 16 homers before going on a memorable playoff surge. But his sophomore season was declared finished before it could really get started.
After shredding his ligaments, Schwarber remained a constant presence around the team. His relentlessness was part of the reason the Cubs drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2014. And after he injured his knee, his desire came spilling out even when he still had trouble straightening his leg.
“Visualization is a very powerful tool,” Schwarber said, “and I believe in that.”
That vision remained uncompromised. While his body required time to begin the road back, his mind did not. Schwarber refused to accept the isolation of the disabled list. He made himself a constant presence at Cubs games, devouring video and scouting reports.
“I’m telling you, I’ve yelled at him at least five or six times asking him what he’s doing going over scouting reports and whatnot,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said. “He’s always watching baseball, watching film. Sometimes it’s almost too much.”
Schwarber’s knee got stronger over time, and he ramped up his work. Pitcher Jake Arrieta saw Schwarber in the weight room “four, five hours a day” and described him as being in a state of “constant sweat.” Manager Joe Maddon called his will to return “insatiable.”
But there were moments of doubt.
“There were days I just wasn’t feeling it,” Schwarber said. “Like I said, my teammates picked me up and I had some guys come over and say to me, ‘World Series, you’re going to be back,’ things like that. I’d just laugh it off. When it came to reality, it was a shock.”
‘It wasn’t on my radar’
For hitters, the typical path back from injury involves a tedious progression. It begins with tracking pitches, then dry swings, underhand tosses, cage work, batting practice, minor-league rehab games and promotion to the big leagues. Every move is carefully choreographed over several weeks.
Schwarber compressed that chain into the space of a few days. He did so with the help of a pitching machine and a stint in the Arizona Fall League. Work began shortly after doctors discovered he had healed faster than expected.
The Cubs were in Los Angeles, locked in a National League Championship Series battle with the Dodgers. Now that he had been cleared to hit, Schwarber convinced the Cubs to give him a shot to make the World Series.
“It wasn’t on my radar screen at all,” said Maddon, who had spent the summer giving Schwarber encouraging words about next year.
Maddon’s tune soon changed, and Schwarber was bound for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League. In his first competition in months, he went 1-for-6 in two games. When he wasn’t playing, he filled the hours by tracking about 1,300 pitches off a machine, hoping that it would speed up the process of regaining his timing.
“He went above and beyond by tracking pitches up against the pitching machine,” Maddon said, “and getting his hands all bloody.”
Barely enough time had passed for Schwarber to assemble any significant body of work. But after the Cubs captured their first pennant since 1945, general manager Theo Epstein sent for Schwarber in a private jet bound for Cleveland.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Bryant said. “I’m sure people expected the world out of him. We knew he’d contribute in some way, and that’s why he’s on the roster. But for him to do it this quickly and have at-bats like that, every at-bat he’s had so far, he’s worked the count. He’s got a couple of walks, some big hits. It’s impressive.”
‘He’s just that good of a hitter’
There is no substitute for real pitching. No machine has settings to simulate Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller or Trevor Bauer. But when he encountered the real thing, Schwarber went beyond holding his own. He inflicted damage.
“How do you square it up like that when you’re facing this quality of pitching?” Zobrist said. “I feel like when I go into spring training every year, every ball going past me is 115 mph. To see the ball and be able to square it up like that, he’s just that good of a hitter.”
Kluber was nearly untouchable in Game 1 for Cleveland, but that didn’t stop Schwarber from lacing a double halfway up the rightfield wall. He’d later battle Miller tough on the way to finishing 1-for-3 with a walk. Game 2 proved even better. He used the occasion to prove he would be a force.
The Cubs showed their confidence in Schwarber in the third inning, when he laced a run-scoring single to centerfield to give them a 2-0 lead. Ahead in the count 3-and-0, Schwarber got the green light and connected to drive in Rizzo. Schwarber pumped his fist and looked straight into the Cubs’ dugout, which was brimming with joy.
“To swing 3-0 there, too?” Bryant said. “Not too many guys have the guts to do that.”
Schwarber struck again in the fifth, sending Bryan Shaw’s 95- mph heater straight up the middle to drive in Zobrist. He reached base for a third time with a sixth-inning walk against Danny Salazar.
By the eighth inning, Schwarber had long obliterated any doubt about the trust in his batting eye. When he struck out looking, frozen by Dan Otero’s fastball over the outer edge of the plate, Schwarber glared at plate umpire Chris Guccione.
Then he raced to the video room to watch the at-bat. Only then did he acknowledge that it was “like a centimeter off the plate,” a pitcher’s pitch.
“I can see why Theo sent a plane for him,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I would, too.”
‘The most amazing part’
For all of its physical rigors, the grind of the season also provides comfort through routine. From repetition comes protection from anxiety, the kind that would derail most others attempting to hit after months of inactivity.
Schwarber could be forgiven for giving in to what Bryant called the temptation of “wanting to go up there and swing and do too much.” Instead, he has laid off tough pitches, displaying a level of judgment that usually is honed during the course of a long summer.
“That’s probably the most amazing part,” Maddon said. “Hitting the ball is one thing. You can see he’s not jumpy. He’s seeing borderline pitches, staying off a ball, he’s not check-swinging and offering. That’s the part that’s really impressive to me.”
As the Cubs gathered their belongings after Game 2, Schwarber spoke openly of the scene if he somehow pushed his way into the lineup on Friday night, when Wrigley Field will host a World Series game for the first time in more than seven decades. At the very least, a 103-win team seeking its first world championship since 1908 will regain a dangerous pinch hitter.
“I know it’s the biggest stage,” Rizzo said. “But you just miss the game so much when it’s taken away from you, you’re just happy to be playing.”
For the Indians, this makes Schwarber an especially dangerous man, one playing with the freedom of knowing he has done all he can to be prepared. The Cubs couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“Hey, man, I’m living the dream,” Schwarber said. “What else can you ask for? I’m just going to keep riding the wave until it ends.”
Kyle Schwarber has the highest postseason OPS ever among players with at least 40 postseason plate appearances:
Kyle Schwarber, Cubs 1.274
Willie Aikens, Royals1.215
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1.214
Babe Ruth, Red Sox, Yankees1.214
Source: ESPN Stats & Information