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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Cubs take safe route with Kyle Schwarber despite high stakes

Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber walks out to the

Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber walks out to the field to work out for Friday's Game 3 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the Cleveland Indians, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Chicago. Photo Credit: AP / Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO

The World Series took a break Thursday at Wrigley Field. The nonstop conversation about Kyle Schwarber, and the questions regarding his ability to play the outfield for the Cubs in Game 3, most certainly did not.

Somehow, it took a whole three minutes before Joe Maddon was asked about the possibility of seeing Schwarber, fresh off his two-game stint as the Cubs’ DH, patrolling leftfield Friday night. Shortly afterward, all eyes followed Schwarber from the batting cage as he grabbed a glove and headed toward the ivy-draped walls.

Could it be? Was this the long-anticipated audition for a full-time gig in the Cubs’ lineup during the next three games of this series?

Schwarber already had made us believe anything was possible by needing only two days in the Arizona Fall League to shake off the rust of nearly a full season spent rehabbing from a surgically repaired left knee. Surely he could stand in leftfield for a few innings, perhaps wreck the Indians with a few at-bats, then safely be removed for a defensive replacement?

The answer, however, turned out to be an unequivocal no.

No permitting him to test his brace-supported knee by chasing after a few fly balls. No waiting to see how he feels when he wakes up Saturday. No revisiting the topic another day or two later. Cubs general manager Theo Epstein chose to obliterate any of that suspense by following the medical staff’s advice and declaring that Schwarber will be limited to pinch-hitting duties during the games at Wrigley.

Said Epstein: “Medically, the doctors were very convinced that there’s just too much risk in playing the outfield because of the dynamic actions involved — the instantaneous reactions, the need to cut in the outfield, the dynamic, athletic movements that are unanticipated in the outfield, your instinct in reacting to balls — that just aren’t the case when you’re running the bases.”

That had to be tough for the Cubbies to swallow, from Epstein to Maddon to Schwarber himself. Not only does Schwarber possess freakish power, but his recovery skills are off the charts. How else can anyone explain what he’s done in the first two games of this series? He produced two RBI singles, a double off the rightfield wall and a pair of walks — including one off Andrew Miller — in nine plate appearances after not having a major-league at-bat since April 7, the day of his injury.

It defies logic. And those types of players, the true difference-makers, tend to make the people in charge a little nuts. That’s why they ask for second and third opinions, look for loopholes, maybe put too much on the player’s shoulders. Management usually pushes to get a player like Schwarber on the field, often when the risk might be a bit high.

But despite the enormous stakes, the Cubs didn’t go that route. Has any team faced more pressure than trying to win a World Series for the first time since 1908? We’d have to say no. Yet Epstein was completely transparent about Schwarber’s health, cited the two doctors involved in his case, and had no problem relegating him to the bench, where he’ll get one at-bat max each game rather than the three or four chances that come with playing the field.

Signing off on Schwarber to hit was described by Epstein as an “aggressive clearance,” so he understood why the docs had to draw the line Thursday. Anyone who remembers Schwarber’s leftfield follies against the Mets in last year’s NLCS knows he’s not a very good defender. Given that he currently is playing on a surgically repaired knee, the Cubs would be gambling with even more than the 23-year-old’s health by letting him test it in a World Series game. This way, they can be satisfied that it’s the most prudent course of action and lean on an everyday lineup that won 103 games without Schwarber during the regular season.

“There is just too much risk associated with playing the field at this time,” Epstein said, “and we have to look out for Kyle’s long-term interests.”

Obviously, it’s a buzzkill. Simply watching Schwarber spray drives halfway up the Wrigley bleachers, as he did during Thursday’s batting practice, is entertaining. For as little as we’ve seen of Schwarber, it’s only natural to want more. The Cubs definitely do. But even Schwarber is only human.

“Facts are facts,” he said. “I just can’t physically do it.”

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