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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Kyle Schwarber returns early, healthy and ready to do damage

Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber makes his way to

Chicago Cubs' Kyle Schwarber makes his way to batting practice before Game 1 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the Cleveland Indians Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Photo Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

CLEVELAND

Fresh off the private jet, and into the fire. Welcome to the World Series, Kyle Schwarber, who got a rude introduction to the mind-bending slider of Andrew Miller during his two meetings with the Indians’ lethal reliever during Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night. And if not for maybe a millimeter or two, Schwarber might have changed the course of the Cubs’ 6-0 loss at Progressive Field.

As it was, Schwarber stepped into an almost impossible situation. After nearly six months on the shelf following knee surgery, and only two days to prep in the Arizona Fall League, Schwarber was flown to Cleveland to be the Cubs’ DH in the Series opener, batting fifth against Indians ace Corey Kluber.

It was a historic assignment, never before attempted. But in his second at-bat, Schwarber ripped a double against Kluber that caromed halfway up the rightfield wall. Later, he twice came to the plate in pivotal spots, once as the tying run, and both times staring back at Miller, the ALCS MVP and this month’s most dominant pitcher.

In the seventh inning, after a leadoff double by Ben Zobrist, Indians manager Terry Francona quickly called on Miller to replace Kluber, no doubt his rocket double still ringing in Tito’s ears. Schwarber battled Miller for a six-pitch walk, but the Cubs, who trailed 3-0 at the time, couldn’t capitalize after loading the bases with none out.

The next matchup was in the eighth, with two on and two outs. Schwarber worked the count to 2-and-2, taking a massive cut at a slider for the second strike. When Miller came back with another slider, Schwarber again swung through, narrowly whiffing on what has been the most dangerous weapon this postseason.

“I just tipped it,” Schwarber said. “I just missed it. That’s a good pitch. It’s a plus-plus pitch for a reason.”

That slider has helped Miller to 24 strikeouts in 13 2⁄3 scoreless innings during these playoffs, so there was no shame on Schwarber’s part, especially after what he went through just to be in uniform Tuesday night. Schwarber tore up his knee in the Cubs’ third game of the regular season, on a collision with Dexter Fowler, and was told the injury was season-ending.

But Schwarber, a self-proclaimed “baseball rat,” devoured video during his rehab and finally reached the point where the team’s medical staff cleared him to start hitting only six days before the start of the World Series. When Schwarber got the green light, he appealed to the Cubs for the dream shot, as improbable as it sounded, and made a believer of Miller, too

“You hope that somebody like that maybe is having to cheat for balls or guess or something,” Miller said. “But his first at-bat was real good. I don’t think we can write him off as somebody that’s rusty or not ready to play. It’s impressive. You tip your cap.”

Once Schwarber joined up with the Mesa Solar Sox, he tracked roughly 1,300 pitches on the machine during his two-day visit. Schwarber said he dialed it up to the “nastiest setting” in order to simulate crazy breaking balls, the better to rapidly retrain his eyesight. When asked after Tuesday night’s loss how Miller’s slider compared to the machine, Schwarber paused for a moment, then smiled.

“He’s pretty good,” Schwarber said. “That’s good stuff.”

And Schwarber still gave Miller all he could handle. His double off Kluber was his first hit in 371 days, and that turned out to be a decent tuneup for the key at-bats that followed, even if that last one didn’t produce the desired result. Both Theo Epstein and Cubs manager Joe Maddon activated Schwarber after watching his video footage from those two AFL games and his performance didn’t surprise them.

“I thought the bat speed looked good,” Maddon said. “You could see on the finish sometimes maybe the [knee] brace grabs him a little bit. Otherwise, there was no kind of negative atmosphere surrounding his at-bats. I thought they were outstanding, actually.”

Just not good enough for Schwarber to prevent the Cubs from dropping Game 1. Perhaps that was a bit too much to ask.

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Deep Threat

Kyle Schwarber hasn’t been around long, but he entered Game 1 of the World Series as the Cubs’ all-time home run leader in the postseason. The most powerful Cubs:

HRs Postseason games

*Kyle Schwarber 5 9

*Anthony Rizzo 419

Aramis Ramirez 418

Alex Gonzalez 4 12

Frank Demaree312

*Last night’s game not included

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