Cubs

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo smashes out of slump with the help of Matt Szczur's special bat

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo smashes out of slump with the help of Matt Szczur's special bat

LOS ANGELES - In a moment straight out of "The Natural," Anthony Rizzo needed a bat and picked out a good one.

Matt Szczur played the role of bat boy in this story, but the ending was the same: a big-time home run.

Rizzo had been scuffling in a major way throughout the postseason, going just 2-for-26 in seven games leading up to Wednesday's Game 4 at Dodger Stadium.

One of those hits was a broken bat single in the ninth inning of Game 3 Tuesday night.

Rizzo used a new bat for his first two plate appearances in Game 4 and wound up striking out in both.

So he turned to Szczur's bat for some luck in the fifth inning.

"I knew he had it when he got in the box and I looked at Tommy La Stella and said, "Watch, he's gonna get a knock right now.' And then he hit the homer," Szczur said.

Szczur played in 107 games with the Cubs in the regular season, but didn't make the postseason roster for either the NLDS or NLCS. The Cubs have still had him travel to all the games and his impact showed up in a big way Wednesday night.

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Rizzo followed that homer with a pair of singles and suddenly bumped his postseason batting average up to .161 after that .077 start.

Rizzo has used Szczur's bat at various times throughout the season and that particular piece of lumber has been in game circulation for three years, something Szczur was hesitant to talk about and potentially jinx.

Rizzo - who beat cancer as a teenagerin the Boston Red Sox system - saw a feature Wednesday on Szczur donating bone marrow to a young girl in the Ukraine right after college.

"I've done it a few times, especially later on in the year," Rizzo said. "The first two at-bats weren't so hot. Szcz came out today with a nice feature on him about him giving his bone marrow, so all the things were just adding up. 

"I hit well with his bat, so he has hits in it. Same size, just different model and different name, and it worked."

The Cubs offense badly needed Rizzo to get hot in the middle of a lineup that set a new franchise record with 21 straight scoreless innings before the fourth inning Wednesday night.

Szczur is a good-natured guy who didn't seem to take the decision to leave him off the playoff roster personally. He's been at every workout, sim game and pregame batting practice with a smile on his face.

"He contributes way more [than a bat]," Kris Bryant said. "Anthony likes to use his bat here and there. I even used it at one point this year and I got a hit out of it. Any time you can take hits from other guys and they're gonna give 'em to you, you take 'em.

"Some guys that aren't on the roster, they're all here and supporting us and that's huge for us. They've been here all year."

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.