CINCINNATI — Kyle Schwarber shouldn’t have to be the savior for this offense, but the rookie carried the Cubs on Tuesday night with two huge swings at Great American Ball Park.
This 5-4 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds took 13 innings, lasted almost five hours and technically ended on Wednesday morning, with Schwarber blasting the game-tying and game-winning home runs, while also guiding seven different pitchers through 54 batters and 209 pitches.
A fraction of the announced crowd (36,845) stuck around until midnight — and who knows how many were from Schwarber’s hometown (Middletown, Ohio) — but it still became a Hollywood ending for the blue-collar catcher who grew up a big Reds fan.
The Cubs already made their splashes with hitters, investing more than $130 million in Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. They used a big trade chip to get Addison Russell and spent first-round picks on Kris Bryant and Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University.
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So the Cubs (50-42) probably have to find the answers from within if they’re going to hang onto the second wild card and fend off the San Francisco Giants (one game out) and New York Mets (two games back).
“You just brought up Schwarbs, and it’s hard to find bats,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A veteran bat? I don’t know even know who that guy is that you might want to pick up. And then if you do, where do you play him?”
“Schwarbs” took a vicious swing in the ninth inning, staring out toward right field before dropping his bat, beginning his home-run trot and reminding you he just might be the big bat the Cubs add before the July 31 trade deadline.
Schwarber fell behind 0-2 against Reds reliever J.J. Hoover, fouled off three more balls and worked a 3-2 count before destroying a 94 mph fastball, the ninth pitch of the at-bat. That two-run shot traveled 424 feet and seemed to disappear onto a party deck.
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Schwarber did it again in the 13th inning, lining Nate Adcock’s slider into the right-field seats, giving him four hits and four RBIs for the night and a 1.183 OPS through his first 11 games in The Show.
“I always said I wanted to be a major-league ballplayer when I was growing up,” Schwarber said at his locker afterward. “I never knew it would come to fruition, but a lot of hard work went into that. Now it’s here. It’s an awesome feeling.
“But I (have to) keep doing my job and earn my way on this team.”
It has to be frustrating for Cubs fans — not to mention Theo Epstein’s front office — to watch a team that leads the National League in strikeouts, hits .228 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on base against the Reds (41-50).
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But it’s not like there’s any quick fix for an offense that was supposed to feel the growing pains this season (and was not banking on down years from Castro and Dexter Fowler).
“Your pitching is always No. 1 to improve,” Maddon said. “If you look at the team on the field, I kind of like it.”
Jason Hammel at least passed the test in his first start since July 8, when he lasted only one inning against the St. Louis Cardinals and left the game with a hamstring issue.
Hammel made it through five innings against the Reds, giving up two runs (one earned) and trusting Schwarber to call the game. Maddon also went out of his way to deflect attention away from the home runs and praise Schwarber’s defensive work.
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“He just never appears to be in trouble,” Maddon said. “He knows what he’s doing at the plate, and now he’s understanding what to do behind the plate.”
The Cubs always thought Schwarber would be on the fast track. But this still would have been hard to predict back in spring training, Schwarber becoming a middle-of-the-order force already at the age of 22, in the middle of a pennant race, while learning how to catch in the big leagues after only 17 games at Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs are waiting to see how Miguel Montero’s sprained left thumb heals, not knowing when the veteran catcher might return. They expect Javier Baez (fractured finger) will accelerate his rehab assignment this week and begin playing games in Arizona, hoping be could develop into an offensive force/defensive spark up the middle (or maybe show he’s healthy enough to be a trade chip).
“You still got Miggy in the wings, hopefully not too long into the future,” Maddon said. “Baez should be getting well relatively soon. There’s other things going on. So I think if you had to look at one thing, you’ll always look to augment the pitching.”
The Cubs are counting on the adrenaline rush and will start Schwarber in Game 1 of Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader.
“Yeah, I’m ready to get back in there and do it all over again,” Schwarber said. “I’m excited for it.”