Kyle Schwarber gave Cubs the shot in the arm they needed


Kyle Schwarber gave Cubs the shot in the arm they needed

Kyle Schwarber looked like the first and only player in the visiting clubhouse on Sunday morning, at home in front of a video station at a time when the entire coaching staff hadn’t even shown up and dressed yet.

Schwarber had dodged the beer can thrown in his direction the night before at U.S. Cellular Field, a welcome-to-Chicago moment in the Cubs-White Sox rivalry.

“It looks like he’s done it before,” manager Joe Maddon joked. “Tough crowds at Indiana University.”

Schwarber played his final game for the Hoosiers on June 2 last year, or three days before the Cubs made him the fourth overall pick in a draft that was supposed to revolve around three high-profile pitchers (including White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon).

A below-slot deal – Schwarber got a $3.125 million signing bonus – fueled a perception the Cubs might have reached for a designated hitter and wanted to save money to take chances on pitchers in later rounds.

[MORE: Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason]

Here are the numbers Schwarber put up at five different minor-league affiliates – .333 average, 34 homers, 102 RBI, 1.042 OPS in 147 games – while convincing Theo Epstein’s front office that he has what it takes to catch in the big leagues.

Where would the Cubs be without Schwarber now?

When Miguel Montero sprained his thumb in the second-to-last game before the All-Star break, the Cubs were on their way to a 5-1 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field that left them at 46-40, or 5.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and in the second wild-card position, two games in front of the San Francisco Giants.

It’s not all Schwarber – everything starts with pitching and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo will be in the MVP discussion – but since then the Cubs have seen their playoff odds jump from 63.3 percent to 88.1 percent on FanGraphs after winning 15 of their last 17 games.

Montero’s injury created an opportunity for Schwarber, who now has eight homers in 112 at-bats, 27 RBI and 28 runs scored in 34 games, a .400 on-base percentage, a 1.008 OPS with runners in scoring position and that internal drive to prove people wrong.

“I’m just trying to keep my head buried,” Schwarber said. “Once I start pressing and try to do things I can’t control, that’s when I start getting into slumps or start being a bad teammate. It’s all about being a good teammate and helping the team win.”

Schwarber’s presence has helped leadoff guy Dexter Fowler become an offensive catalyst and taken some of the pressure off Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler while those rookies seemed to be fading or trying to make adjustments.

[RELATED: Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power]

Schwarber’s versatility has given Maddon more options, allowing the Cubs to reshape their team defensively with the shakeup that benched shortstop Starlin Castro. (David Ross joked that Schwarber should have brought his catcher’s mask and helmet out to left field against the White Sox.)

Schwarber’s energy – he was a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school – has rubbed off on a Cubs team (67-49) that kicked back on Monday’s off-day with the fourth-best record in the majors (and a third-place spot in a rugged division).

“We got a long way to go,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Their poise will be tested, (but) it’s been a fun run with these young guys. I feel like Kyle really gave us a shot in the arm at the right time. As he’s gotten hot and produced, I think some of the other young guys have taken a step forward as well.”

The Cubs still have 46 games left, and every pitch should matter from here until October. It’s hard to believe this is still Schwarber’s first full season in professional baseball.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“He’s super-super-talented,” said Ross, the backup catcher who made his big-league debut 13 years ago. “I’m actually having to tell him to pump the brakes: ‘Hey, relax. Don’t work so hard.’

“He’s going to be good for a long time. He’s got all the intangibles that you need. His work ethic is great. He can hit. He keeps himself in good shape. He’s strong. He’s got a good mind. He asks all the right questions. He wants to be good at the little things, too, which is important.

“If there are some rookies you have to worry about, he ain’t one of ‘em. We had to rein him back in. The other day I saw him catching a bullpen and I said: ‘Schwarbs, hey, calm down, man. We’re in August. It’s 90 degrees. Save it.’”

Major League Baseball unveiled its postseason schedule on Monday, lining up the National League’s wild-card game for Oct. 7. If the Cubs get there, it will be with a 22-year-old rookie who was playing for advanced Class-A Daytona at this time last year.

“We’re all here to win,” Schwarber said. “If we get to the real thing, we have veterans like David Ross and Jon Lester, guys that have been there before. They’re there to help control the nerves and (can) prepare us for what’s ahead.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey


Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”