PHILADELPHIA – The Cubs hoped Kyle Schwarber would create energy and become a middle-of-the-order force, pushing teammates with his all-out style.
Schwarber is still only in his first full season of professional baseball – not there yet as an in-your-face clubhouse leader – but he is definitely back and ready to bash his way into October.
The Cubs made Kris Bryant a face of the franchise from the moment they drafted him No. 2 overall in 2013, believing his cool exterior and internal drive would help him withstand the enormous pressure in this market.
It would be a huge upset if Bryant doesn’t become the National League’s Rookie of the Year.
The Cubs are now on pace for 95 wins after Friday’s doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Schwarber announced his return with authority, crushing two home runs in a 7-3 Game 2 victory. Bryant went 5-for-10 combined, hit his 24th homer and drove in four more runs, setting a new rookie franchise record with 90 RBI.
“You would think maybe they would take a step back here or there,” said Kyle Hendricks (7-6, 4.08 ERA), the winning pitcher in Game 2. “But they just keep hitting. It’s fun to watch. Especially for how young they are – (to) produce like this – it’s unbelievable.”
Schwarber blasted Alec Asher’s 91-mph first-pitch fastball out onto the center-field concourse in the first inning. Schwarber again jumped Asher – who spent most of the season on the Triple-A level – by driving a first-pitch slider into the left-center field seats for a two-run homer in the second inning.
Schwarber got his uniform dirty…wiping out as he turned at first base. He looked back, picked himself up off the ground and smiled as he jogged toward home plate. Teammates pointed and laughed from the dugout.
“A lot of snipers,” Schwarber said. “I tried to do the safe sign and I had to get up and run.”
“He crushes ‘em,” Bryant said. “It’s fun watching him. I mean, he fell rounding first base. It’s just like we’re so young and we don’t really care about anything.
“That’s just what we do.”
The Cubs held a 10-game lead over the San Francisco Giants for the second wild card while the defending World Series champs played on the West Coast late Friday night. Heading into next week’s showdown at PNC Park, the Cubs now trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by only two games for home-field advantage in that wild-card playoff.
“The consensus around here – everybody’s thinking about October,” Hendricks said. “We’re that close. We can smell it. You never want to take anything for granted, of course, but we’re in a good spot. And we’re all looking forward to it.”
Schwarber is a huge reason why the Cubs (82-58) caught fire in the second half. Since the All-Star break, he’s generated 14 homers, 35 RBI and 38 runs scored.
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More than that, Schwarber has been a shot of adrenaline for this team. He slammed headfirst into the Budweiser sign on the left-field wall, making a running catch in the second inning to rob Ryan Howard.
Schwarber didn’t slip in the fifth inning, showing off his speed by scoring from first base on Chris Coghlan’s double off the wall in left-center field.
The biggest takeaway: Schwarber didn’t look bothered by the strained rib cage that sidelined him for almost a week. He also didn’t show any signs of rust after Wednesday’s 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Just more comfortable in the box,” Schwarber said. “I didn’t have any doubts. That first game back, obviously, I was upset with it. But it was also encouraging knowing that I wasn’t having any side effects.”
Bryant has found a way to ride out all the ups and downs and get locked in with runners in scoring position, hitting .304 with a .932 OPS in those clutch situations.
“When there’s people on base, he becomes an even better hitter,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s been obvious from the beginning of the year. You get guys with that kind of mentality, it makes all the difference in the world.”
The Cubs trail the Cardinals by six games in the division and have 22 left in a season so far defined by this accelerated youth movement.
“This feels like it’s always a playoff game,” Schwarber said, “even though the atmosphere in the first game wasn’t like it. But we were treating it as if it’s a playoff game. We’re trying to get the wild card at our place or catch the Cardinals.”