SAN FRANCISCO – No, Kyle Schwarber didn’t see himself in the big leagues this quickly, kick-starting a Cubs team that’s on pace to win around 95 games and looking like an October fixture for years to come.
But Schwarber’s rapid development mirrors what’s happening with the red-hot Cubs, the latest highlight-reel clip coming during Tuesday night’s 8-5 win over the San Francisco Giants in front of another sellout crowd at AT&T Park.
For all the questions about whether or not Schwarber would stick at catcher, the Cubs always knew the dude could hit (and get by in left field). There was Schwarber with two outs in the third inning, blasting a Matt Cain slider into the right-center field seats for a three-run homer and a 3-0 lead over the defending World Series champs.
At this time last year, Schwarber won the Florida State League Hitter of the Week award with advanced Class-A Daytona, the third affiliate he played for during his first season in professional baseball.
Schwarber then went to Arizona for crash courses in catching, strength-and-conditioning minicamps and big-league spring training. He didn’t stop at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, putting up 16 homers, 49 RBI and a 1.022 OPS in 75 games combined.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Schwarber became the first Cubs player within the modern era (since 1900) to hit 12 home runs within his first 42 career games.
The day before, Schwarber had gone 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians during a walk-off win at Wrigley Field. The bigger point is that Schwarber knows he’s here to stay.
“Finally, I’m not living out of the truck anymore,” Schwarber said. “I finally got a place (in Chicago) and put all my stuff in the apartment. It’s been a whirlwind. It’s probably a good thing, because I haven’t been able to stop and think about what’s happened.
“I’m always trying to keep my head in baseball. I’m always just trying to think: What’s the next step? What do I got to do to get better every day? If there’s a baseball game on, I’m watching (it).”
Schwarber now has 11 homers and 29 RBI since the All-Star break. Not bad for someone who took a below-slot deal coming out of Indiana University, feeding into the perception the Cubs reached with last year’s No. 4 overall pick.
“For us, it was a no-brainer that he was our guy,” said Jason McLeod, the executive who oversees scouting and player development. “At the time, we had some of the baseball experts say: ‘Oh, that was an overdraft.’ You guys read it. We got second-guessed and questioned about the pick.
“It goes back to who he is as a person, as a leader, as a teammate making other people around him better. (Plus) – and I said it the day we drafted him (while) talking to the press – we felt he was the best offensive player in that draft. Period.
“I couldn’t have written this script, but I couldn’t be happier for (the) guy.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs couldn’t afford to whiff on that decision. Just look at how the Giants used the draft to identify foundation pieces for three World Series winners, using first-round picks on Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey and Joe Panik between 2002 and 2011.
For perspective, here’s the lineup Rick Renteria – the manager at the time – put together on the day the Cubs drafted Schwarber last year:
Junior Lake, LF
Justin Ruggiano, CF
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Starlin Castro, SS
Luis Valbuena, 3B
Nate Schierholtz, RF
Darwin Barney, 2B
Eli Whiteside, C
Travis Wood, P
The Schwarber Effect doesn’t explain everything – the Cubs have clearly upgraded their talent across the board and benefited from Joe Maddon’s presence in the clubhouse and the dugout – but this team has now won 21 of its last 25 games.
“That’s the bottom line – he can play ball,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “Being in college last year, and all of a sudden being in The Show, and hitting laser beams all over the yard, it’s pretty impressive to watch. He’s got a good attitude, too. He’s keeping it level and taking it in stride.”
The Cubs began the day with Baseball Prospectus giving them a 95-percent chance to make the playoffs and they now have a 7.5-game lead over the Giants for the second wild card.
But Schwarber isn’t wired to go into cruise control, not when he can still hear the draft gurus/doubters.
“People in life are always going to say: ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that,’” Schwarber said. “It’s just a little extra something to wake you up in the morning and be thankful to come to the ballpark every day. It’s a lot of fun to be up here. (But) we still got a lot of work to do.”