Cubs

Szczur plans to get on the fast track with Cubs

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Szczur plans to get on the fast track with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. Thirteen months ago, Matt Szczur was training for the NFL combine at a facility in Boca Raton, Fla. Jim Hendry flew down from Chicago to watch him work out and the two went to dinner at a nearby Mortons steakhouse.

The Cubs had selected Szczur in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, and he got a taste that summer, playing 25 games of Class-A ball that began with a 21-game hitting streak.

It was fun, but Szczur (pronounced Caesar) had already won a national championship at Villanova University in 2009, and some NFL team figured to draft him as a wide receiver who could line up at running back and return punts and kickoffs.

I didnt think I was playing baseball at all, Szczur said Saturday, sitting in front of his locker at Fitch Park. I had no thought in my mind I was playing baseball.

Szczur got high marks for his character. He had donated his bone marrow to an infant with leukemia in the spring of 2010. She only had a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match, but still survived.

The Cubs general manager at the time had to own some bad contracts. That overshadowed how creative Hendry could be as a dealmaker, the loyalty and trust that he could build up across the table.

Greg Maddux could have any job he wanted in baseball, but he once decided to be a special assistant to Hendry. Kerry Wood had just given Hendry a hometown discount.

Several players Hendry closed on last August when he already knew he was fired were scheduled to begin a minicamp on Saturday at HoHoKam Stadium, among them: Shawon Dunston Jr.; Javier Baez; Daniel Vogelbach; and Dillon Maples, all part of a 12 million draft class.

He was very easy to talk to, Szczur said. I just felt like I had a lot of injuries my senior year (in football). We talked about that a little bit and it got me thinking.

Szczur went back to his parents and his agent and took a new deal, which was believed to include a 1.5 million payment for the 2011 season. The outfielder landed in the All-Star Futures Game and finished with a .293 average, 10 homers and 24 stolen bases in 109 games split between Class-A Peoria and Daytona.

Szczur played last season on top of a football schedule, and by the middle of July he was so sore that hed jump into an ice bath after each game.

Hendry used to joke that Szczurs offseason baseball activities were the equivalent of taking hacks in a beer league. Szczur freely admits that fundamentally, Im not that sound.

Szczur also missed 10 games during Villanovas 2010 baseball season because of the medication he had to take to donate those peripheral blood cells, which saved the young girls life.

Really, the 22-year-old Szczur is just scratching the surface. Hes been at the Cubs complex in Arizona since last November, losing the bulk he used to carry for football, redistributing the weight and becoming more flexible.

Szczur is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and has explosive speed. He can chase down balls in the outfield, but he might not take the right path. He can sprint to second and steal a base, but he might not get the best jump. Hes always been aggressive, able to just get by on his athleticism.

Thats why Baseball America is bullish on Szczur, putting him at No. 64 on its just-released top 100 prospect list and giving this scouting report: Exciting high-risk, high-reward talent who should take off with football in his rearview mirror.

Theo Epstein collected those types of players when he ran the Boston Red Sox. Szczur has spoken with the president of baseball operations, and will have to make the new boss take notice.

Maybe a dinner at Mortons last January got the Cubs a core player for the future. The fans in the bleachers would love a guy whos not afraid of crashing into the bricks and ivy.

Im just here to play and make a team, Szczur said. I dont care whos in the front office. Not that its a bad thing, but I have to worry about myself. I have to perform, because no matter whos in the front office, if Im not playing well, theyre not going to do anything for me. Once I start playing well, they see that.

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field

CLEVELAND — Even the Indians can't deny the lasting impact Cubs have on Progressive Field.

Namely, the impact the Cubs left on the floor of the visiting locker room.

With 18 months in between visits, one of the first things the Cubs noticed about their clubhouse at Progressive Field was the new carpet.

"It's probably necessary," Joe Maddon said with a smile. "So some good things have come from all that stuff, too, for the visitors. You get new interior decorating."

After the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Cubs — and Bill Murray — dumped an awful lot of champagne and Budwesier on the old carpets.

Like, A LOT. 

"Oh yeah," Addison Russell said, "I think we messed it up pretty good."

It'd be hard to fault the Cubs for an epic celebration to honor the end of a 108-year championship drought, especially the way in which they accomplished the feat with maybe the most incredible baseball game ever played.

As the Cubs returned to the emotional, nostalgic-riddled scene of that historic fall, the parallels were striking.

Exactly 18 months before Tuesday, the Cubs walked into Progressive Field for the start of the World Series in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

Tuesday, the Cubs walked back into Progressive Field in 54 degree Cleveland weather with overcast skies and a pestering little drizzle.

A bunch of Cubs also found their lockers in the same place in that visiting locker room.

Russell, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester all have their lockers in the same spots this week as they had for the 2016 Fall Classic.

Some clubhouses go in numerical order, some go based on position groups. The Indians don't really seem to fall under either camp, considering Lester was surrounded by all position players in the corner of the locker room, where — before Tuesday —was last seen giving a heartfelt "thank you" to the media for "putting up with him" all season.

"Just walking back into the stadium from the bus into the clubhouse, you get the sense of nostalgia," Russell said. "I see that they replaced the carpet, which is nice. But yeah, the weight room, the food room, I just remember walking around here having that World Series Champs shirt on.

"It's a great memory. I think this is the same locker I had as well. Everything's just fitting like a puzzle piece right now and it's pretty awesome."

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber LOVES hitting in Cleveland.

It's like he morphs into a superhero just by stepping foot into the left-handed batter's box at Progressive Field.

Playing in Cleveland for the first time since his legendary return to the field in the 2016 World Series, Schwarber went absolutely bonkers on a Josh Tomlin pitch in the second inning Tuesday night:

That wasn't just any homer, however. 

The 117.1 mph dinger was the hardest-hit ball by any Cubs hitter in the era of exit velocity, aka since Statcast was invented in 2015:

Schwarber followed that up with another solo blast into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning off Tomlin.

Schwarber — an Ohio native — collected his first MLB hit at Progressive Field back on June 17, 2015 in his second career game. He went 6-for-9 in that series with a triple, homer and 4 RBI.

Couple that with his World Series totals and the first two times up Tuesday and Schwarber has hit .500 with a .545 on-base percentage and .900 slugging percentage in his first 33 trips to the plate in Cleveland.