Cubs

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

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USA TODAY

After roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber wants to add to his budding 'Mr. October' legacy

Kyle Schwarber is ready to add to his legend.

The 24-year-old slugger just finished his first full MLB season, but will live forever in Cubs lore after helping end the 108-year championship drought with a made-for-Hollywood return to the lineup in the World Series.

Schwarber's 2017 has been a roller coaster that included a three-week stint in the minor leagues and inconsistent playing time down the stretch.

But he has a career .364 average and 1.178 OPS in 14 playoff games and the Cubs' new "Mr. October" is heating up at just the right time. He hit .288 with a .954 OPS in 59 September at-bats, crushing six homers and helping raise his season average from .168 on July 6 to .211

It's like he flipped a switch as October neared.

"This is my favorite time of year," he said. "This is when things start coming to the nitty-gritty. This brings out the best in everyone, I think. You saw when we were playing Milwaukee and the way St. Louis was playing, those were some really hard-fought games.

"It was like a playoff atmosphere. Going into Washington, it's gonna be some hard-fought games. ... You're gonna be in for a grinder series, I'm sure, and it'll be fun."

In a trying year that saw Schwarber finish with only 422 at-bats, he still reached the 30-homer plateau with a moonshot Saturday afternoon in the season's penultimate game. He was also caught on the videoboard camera in the Cubs dugout dancing along to the "YMCA."

"It's pretty crazy, isn't it?" Joe Maddon said of Schwarber's 30th homer. "Good for him. That shows you the kinda talent that he has. Came back and really reconstructed himself.

"Right now, that home run [Saturday], I was really watching it closely. He got started really early, which is good. You can never be too early, but you can be too late as a hitter. He was definitely on time and that's why the ball went that far."

We don't know yet how often Maddon will write Schwarber's name on the lineup card at the start of the Cubs' playoff games, a stark contrast from last year when the left-handed slugger changed the complexion of the entire lineup and drove the news cycle for 10 days right around Halloween.

Schwarber isn't concerned about his role, focusing instead on the team

"I'm gonna prepare like I'm in the lineup until I'm told that I'm not," Schwarber said. "And then when I'm not, I'm gonna prepare like the way I would be coming off the bench.

"There's gonna be no different kind of preparation for me. This time of the year is where you can't get surprised by anything."

For the third straight fall, Schwarber will be in uncharted waters in the beginning of October.

In 2015, Schwarber immediately put the Cubs on the board in that high-octane wild-card game in Pittsburgh before crushing the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS and coming under fire for a couple defensive miscues in the NLCS against the New York Mets.

Last year, Schwarber was still powering through a rehab process up until the last week of October when he made an incredible return to the lineup in the World Series after missing more than six months.

This fall, he has four days between games and will focus on simulated action and batting practice instead of rehab and winner-take-all one-game playoffs.

He's also taking some time for visualization, imagining himself executing in different situations and trying to provide some of that 30-homer pop whenever he's called upon in October.

"It's been an up-and-down year," Schwarber said. "It is what it is. I'm happy about [the 30-homer plateau], but I'm not really too focused on it at all. It's a cool accomplishment, but I'm more focused on the bigger picture here, which is the postseason coming up."

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.