Cubs: Even Kyle Schwarber's teammates can't believe what they're seeing in World Series

Cubs: Even Kyle Schwarber's teammates can't believe what they're seeing in World Series

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber fielded a question that, in light of another astonishing performance in the World Series, wasn’t ridiculous: Is this game just that easy for you?

Schwarber collected a pair of RBI singles and drew a walk in the Cubs’ 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians in Game 2 of the World Series Wednesday night at Progressive Field. This is a guy who, until Tuesday, last saw a pitch from a major leaguer in early April and only had six at-bats against live pitching in the Arizona Fall League before being added to the Cubs’ World Series roster. 

“It’s not that easy, first off,” Schwarber said. “Baseball’s a crazy game.”

Crazy is one way to describe what Schwarber has done at the plate in the first two games of the World Series: In Game 1, he blasted a double off the right field wall off Indians ace Corey Kluber and worked a walk against all-world reliever Andrew Miller. In Game 2, he got the green light on a 3-0 fastball and ripped a single up the middle to score Anthony Rizzo in the third inning, and in the fifth, he punched a single through a drawn-in infield for another RBI. 

And it bears repeating, because it’s such a stunning fact on this stage: Schwarber went 201 days without a major league plate appearance. 

“We should just skip spring training next year,” third baseman Kris Bryant sarcastically quipped. “You'll be fine. Just jump right into the World Series and have success. No big deal."

After Schwarber’s first RBI single, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was shown on Fox’s broadcast clapping and yelling “Atta Boy!” from the stands at Progressive Field. Epstein’s front office wouldn’t budge on dealing Schwarber to the New York Yankees for Miller, who’s become an X-Factor for the Indians in the postseason, seeing a searingly bright future for the former No. 4 overall pick in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup for years to come. 

But at the trade deadline, when he was still working through his grueling rehab from a torn ACL and LCL, nobody could’ve predicted Schwarber could be an X-Factor for the Cubs’ chances of winning their first World Series since 1908. 

“I can see why Theo sent a plane for him,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I would, too. That's a lot to ask, but special players can do special things.”

The visiting clubhouse and press conference room at Progressive Field was buzzing with Schwarber talk after the game, with plenty of the questions asked by the media centered around Schwarber. And everybody associated with the Cubs was more than happy to talk about him. 

“I mean, how do you square (pitches) up after that long when you're facing this quality of pitching?” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “I mean, I feel like when I go into spring training every year, every ball going past me is 115 mph. To see the ball and be able to square it up like that, he's that good of a hitter."

“To even be able to put himself in this position to be on the World Series roster, and to contribute the way he has is remarkable,” starter Jake Arrieta said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I remember hearing Smoltzy (Hall of Fame pitcher and Fox announcer John Smoltz) comment on the broadcast, and this guy played for 20 years, he said he's never seen anything like it. For a guy to be able to do something like this in his second year is just, you know, I'm kind of speechless.”

“I didn't know what to expect,” Bryant said. ‘I’m sure people expected the world out of him. We knew he'd contribute in some way and that's why he's on the roster, but for him to do it this quickly and have at-bats like that — I mean, every at-bat he's had so far, he's worked a count, a couple walks, big hits, it's really impressive."

With the World Series shifting to Wrigley Field for the next three games, Schwarber needs to be cleared by team doctors to play the field to stay in the Cubs’ lineup. It’s a medical decision that’s out of manager Joe Maddon’s hands, but if he has clearance to make Schwarber more than a pinch hitter over the weekend, the Cubs will roll with the middle of the order they envisioned at the start of the season. 

Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist and Schwarber combined to reach base in 10 of their 20 plate appearances and drove in four of the Cubs’ five runs in Game 2. 

Said Maddon about having Schwarber hitting fifth: “It makes your lineup longer, it makes it thicker. It makes it better.”

Schwarber’s return from that devastating, gruesome injury could go down as one of the astonishing, improbable storylines in baseball history if he helps lead the Cubs to a championship. He wasn’t supposed to return to the Cubs’ lineup until 2017, but here he is, driving in runs, pumping up his teammates and blowing the minds of almost everyone watching the 2016 World Series. 

"I've never had to do what he's had to do. In this situation, I don't know that anybody has,” Zobrist said. “(He) sat out basically all year and then gets put on the playoff roster. No. 1, most teams wouldn't even do that, especially as a hitter. And then on top of that, to actually have quality at-bats and put some good swings on it — I mean, there's no one else in history that's done that, right? To get a hit in the World Series. It's just crazy. It really is."

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

Javy Baez leads Cubs to huge win with a little help from Pedro Strop

For the second time this season, Pedro Strop has added another chapter to the legend of El Mago.

And for at least the second documented time over the last few years, Strop also helped give Javy Baez the motivation needed to lift the Cubs to victory.

On an 0-2 pitch from Mets reliever Seth Lugo in the eighth inning, Baez smacked a 3-run homer into the right-field bleachers, notching the Cubs shortstop another curtain call and sending the 39,077 fans at Wrigley Field into euphoric bliss.

"That was big. He was so frustrated," said Strop, who picked up his 9th save in the 5-3 victory. "When I was walking to the 'pen, he was so frustrated after that first strikeout [against Jacob deGrom]. He was like, 'He's not throwing fastballs, just sliders!' I was like, 'Bro, it's good that you know that. So go up with another plan. Do your thing. You're gonna win this ballgame.'"

Baez's 100th career homer accomplished exactly that and in doing so, changed the entire tone and tenor of the first weekend of summer on Chicago's North Side.

There's no way the Cubs wanted to go into a four-game set with the contending Atlanta Braves after having just dropped three of four to a hapless Mets team that is melting down inside the clubhouse. It also would've been the Cubs' ninth loss in their 13 games, but Baez's clutch blast helped them salvage a series split and maintain sole possession of first place entering a new week of baseball.

"That's the last thing you want to do is lose another one," said Cole Hamels, who gave the Cubs 7 strong innings, but did not factor in the decision. "... That's the momentum we need to take forth, especially with the series that's coming up."

It also continued one of the strangest/coolest statistical oddities of the 2019 MLB season, given that it came on an 0-2 count.

Baez now has more homers after falling behind in the count 0-2 this year than NINE other MLB teams and nearly half of his homers (9 of 19) have come after getting into the extreme pitcher's count:

What makes Baez so tough on 0-2 counts?

For starters, he's never afraid of striking out, possessing a fearless nature Joe Maddon and other Cubs players have admired for some time.

But Hamels also provided some great perspective on why Baez might be so good in a count when pitchers typically dominate:

"I think that's kinda the difficult part with him — sometimes it can always be 0-2 with him," Hamels said. "Even if you haven't thrown a pitch yet, you treat it like 0-2. If that's just the nature of what pitchers do to him — if it's considered almost always an 0-2 count — he's gonna get really good at it because that's just the way he survives and the way he lives and plays the game. 

"With him though, being a teammate, you just know that he's never out of it. He's trying to hit a homer every at-bat, every pitch. That obviously can make a pitcher think a little bit longer and maybe try to be too perfect and therefore that's why they make mistakes."

The win puts a nice bow on what was otherwise a sloppy weekend for the Cubs, who often looked flat at the plate and made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths and in the field. 

Prior to that homer from Baez, the Cubs had only managed to push across 1 earned run in 13 innings against a Mets bullpen that entered the weekend with a 5.39 ERA and more blown saves than any other team in baseball.

It's the second time in just over a week where the Cubs managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but the last time (Anthony Rizzo's homer off Kenley Jansen last Saturday in L.A.) apparently wasn't enough to spark the team to get back to their winning ways. 

Was this Baez blast enough to wake the team from their midseason slumber and be this year's seminal moment that we all look back on in September? 

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

While they wait for Kimbrel, Cubs add another intriguing option to bullpen

Craig Kimbrel could still make his debut before the current homestand is over, but in the meantime, the Cubs added another intriguing veteran to the bullpen.

Tony Barnette was activated off the 60-day injured list Sunday and Rowan Wick was sent back down to Triple-A Iowa. 

The 35-year-old right-hander has had an interesting career ever since was drafted in the 10th round in 2006 by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Arizona State University. He spent a couple years in the D-Backs organization but then went to Japan in 2010 to pitch for the Yakult Swallows for six seasons.

Barnette returned to the U.S. in 2016, signing a deal with the Rangers and putting up a 3.50 ERA in 125 appearances for Texas over three seasons. The Cubs signed him over the winter to add another arm to the bullpen mix, but he's been hampered by shoulder issues since spring training.

Barnette actually began a rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa in April initially, but made only four appearances before heading back to Arizona to hit the reset button on his recovery. He restarted a rehab assignment with Iowa on June 1 and has been lights out since — he's allowed only a pair of baserunners (1 hit, 1 walk) in 8.1 shutout innings while striking out 9. 

"Patience is a virtue," he said Sunday morning inside the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. "It's hard to be patient in this game especially when you're expected to be logging innings at the major-league level. Patience was something that I really had to work on and stay with. Stay patient, trust the process, work with the training staff and make sure I was right and I am."

When the Cubs called Barnette over the winter, he said it was definitely a call he wanted to take — to join a team with World Series aspirations and play in front of the fans at Wrigley Field. Now he wants to answer the call out of the bullpen whenever he gets the opportunity.

Joe Maddon hasn't gotten a chance to see Barnette pitch live much due to the early injury in spring training, but the Cubs manager envisions utilizing the veteran righty as a weapon against opposing right-handed hitters. In his MLB career, Barnette has allowed only a .652 OPS to righties vs. a .780 OPS to left-handed hitters.

"He's a strike-thrower. He attacks the zone. He's kind of a fearless guy," Maddon said. "He's an assertive kind of a guy. He's an attacker, he can put the ball on the ground. He's an aggressive sort. Normally pitch-efficient.

"He's very confident right now. He's feeling really good."

When the Cubs signed him over the winter, Barnette was looked at as another potential under-the-radar option in the bullpen and now that the injury is behind him, he and the Cubs are hoping to make good on that potential.

But the Cubs pitching staff is also getting crowded, with Barnette joining a group of bullpen arms that includes:

Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Brandon Kintzler
Brad Brach
Kyle Ryan
Mike Montgomery

At the moment, the Cubs have folded both Adbert Alzolay and Tyler Chatwood into a six-man rotation. But they also have Kimbrel's arrival on the horizon as well as the eventual returns of Kyle Hendricks and Carl Edwards Jr.

It's unknown how all these pieces will fit together, but Barnette could emerge as a reliable piece for Maddon and the Cubs.