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Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year

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Cubs have big plans for Kyle Schwarber this year

Surrounded by about 15 reporters, Kyle Schwarber stood at a locker with no nameplate inside Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse, one year and 11 days after the Cubs made him the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Before this crash course really speeds up, the Cubs wanted Schwarber to soak it in on Tuesday night, letting the 22-year-old catcher watch almost all of this 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians from the dugout.

But Schwarber got his chance once home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi ejected catcher Miguel Montero in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes. Schwarber caught the ninth inning and then struck out looking during a three-pitch at-bat against Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski.

“We got the first one out of the way,” Schwarber said. “It can only go up from there, I guess.”

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Schwarber smiled and tugged at the collar of his polo shirt. The Cubs clearly set the ground rules for this promotion from Double-A Tennessee.

Schwarber can be the designated hitter for the next five interleague road games against the Indians and Minnesota Twins. No matter what happens between now and the end of Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, Schwarber is already ticketed for Triple-A Iowa.

But the Cubs clearly have big plans for Schwarber that won’t start sometime in the summer of 2016 or on Opening Day 2017. This is someone they believe can help this year in the heat of a pennant race.

“We’ll give him a taste of what it’s like,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I talked to him about the ability now to get some firsts out of the way, so the next time he comes up, it should permit him to be somewhat more comfortable. He’ll know what to expect.

“The next time he comes up, it’s going to be under different circumstances, when things may be even hotter.”

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That’s why president of baseball operations Theo Epstein hinted Schwarber could start playing left field this summer and hit his way back to Wrigleyville.

“He needs to continue developing as a catcher,” Epstein said. “We may reach a point this year — whether it’s in September or a little bit earlier than that — where he’s caught enough for the year.

“You have to remember, he’s hasn’t caught that many games. The 140-game minor-league season is a lot more than he’s ever caught before. We’re monitoring his workload ... and then we can kind of maybe mix in some different responsibilities, maybe as a factor for September up here.

“But for right now, his priority is continuing to develop as a catcher. It’s going really well. We’re more convinced now than ever that he’s going to catch, and catch a long time in the big leagues.”

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Though there are legitimate questions about Schwarber’s defensive skills behind the plate, he forced his way into the conversation weeks ago, leaving nothing left to prove at the Double-A level after hitting .320 with 13 homers, 39 RBIs and a 1.017 OPS in 58 games.

“He belongs here,” veteran catcher David Ross said. “The numbers he was putting up in the minor leagues were crazy. I think we’re a better team with him in our lineup.”

Since coming out of Indiana University, Schwarber has generated 31 homers and 92 RBIs in 130 games at four different minor-league affiliates, getting on base 43 percent of the time.

“All my call-ups have kind of been surprising,” Schwarber said. “I like to keep my head buried. Once all those rumors were going around, I wasn’t really trying to pay attention to it, because I can kind of sidetrack myself.

“Once it finally happened, it was surreal.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

After years of talking about player-development plans and checking all the boxes, the Cubs are getting more aggressive now, sensing an opportunity to do something special this year. That’s why you get the feeling Schwarber will be back soon enough.

“We think it’s the perfect pit stop for him on the way to Triple-A,” Epstein said. “Once you get to Triple-A, you’re an injury away from possibly being pushed into action at the big-league level.

“And with him only having a year of professional experience under his belt, we think he’ll really benefit from seeing what goes into being a major-league catcher, how much preparation there is, how to work with the scouting reports.

“We believe in his bat. We think he can help us win some games.”

'Yogi' and his hat-balancing act steal the show at Monday's Cubs game

'Yogi' and his hat-balancing act steal the show at Monday's Cubs game

You never know what you are going to find on Authentic Fan Night, including die-hard baseball fans with impressive tricks up their sleeve! 

'Yogi' is the name of the one particular Cubs fan who stole the show on Monday night, and developed his signature tricks in 2005 in a circus show at Bloom High School called "Under the Big Tap".

In 2017 Yogi started doing the hat trick more often and perfected it through much trial and error. 

In our clips, you can hear the Cubs faithful cheer Yogi and our own Kelly Crull on, even she gets in on the fun, trying out Yogi's hat trick for herself!

Hopefully, Yogi's antics bring some good luck to the Cubs, who are in the midst of a fight for a playoff spot in the NL. You can stream Cubs baseball here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

The aftermath of the Anthony Rizzo injury and where Cubs go from here

One of the most surreal moments of this crazy Cubs season has to be watching Anthony Rizzo scoot away from his locker Monday afternoon, unable to put any weight on his right ankle.

This is the face of the franchise, the guy who spoke to the millions in attendance at the post-World Series rally three falls ago. Rizzo is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways and has really only dealt with minor back injuries throughout his nine-year career.

Now, he's wearing a boot that makes him look more like Robocop and there's no guarantee Cubs fans will see him take the field again in 2019.

But that doesn't mean you should bet against him...

"In my career, I will definitely play another regular season game," Rizzo jokingly responded to a question from a reporter asking if he will suit up again in the final two weeks of this regular season. "My body usually responds well, so certainly not ruling it out. I have every intention of trying to do everything I can with the training staff to get back on the field with the boys.

"I want to play as soon as possible, whether it's now or Game 1 of the World Series."

The results of Monday's MRI absolutely could've been worse, but the lateral sprain to Rizzo's right ankle will keep him in that boot for the next 5-7 days. After that point, he and the Cubs can determine how much movement and stress that joint can take or how much mobility he'll have.

With the Cubs fighting for their playoff lives over these next two weeks and knowing his gutsy nature, don't be shocked if Rizzo forces the issue and tries to make a return of some sort before October, even if it's just in a small pinch-hitting role.

"There's a minimum amount of time when you have to just prioritize healing and let the inflammation die down and let things heal for a little bit," Theo Epstein said. "And then once we get past that period of time, then we can see if there are ways to manage the discomfort and if there are ways through taping to create some stability that gives him at least a chance to consider contributing down the road if things go really well. 

"We're not shutting any doors, but we're realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal."

Would Epstein be surprised if Rizzo returned before the end of the regular season?

"I'm just comfortable saying that we're not ruling it out," Epstein said. "Shoot, I was there [in Boston] with Curt Schilling in the doctor's office trying to figure out how to staple his ankle ligament back to the bone so he can go out there and pitch. This is not an analogous situation, but I've learned never to rule anything out. 

"But also injuries like this, you just have to give requisite amount of time to let initial healing take place to even have a better idea of what's possible and what's not possible."

Of course the Cubs are going to miss Rizzo while he's out. But they definitely seem to be in good spirits with the situation, all things considered.

There was Rizzo joking about how he wants to pimp out his scooter with a bicycle bell or maybe some streamers. 

There was Joe Maddon laughing about how he's thankful Rizzo can't move around too much in the dugout during games because of that scooter. The Cubs manager is already worried about finding a buffer once Rizzo is off the scooter and more mobile.

There was Jason Heyward joking about how restless Rizzo will be in the dugout, talking nonstop about "random shit" and how the Cubs players will enjoy ragging on Rizzo to keep things loose during this next week.

"[The scooter] is torture for him," Heyward said. "But at the same time, we kinda love seeing him riding around. He's gonna make a bunch of jokes about it. We're gonna make a bunch of jokes about it and just have fun with it that way. That's all we can do."

Maddon believes Rizzo's injury can be a galvanizing moment for the club, rallying around the injured player much like the Brewers have done since Christian Yelich was ruled out for the season with a broken kneecap.

But the Javy Baez injury and subsequent news of his broken thumb didn't have that same effect on this Cubs team and there have been plenty of "turning points" and "seminal moments" that never materialized over the course of this roller coaster season.

"We don't need any extra rallying points," Heyward said. "We got enough of 'em and we have fun with that. He's gonna add to that. That's what he does when he isn't playing. He brings the rallying points, he brings the fun, he brings that competitiveness and just the randomness as well."

Everybody knows the Cubs can't replace all Rizzo does for the club, from his Gold Glove defense to his steadying presence in the lineup to his two-strike approach to his aggressiveness on bunts and turning double plays. 

Ian Happ took over at first base in Sunday's game when Rizzo left with the injury and Victor Caratini got the start there Monday night. Both guys figure to be in the mix moving forward, with Maddon also mentioning Jonathan Lucroy and Willson Contreras as potential options. 

At the moment, Maddon does not want to move Kris Bryant to play first because he likes what he's seeing from Bryant defensively at third base. Ben Zobrist is also not expected to be a part of the first-base mix.

Caratini will still catch Yu Darvish like usual, which includes Tuesday night's start against the Reds.

As for leadoff (where Rizzo had slotted in the last few games before his injury), Maddon will roll with Zobrist up there as often as he can down the stretch. But the 38-year-old veteran won't be able to play every day and Monday already represented his third straight start.

The Belichickian "next man up" principle applies here and the Cubs know they won't get any sympathy from around the rest of the league even as the injuries pile up.

"Just keep playing," Heyward said. "Keep going. Everybody just do your part. Don't try and do too much. Just be realistic. Play the game, let the game come to you and that's it. Nobody's gonna look back and say, 'Oh, they didn't make it because they didn't have so and so' or 'they made it 'cause they had so and so' or whatever at the end of the day. Especially our group right here. No one's gonna do that. Keep having fun, keep competing."

The Cubs' expectations for how the next two weeks go have not changed one bit, even with their two most important players potentially unable to suit up over these final 13 games. 

"If we play up to our capabilities, we can beat anybody," Epstein said. "It all starts over once you get into the postseason. We're looking forward to doing what we need to do to get in there. 

"We'll see what happens, but we're in a dogfight of a pennant race. One day at a time."

Heyward summed up the team's mindset simply:

"Either we make it where we want to get or we don't."