How will the Cubs respond to the loss of Kyle Schwarber?


How will the Cubs respond to the loss of Kyle Schwarber?

PHOENIX – Life after Kyle Schwarber began with a 3-2 walk-off loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday at Chase Field, the Cubs bullpen unraveling late and manager Joe Maddon getting strategy questions during his postgame media session.

“You can’t be an oil painting every night,” Maddon said.

Schwarber personified the next-man-up philosophy last summer, giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline that carried them to 97 wins and through two playoff rounds.

The legend grew as Schwarber’s left-handed power smashed balls into the Allegheny River, on top of a Wrigley Field video board and off a car windshield in the parking lot at the team’s spring-training complex.

During his first full season in professional baseball, Schwarber became a billboard for the youth movement on the North Side, all the unlimited possibilities ahead for a team that many preseason experts picked to win the World Series.

All that made the pregame diagnosis – season-ending knee surgery to repair Schwarber’s torn ACL and LCL – so disappointing inside the visiting clubhouse.

“He’s going to be missed,” catcher David Ross. “There’s no doubt about it. There’s no sugarcoating it. We love the guy. It’s a sad day here in our locker room.”

[MORE: Sickening feeling for Cubs after Kyle Schwarber's season-ending injury]

On a smaller scale, the Cubs missed the chance to go 4-0 for the first time since 1995, wasting Jason Hammel’s six innings of one-run ball. Trevor Cahill gave up Yasmany Tomas’ game-winning line-drive single into left field with two outs in the ninth, but the pivot point came with two outs in the eighth.

The Cubs had a one-run lead, lefty Travis Wood warming up in the bullpen and setup guy Pedro Strop on the mound with a runner on third. MVP-level performer Paul Goldschmidt hit a 2-2, 95-mph fastball back up the middle to tie the game.

“We were not trying to throw that pitch on that count,” Maddon said. “We had different strategies set up. It didn’t play out, and that’s the way it happens sometimes. He easily could have struck him out, hit a groundball at somebody, popped him up. The guy on deck’s a pretty good hitter, too (David Peralta).”

What about the idea of simply walking Goldschmidt?

“Stropy’s pretty good,” Maddon said. “He made (Goldschmidt) look pretty bad yesterday. I kind of like the matchup with the breaking ball. We just didn’t get to it and he got a hit.

“I’m good with everything. I felt really strongly about Stropy right there and we got a pitch in the wrong spot. The guy’s a good hitter.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

So is Schwarber. This group is still positioned to withstand that loss, even while missing a feared hitter in the middle of their lineup and the flexibility of having a third catcher who can also play the outfield. Theo Epstein’s front office gave a three-time Manager of the Year a roster stocked with blue-chip talent and mix-and-match pieces.

This is Jorge Soler’s time to show he belongs in left field as an everyday player. Ben Zobrist made a name for himself as the game’s preeminent super-utility guy, and Maddon said there could be times he moves from second base to the outfield. The same goes for All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant, who can handle all three spots in the outfield.

Javier Baez (left thumb contusion) may or may not be ready at some point during next week’s opening homestand at Wrigley Field. And where would the Cubs be if they hadn’t kept the door open for Dexter Fowler, signing him to a one-year, $13 million deal in late February?

“We’re going to have the ability to put a lineup full of really talented position players on the field every night,” Epstein said. “But Kyle is unique in a lot of ways. To begin with, he’s a big part of our identity, on the field and off the field. The unique skill set on the field – and then what he stands for and how he carries himself off the field.

“No one’s going to replace Kyle Schwarber. But we have a lot of talented players that now need to step up to the forefront.”

The Cubs understood Schwarber’s all-out style could lead to the crash that dropped him to the warning track on Thursday night, running into Fowler while trying to chase down a flyball headed toward the left-center field gap.

“He seemed ready for this year – to break out and become just a bigger star in the game,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Everything happens for a reason. Why did this happen to him at this moment? What’s going on here? Who knows? But he’s going to attack it head on and do the best he can to come back next year stronger.”

Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts have both said the money will be there at the trade deadline if – or when – the roster needs midseason upgrades. The Cubs also have what Baseball Prospectus ranked as the 12th-best farm system in baseball and a surplus of position-player prospects with so many hitters already established in Chicago.

“It’s part of the game,” Rizzo said. “No matter who it is, you got to be ready to keep going. At the end of the day, the sun is still going to rise.

“We got to go out there and do a job, no matter who goes down. We all understand that. This will be something that I think brings all of us closer.”

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?


Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here: