Cubs

Kyle Schwarber is the big bat the Cubs absolutely need

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Kyle Schwarber is the big bat the Cubs absolutely need

CINCINNATI — Kyle Schwarber shouldn’t have to be the savior for this offense, but the rookie carried the Cubs on Tuesday night with two huge swings at Great American Ball Park.

This 5-4 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Reds took 13 innings, lasted almost five hours and technically ended on Wednesday morning, with Schwarber blasting the game-tying and game-winning home runs, while also guiding seven different pitchers through 54 batters and 209 pitches.

A fraction of the announced crowd (36,845) stuck around until midnight — and who knows how many were from Schwarber’s hometown (Middletown, Ohio) — but it still became a Hollywood ending for the blue-collar catcher who grew up a big Reds fan.

The Cubs already made their splashes with hitters, investing more than $130 million in Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. They used a big trade chip to get Addison Russell and spent first-round picks on Kris Bryant and Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University.

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So the Cubs (50-42) probably have to find the answers from within if they’re going to hang onto the second wild card and fend off the San Francisco Giants (one game out) and New York Mets (two games back).

“You just brought up Schwarbs, and it’s hard to find bats,” manager Joe Maddon said. “A veteran bat? I don’t know even know who that guy is that you might want to pick up. And then if you do, where do you play him?”

“Schwarbs” took a vicious swing in the ninth inning, staring out toward right field before dropping his bat, beginning his home-run trot and reminding you he just might be the big bat the Cubs add before the July 31 trade deadline.

Schwarber fell behind 0-2 against Reds reliever J.J. Hoover, fouled off three more balls and worked a 3-2 count before destroying a 94 mph fastball, the ninth pitch of the at-bat. That two-run shot traveled 424 feet and seemed to disappear onto a party deck.

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Schwarber did it again in the 13th inning, lining Nate Adcock’s slider into the right-field seats, giving him four hits and four RBIs for the night and a 1.183 OPS through his first 11 games in The Show.

“I always said I wanted to be a major-league ballplayer when I was growing up,” Schwarber said at his locker afterward. “I never knew it would come to fruition, but a lot of hard work went into that. Now it’s here. It’s an awesome feeling.

“But I (have to) keep doing my job and earn my way on this team.”

It has to be frustrating for Cubs fans — not to mention Theo Epstein’s front office — to watch a team that leads the National League in strikeouts, hits .228 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on base against the Reds (41-50).

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But it’s not like there’s any quick fix for an offense that was supposed to feel the growing pains this season (and was not banking on down years from Castro and Dexter Fowler).

“Your pitching is always No. 1 to improve,” Maddon said. “If you look at the team on the field, I kind of like it.”

Jason Hammel at least passed the test in his first start since July 8, when he lasted only one inning against the St. Louis Cardinals and left the game with a hamstring issue.

Hammel made it through five innings against the Reds, giving up two runs (one earned) and trusting Schwarber to call the game. Maddon also went out of his way to deflect attention away from the home runs and praise Schwarber’s defensive work.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“He just never appears to be in trouble,” Maddon said. “He knows what he’s doing at the plate, and now he’s understanding what to do behind the plate.”

The Cubs always thought Schwarber would be on the fast track. But this still would have been hard to predict back in spring training, Schwarber becoming a middle-of-the-order force already at the age of 22, in the middle of a pennant race, while learning how to catch in the big leagues after only 17 games at Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs are waiting to see how Miguel Montero’s sprained left thumb heals, not knowing when the veteran catcher might return. They expect Javier Baez (fractured finger) will accelerate his rehab assignment this week and begin playing games in Arizona, hoping be could develop into an offensive force/defensive spark up the middle (or maybe show he’s healthy enough to be a trade chip).

“You still got Miggy in the wings, hopefully not too long into the future,” Maddon said. “Baez should be getting well relatively soon. There’s other things going on. So I think if you had to look at one thing, you’ll always look to augment the pitching.”

The Cubs are counting on the adrenaline rush and will start Schwarber in Game 1 of Wednesday’s day/night doubleheader.

“Yeah, I’m ready to get back in there and do it all over again,” Schwarber said. “I’m excited for it.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.