Kyle Schwarber gave Cubs the shot in the arm they needed


Kyle Schwarber gave Cubs the shot in the arm they needed

Kyle Schwarber looked like the first and only player in the visiting clubhouse on Sunday morning, at home in front of a video station at a time when the entire coaching staff hadn’t even shown up and dressed yet.

Schwarber had dodged the beer can thrown in his direction the night before at U.S. Cellular Field, a welcome-to-Chicago moment in the Cubs-White Sox rivalry.

“It looks like he’s done it before,” manager Joe Maddon joked. “Tough crowds at Indiana University.”

Schwarber played his final game for the Hoosiers on June 2 last year, or three days before the Cubs made him the fourth overall pick in a draft that was supposed to revolve around three high-profile pitchers (including White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon).

A below-slot deal – Schwarber got a $3.125 million signing bonus – fueled a perception the Cubs might have reached for a designated hitter and wanted to save money to take chances on pitchers in later rounds.

[MORE: Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason]

Here are the numbers Schwarber put up at five different minor-league affiliates – .333 average, 34 homers, 102 RBI, 1.042 OPS in 147 games – while convincing Theo Epstein’s front office that he has what it takes to catch in the big leagues.

Where would the Cubs be without Schwarber now?

When Miguel Montero sprained his thumb in the second-to-last game before the All-Star break, the Cubs were on their way to a 5-1 loss to the White Sox at Wrigley Field that left them at 46-40, or 5.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and in the second wild-card position, two games in front of the San Francisco Giants.

It’s not all Schwarber – everything starts with pitching and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo will be in the MVP discussion – but since then the Cubs have seen their playoff odds jump from 63.3 percent to 88.1 percent on FanGraphs after winning 15 of their last 17 games.

Montero’s injury created an opportunity for Schwarber, who now has eight homers in 112 at-bats, 27 RBI and 28 runs scored in 34 games, a .400 on-base percentage, a 1.008 OPS with runners in scoring position and that internal drive to prove people wrong.

“I’m just trying to keep my head buried,” Schwarber said. “Once I start pressing and try to do things I can’t control, that’s when I start getting into slumps or start being a bad teammate. It’s all about being a good teammate and helping the team win.”

Schwarber’s presence has helped leadoff guy Dexter Fowler become an offensive catalyst and taken some of the pressure off Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler while those rookies seemed to be fading or trying to make adjustments.

[RELATED: Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power]

Schwarber’s versatility has given Maddon more options, allowing the Cubs to reshape their team defensively with the shakeup that benched shortstop Starlin Castro. (David Ross joked that Schwarber should have brought his catcher’s mask and helmet out to left field against the White Sox.)

Schwarber’s energy – he was a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school – has rubbed off on a Cubs team (67-49) that kicked back on Monday’s off-day with the fourth-best record in the majors (and a third-place spot in a rugged division).

“We got a long way to go,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Their poise will be tested, (but) it’s been a fun run with these young guys. I feel like Kyle really gave us a shot in the arm at the right time. As he’s gotten hot and produced, I think some of the other young guys have taken a step forward as well.”

The Cubs still have 46 games left, and every pitch should matter from here until October. It’s hard to believe this is still Schwarber’s first full season in professional baseball.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“He’s super-super-talented,” said Ross, the backup catcher who made his big-league debut 13 years ago. “I’m actually having to tell him to pump the brakes: ‘Hey, relax. Don’t work so hard.’

“He’s going to be good for a long time. He’s got all the intangibles that you need. His work ethic is great. He can hit. He keeps himself in good shape. He’s strong. He’s got a good mind. He asks all the right questions. He wants to be good at the little things, too, which is important.

“If there are some rookies you have to worry about, he ain’t one of ‘em. We had to rein him back in. The other day I saw him catching a bullpen and I said: ‘Schwarbs, hey, calm down, man. We’re in August. It’s 90 degrees. Save it.’”

Major League Baseball unveiled its postseason schedule on Monday, lining up the National League’s wild-card game for Oct. 7. If the Cubs get there, it will be with a 22-year-old rookie who was playing for advanced Class-A Daytona at this time last year.

“We’re all here to win,” Schwarber said. “If we get to the real thing, we have veterans like David Ross and Jon Lester, guys that have been there before. They’re there to help control the nerves and (can) prepare us for what’s ahead.”

Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'


Yadier Molina sees something familiar in Cubs: 'They remind me of what we were back in the day'

Yadier Molina has been playing the Cubs for a decade and a half.

For 15 years, Molina has been one of the faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, making nine All-Star Games, winning eight Gold Gloves, playing in nine postseasons and winning a pair of World Series championships. And for much of that time, his Cardinals had the upper hand in the rivalry between the two National League Central foes.

But that's changed in recent years. The Cubs have ascended to the Cardinals' old spot as a perennial contender, and it was their defeat of the Cardinals in the NLDS back in 2015 that really seemed to usher in the current era of World Series expectations on the North Side.

If you watch any rivalry long enough, you'll see the balance of power shift back and forth. Molina has been watching this rivalry for a long time.

"They've got good chemistry, they've got good talent there, they play together," Molina said Tuesday in Washington, D.C., before suiting up alongside Willson Contreras and Javy Baez on the NL All-Star team. "So yeah, they remind me of what we were back in the day with the Cardinals."

High praise considering all that Molina and those old Cardinals teams accomplished.

It wasn't too long ago that the Cardinals were a dominant force in this division and in this rivalry. Between 2009 and 2015, the Cubs lost double-digit games to the Cardinals in all but one season. The Cardinals won a World Series title during that seven-year span (2011), ending all but one of those campaigns with a postseason appearance. The Cubs, meanwhile, had five straight fifth-place finishes and missed the playoffs in all but the last.

But since the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cubs are 30-20 against their biggest rivals, a record that includes that 3-1 series win in the 2015 NLDS.

And now it's the Cubs who have seemingly built a winning machine. Like the Cardinals dominated the division with a core cast of characters that included Molina as well as Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, the Cubs now have that reliable core featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Baez, Contreras and so many others. They're expected to be at the top of the Central standings and compete for championships, just like the Cardinals were for much of a decade.

The Cardinals, of course, have quite recently been thrown into a state of atypical tumult with manager Mike Matheny fired in the middle of the season and a couple off-the-field controversies grabbing national headlines. That's not to say they're exactly out of contention, though, as they begin the second half with an above-.500 record, 7.5 games back of the division-leading Cubs and only four games back for the second NL wild card spot.

But when you compare the drama-drenched Cardinals with the Cubs — who while no one would describe as firing on all cylinders have managed to stay not far behind their 2016 pace — there's a noticeable gap, a gap that's somewhat crazy to think about for those who can remember the Cardinals' past dominance in this rivalry.

Though the Cardinals have actually won more head-to-head matchups this season (five of the eight), the five-game set to begin the second half — the first of eight games between the two teams over the next two weekends — would figure to favor the Cubs, who won 12 of 15 to close out the first half.

"It's important for us to go out there and try to win the series. Right now, we need that as a club," Molina said. "It's going to be tough. The Cubs, they're playing good baseball right now, they've got chemistry there. It's going to be tough, but our concentration is on trying to win the series."

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

The Cubs enter the second half of play with the best record in the National League — only the fifth time they've accomplished that feat — and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

If that's not enough optimism for you, we've got you covered elsewhere.

The Cubs are obviously in a good spot for the final 69 games of the 2018 season.

Here are 5 other reasons for Cubs fans to be feelin' sexy as the second half gets underway:

1. The Brewers aren't getting Manny Machado.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee by 5.5 games at the break last year and wound up tied for first less than two weeks into the second half. So this 2.5-game lead could evaporate in a hurry.

It's going to be a dogfight with the Brewers all season and the good news for the Cubs is Manny Machado — a rumored Brewers target — won't be joining the division after he was traded to the Dodgers officially Wednesday.

Which means the best player on the trade market will not be duking it out with the Cubs for the NL Central title for the last 2.5 months of the season.

Whether that means the Brewers go out and add to their pitching staff or not remains to be seen, but either way, it's not adding Machado to a lineup that already includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw.

2. Never forget the back of the baseball card.

Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo went into the All-Star Break feeling great about their overall body of work in 2018.

Yet somehow, the Cubs offense is the best in the National League in just about every category that matters.

Imagine how well this team is gonna be clicking when Bryzzo returns as the best hitting tandem on the Cubs.

Bryant actually got off to a fantastic start to the campaign, but since May 14, he's been a different hitter — .277/.352/.409 (.761 OPS), 3 HR, 21 RBI, 48 K in 37 games.

Rizzo got off to a dreadful start in March/April and though he's leveled out a bit since then, he's still hitting only .246 with a .748 OPS on the year.

The two sluggers are on pace for only 38 combined homers in 2018; they teamed up for 61 dingers last season.

They've also posted a combined OPS 230 points below where they were at last season — Rizzo (.748) is 151 points below his .899 OPS from last year while Bryant (.867) is 79 points below his .946 mark.

MLB players reference "the back of the baseball card" often because it happens to be a cliche that's true more often than not. Both Bryant and Rizzo are well-established stud hitters and chances are high they'll return to that form in the second half.

Mix that in with the development the Cubs' young lineup has shown (fewer strikeouts, using the whole field more, etc.) and Jason Heyward's re-emergence and you have yourself a formidable offense for the stretch run.

3. The Cubs are due for some good luck on the injury front.

"Yu" can never predict injuries with any sort of precision and it's safe to say the Cubs did not expect their first half to go as it did on the injury front.

Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since late May and has accounted for only 40 innings this season. 

Both Rizzo and Bryant had stints on the disabled list and have missed other time with ailments, as well. 

The Cubs were without their top relievers — Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. — for 10 days at the same time and Edwards missed more than a month overall.

Throw in the Jason Heyward concussion DL stint, Brian Duensing hitting the shelf and a few other minor injuries and the Cubs have had their fair share of injuries already in 2018.

So the luck's gotta turn eventually, right?

That's what they're hoping, though much of that depends on Darvish, who still hasn't progressed much since receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow three weeks ago.

For a team with championship aspirations, the Cubs badly need Darvish to return to the mound and return to form. But if they're concerned about his stability in the rotation moving forward, there's still enough time to rectify that for 2018, with nearly two weeks left until the non-waiver trade deadline.

4. All-Star confidence

Players like Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber don't lack for confidence, that's for sure.

But there's something to be said for being voted to start for the National League in the All-Star Game or picked for the Home Run Derby. That's a confidence that can only be provided from the outside. 

All three of these young Cubs sluggers got that boost this week and can carry that over into the second half. Especially with the showing they put up — Baez leading off with a single, Contreras sending the first pitch he saw into the bleachers, Schwarber very nearly taking down the hometown favorite (Bryce Harper) in a thrilling Derby.

These guys had already proved they belonged in the spots granted to them and certainly were able to rise to the occasion.

Joe Maddon has talked about how he loves when young players get to go to the All-Star Game because of how it can impact a player's confidence moving forward. We could see that with this trio, even if Baez is already playing at an MVP level.

5. Rotation normalizing

This one's a double-edged sword. 

Jon Lester has obviously pitched at an All-Star level and carried the Cubs rotation through much of the first half. But despite a 2.58 ERA, he has a 4.34 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.59 xFIP (expected FIP), which would both be Lester's worst marks since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2008.

What does that mean? Lester has been a bit lucky so far and all that contact he's given up — his K/9 is at its lowest since '08 — may come back to haunt him at some point.

Which is fair. Lester has admitted he's a different pitcher now after all the wear and tear on his arm at age 34. He's focused on pitching to contact now and sometimes that can hurt you with some bad luck.

That being said, the rest of the rotation should be able to return to form.

Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all pitching below their career norms and working individually to get back to that level. 

And while Mike Montgomery has been a godsend to this rotation, getting Darvish back and pitching at the elite level he's capable of would do wonders for this team.

The Cubs need a whole lot more from their rotation in the second half and history indicates that "more" should be coming. Remember that whole "back of the baseball card" thing. 

Bonus: Reinforcements are coming.

If the rotation cannot return to form immediately coming out of the break (and Darvish still isn't showing signs of progress), the Cubs can bolster their starting staff with a move, as we already mentioned.

They could also add another member or two to the bullpen to help counteract the weight that's been placed on the shoulders of the Cubs' relievers to date and the weight that's surely coming in the postseason. 

The Cubs will make a move or two before Aug. 1 and that only figures to make this team stronger for the stretch run.