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.
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.
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.
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“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.”