Cubs

Kyle Schwarber shows why he's a freak of nature who can do some World Series damage for Cubs

Kyle Schwarber shows why he's a freak of nature who can do some World Series damage for Cubs

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber is a freak of nature, a hitter with the hand-eye coordination, explosiveness and guts to do what should be impossible. But it’s a bad sign for the Cubs when a guy who hadn’t seen big-league action in 201 days looked like one of the toughest outs in their World Series lineup.

Now you know why the Cubs believed Schwarber could help get them that championship parade down Michigan Avenue — and how the Cleveland Indians won’t just fade into history’s background as The Other Team. After a 6-0 loss, the question now becomes: How soon will Schwarber be ready to play the outfield?

“No, not right now,” Schwarber said.

Schwarber walked into the Progressive Field interview room at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, becoming the biggest Game 1 story after his stunning recovery from major surgery on his left knee. He didn’t have a hit all season — a brutal collision on April 7 was supposed to knock him out until Opening Day 2017 — but there was his name in the No. 5 spot as the designated hitter against Corey Kluber.

“Once I hit that line, a lot of emotions will come pouring out,” Schwarber said. “I’ll probably cry at some point today. It was a long road, but once we step in between those lines, it’s game time. I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be ready to go (and) try to win this.”

Schwarber had tracked roughly 1,300 pitches off a machine at the team’s spring-training complex and gotten eight plate appearances with the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League, where about 100 people might watch those games.

Now Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box for the franchise’s first World Series game in 71 years in front of a sellout crowd (38,091) and a national-TV audience. A “Let’s go, Cubs!” chant started in the second inning before Schwarber struck out swinging against Kluber, who notched eight strikeouts through the first three innings.

But Schwarber at least got acclimated against the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, just missing a home run in his next at-bat, slamming Kluber’s first-pitch fastball off the right-center field wall for a two-out double in the fourth inning.

That’s why the Cubs arranged for a private plane to fly him on Monday from the Phoenix area to Cleveland, where he could change franchise history with one big swing, the way he drilled five homers during last year’s playoffs and became a Wrigleyville folk hero.

“With him, anything is possible,” said manager Joe Maddon, who didn’t hesitate to put Schwarber in the lineup.

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It’s hard to overstate how much the Cubs love his energy, presence and powerful left-handed swing, ever since they saw his hard-charging style at Indiana University and recognized the football mentality that made him an All-Ohio linebacker in high school. Theo Epstein’s front office drafted Schwarber fourth overall in 2014, back when it almost looked like a reach for a DH with an unclear defensive future behind the plate or in the outfield.

After getting a better-than-expected progress report last week from Dr. Daniel Cooper — the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL — Schwarber went full speed ahead. That’s really his only gear.

“I called Theo right away and I was like: ‘Hey, I’d love the opportunity to try,’” Schwarber said. “Knowing that I had the opportunity to try and get back, it would kill me deep down inside if I didn’t. And I knew going into it there were no guarantees.

“I didn’t want the media attention. I didn’t want any of that. I did it for my teammates. I did it for me, too. That’s the competitor in me.”

The Cubs made Schwarber untouchable in any trade talks, even as the New York Yankees dangled Andrew Miller, who now looms as another World Series X-factor in the Cleveland bullpen.

Schwarber worked a six-pitch walk against Miller in the seventh inning before the dominant left-handed reliever escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam by getting Willson Contreras to fly out to shallow center field and striking out Addison Russell and David Ross.

Miller (0.00 ERA this postseason) won the battle with two runners on in the eighth inning, striking out Schwarber swinging at an 84-mph slider to end the threat.

“He didn’t show any rust, did he?” Miller said. “You hope that somebody like that is either having to cheat for balls or guess or do something. (But) I don’t think we can write him off as somebody that’s rusty or that’s not ready to play. It’s impressive.”

The Cubs can still feel it coming — especially after forcing Miller to throw 46 pitches — and they will need Schwarber against a Cleveland team that isn’t just happy to be here.

“He had a postseason for the ages last year,” Epstein said. “He’s only had four or five days of live pitching. But some things transcend standards and routine, and we think he’s capable of some special things.

“He’s going to face great pitching, so he’s going to make outs, just like all our guys. But we think there’ll be a moment where he does something special for us.”

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair