Life after Schwarber in 2016: 'Grieving period' over for Cubs

Life after Schwarber in 2016: 'Grieving period' over for Cubs

As the sellout crowd cheered through the frigid Chicago evening, Kyle Schwarber limped toward home plate at Wrigley Field one last time this season.

After the Cubs' coaching staff and roster was announced before Monday's home opener, Schwarber slowly crept out of the dugout and walked toward Joe Maddon at the end of the roster lined up alongside the third-base line, using a single crutch as support.

The Cubs showed a brief highlight reel of Schwarber's greatest moments - including the monster homer on top of the right-field scoreboard against the Cardinals in the NLDS last season - and announced the "Fast Hulk" last, giving him one more moment in the Wrigley spotlight before he misses the rest of the season with two torn ligaments in his knee.

Schwarber's teammates also paid homage to the slugger by blasting his walk-up song ("Thuggish Ruggish Bone") during batting practice.

The pregame tributes were something of symbolic moments for the rest of the Cubs who know they have to move beyond Schwarber's devastating injury.

"I still wake up every morning and for a few seconds, I'm not sure it really happened or it was a bad dream and then you realize it did [happen]," Theo Epstein said. "I think it's OK to admit - the team had to go through a little bit of a mourning or greiving period (not to minimize real grief and mourning; this is obviously something different.)

"And then you move on. We had our worst game [Friday] night, after we got the news and I don't think it was coincidence. Then the guys rallied and recovered and we moved forward with him.

"It's not like we're leaving him behind. He's going to be back next year. He's going to be around as much as he possibly can. I know I started to feel better after chatting with him and spent some time with him last night. That's the type of guy he is - raising other people's spirits. He's still right in the middle of it."

Epstein said immediately after the injury, Schwarber's focus was on the team and trying to keep the early good times rolling - a mindset the Cubs president of baseball operations hopes filters through the rest of the clubhouse.

Epstein's front office knows injuries are just a part of the game and added depth all over the field to help counteract potential back-breaking tenants to the team's disabled list. Imagine how much worse the Schwarber injury would look without Dexter Fowler's surprise re-arrival a week into spring training.

The St. Louis Cardinals have made it look like an art form to rise above serious injuries in recent years, winning 100 games last season despite major injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, among others.

Joe Maddon hates the fact Schwarber won't suit up for the Cubs again in 2016, but he believes there's enough leadership and character in the clubhouse to rise above the loss - both from veterans and the mature young players.

"They've been around long enough to know we can survive this. They know that we realize people are going to have to pick each other up," Maddon said, mentioning the early contributions from underrated players like Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur. "So when these other kids get an opportunity, I really believe you're gonna see a lot of guys [do well].

"It's gonna take more guys obviously before the season's over. They're gonna come up from the minor leagues and do equally as well and surprise a lot of people."

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”



How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

How Cubs temporarily grabbed White Sox spotlight during Sunday Night Baseball

Even with the White Sox on center stage, the Cubs found their way into the spotlight.

“We’re gonna aggravate everybody in Schaumburg with this,” ESPN broadcaster Matt Vasgersian said Sunday. “White Sox fans, sorry about this.”

The White Sox made their first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since May 12, 2013 on Sunday. But early in their matchup against the Indians, the ESPN broadcast momentarily pivoted towards the North Siders.

ESPN showed the results of a social media poll asking baseball fans what they make of the Cubs’ 10-3 start to the season. Of the more than 52,000 respondents, 41 percent said they’ll start to fade soon, 34 percent said they’re a World Series contender and 25 percent said they’re a division title contender.

“Apparently, we had a lot of respondents calling from the South Side of Chicago,” Vasgersian joked.

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The Cubs were scheduled to appear on Sunday Night Baseball before their series against the Cardinals was postponed. So while the poll’s appearance was no coincidence, some White Sox fans probably weren’t happy seeing it pop up mid-game.

“White Sox (fans) are saying,” Vasgersian said, “‘It’s the first time we’ve been on Sunday Night Baseball since 2013 and we gotta talk about the Cubs?’” 

White Sox fans have aired their grievances in recent years over the team being forgotten by national media, especially as the Cubs have received plenty of coverage. This may not fall under the same category as previous occurrences, but it certainly brings back memories of those moments.