Kyle Schwarber needed help going to the bathroom around this time last year. All struggles are relative. It’s the middle of May. With another comeback, this could become part of the legend.
But 391 days after a Dallas Cowboys doctor reconstructed the ACL and repaired the LCL in his left knee — and six-and-a-half months after his line-drive leadoff single in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 rally — Schwarber is hitting .179 for a fourth-place team.
From the top of the lineup, throughout the rotation and all over the field defensively, the Cubs don’t look like themselves. Even though he’s only 24 years old and still hasn’t come close to playing a full season in the big leagues yet, the Cubs are counting on Schwarber to be an emotional leader and an intimidating presence for an offense that was supposed to easily score 800-plus runs.
“It’s a crazy game,” Schwarber said. “It can put you in a great place. And it can put you in a bad place. So you just try to stay right here — just try to stay right in the middle.”
Schwarber insists hitting leadoff hasn’t altered his approach, and manager Joe Maddon has dropped no hints about ending this experiment when the Cubs begin a 10-game homestand on Tuesday night against the Reds.
“Not at all,” Schwarber said. “I don’t think the leadoff spot has changed what’s been going on. I squared some balls up and wasn’t able to get a hit or anything like that. It’s part of the game. It’s baseball. That’s why it’s a game of failure and you got to learn from your mistakes.”
Maybe getting settled at Wrigley Field and hitting in warmer weather will help Schwarber find a rhythm after a 1-for-18 road trip through Coors Field and Busch Stadium. Maddon’s happy talk can be distracting, but the manager has a point about Schwarber hitting into defensive shifts and some bad luck.
Schwarber’s .224 batting average on balls in play is almost 70 points below the major-league average. In terms of grinding out at-bats, only two hitters in The Show — Toronto’s Jose Bautista and San Francisco’s Brandon Belt — have seen more pitches than Schwarber (704) so far this season. Schwarber’s 24 walks lead the team and rank tied for seventh in the National League.
“If you keep playing back the tape, I’m seeing great swing, ball fouled back,” Maddon said. “It’s not coming over our dugout. Once in a while, it’s pulled on something soft. But a lot of them are going straight back in.
“It’s not like he’s slow or he’s not on time. He’s just a click underneath the baseball.”
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It’s not like Schwarber made his reputation putting up numbers in garbage time or against fringe pitchers. It’s also easy to forget that he barely hit above .200 in September 2015 before launching a Gerrit Cole fastball into the Allegheny River in the wild-card game and blasting four more homers during the next two playoff rounds.
“We all know what he can do,” veteran catcher Miguel Montero said. “The best advice I keep giving him is just keep swinging. Don’t change anything, because everything looks good. (The other day) he went 0-for-4 with three bullets.
“As long as you keep with that same swing you’re doing right now, they’re going to find a hole. The worst thing you can do is start changing things. That’s when you get in a funk. He’s not doing anything wrong.”
If anything, this proves that Schwarber is human after all. A staring contest with the pitching machine in Mesa and two Arizona Fall League games would be all Schwarber needed before facing Corey Kluber and Cleveland’s deep bullpen (7-for-17 with three walks).
“What he did in the World Series is kind of unusual,” Maddon said. “But we all have so much faith in him and we all know how good he is. Maybe it’s everybody’s expecting the world out of him right out of the chute.
“I can’t tell you that he’s pressing. I don’t know that. Talking to him, he seems to be fine. He’s running through a tough moment, but he’s really good, and I know it’s going to level out in our favor. So it’s just one of those things we have to ride (out).”
The Cubs would not be the defending champs right now if Schwarber had been mentally weak or oversensitive to criticism or expecting the worst.
“You can’t let it bother you,” Schwarber said. “Obviously, it gets frustrating. You feel like you put a good swing on the ball and you’re just not getting your result. But I just got to keep going with the approach.
“I’m going to stay positive every day. I’m still going to be confident. I’m never going up there thinking: ‘Oh, I’m going to get out.’ I’m thinking I’m going to do some damage.
“Many hitters have gone through what I’ve been going through. You just got to keep going.”