In some ways, it felt like Kyle Schwarber never left.
Schwarber’s image loomed in New Era advertisements on the Wrigley Field video boards, the team store at the stadium’s Waveland Avenue entrance and on the side of Clark Street Sports. Schwarber Watch ran for multiple news cycles during his 11-game sabbatical with Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs remained the same underachieving team: 36-35 on June 21 when Schwarber was told to take a few days off to decompress before reporting to Des Moines — and 42-42 when he walked back through the clubhouse on Thursday at 10:15 a.m.
Wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a camouflage hat, Schwarber dropped his backpack at his locker, where more than a dozen media types loitered, waiting around for the optimistic sound bites. Schwarber gave Ben Zobrist a bear hug and playfully punched Willson Contreras in the stomach, all smiles around guys who wouldn’t have that World Series ring without him.
“I’m not a pouter,” Schwarber said with a laugh before going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in an 11-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers that had none of the bounce the Cubs hoped for. “I’m pretty dang confident in myself. I’ve overcome a lot of different things.
“I feel like that was a really big learning experience for me. Now knowing what I have to do to get back — if things start going wrong again, whatever it is — I feel really confident.”
The doubts still crept in as Schwarber stunningly withered from playoff legend the last two Octobers (and part of November) into one of the worst hitters in the big leagues this season (.171 average, .673 OPS) for a majorly disappointing team.
“When the guys look up at the scoreboard, you see all these numbers,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s impactful when you see your number being so low and you want to get it back by next Wednesday. And it’s not going to be done by next Wednesday, so you start trying to do more and more and more, where it’s really appropriate to try and do less.
“‘Try easier’ is a really good phrase. It’s really difficult to get highly competitive young players to try easier at times. But that’s exactly what he needs to do.”
Where the Cubs completely overhauled Jason Heyward’s swing during the offseason, team president Theo Epstein framed Schwarber’s program as “more about a reset for him than it was a rebuilding.”
“Everything got a little bit too big for me,” Schwarber said, talking specifically about his mechanics and not the post-World Series victory lap and all the off-the-field attention the 2016 Cubs have enjoyed. “Just my moves and everything like that.
“It wasn’t drastic. It was just being able to focus on some little things. I was just missing my pitch. It’s being able to shorten things down and now get back on my pitch. It’s feeling good.”
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Schwarber didn’t just lose all this talent overnight, the skills that made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, a monster hitter for a 97-win team in 2015 and the World Series X-factor coming back from major knee surgery. The Cubs also realize that a good run with Iowa — 12-for-35 with four homers and eight walks — won’t suddenly change everything back to the way it was.
“His body language is more typical of what we’ve seen,” Epstein said. “When he’s right, he’s kind of stalking the pitcher from the on-deck circle. He controls the at-bat from the batter’s box. And that’s what we’ve seen down there.
“Obviously, it’s baseball. You’re not necessarily going to see results right away and that’s not what we’re asking of him. Just a consistent approach and maintaining confidence and a positive attitude — which he has right now — and we know the results will come eventually.”
The Cubs are running out of buttons to push and levers to pull here, once again hoping “The Legend of Schwarber” can help save them, the way he delivered in the 2015 playoffs and an epic World Series.
“He’s a big part of our culture here,” Maddon said. “He’s a highly accountable young man. He knew he needed it. He was probably kind of expecting it in advance. It was probably somewhat of a relief, just being able to do that, so you could go there, away from the maddening crowd, and attempt to get yourself back together.”