Kyle Schwarber ascending at pivotal point in Cubs season: 'It's as good as I've seen him'

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Tony Andracki
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With the division on the line and Javy Baez out of the lineup all week with an injured thumb, the Cubs need all the offense they can get.

The returns of Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras have helped and Nicholas Castellanos continues to endear himself to Cubs fans with a huge five weeks at the plate.

But Kyle Schwarber has been one of the club's most important hitters, right up there with Castellanos. Since the latter's first game in the Cubs lineup on Aug. 1, their stats are eerily similar:

Castellanos: .343/.372/.708 (1.080 OPS), 13 HR, 25 RBI
Schwarber: .287/.314/.691 (1.082 OPS), 10 HR, 27 RBI

It got to the point where Cubs manager Joe Maddon felt he had to move Schwarber up in the order in Friday's game against the Brewers. That bumped Kris Bryant down to the No. 5 spot in the lineup, where he has not hit all season. Maddon also explained the alternating left-right dynamic came into play, in that he wanted to make things tougher on the Brewers bullpen by ensuring lefties like Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo weren't back-to-back.

The results weren't what the Cubs wanted, as Castellanos provided the only offense with a solo homer in a 7-1 loss. Schwarber didn't collect a hit in four trips to the plate and the Cubs didn't even have a hit in the final six innings of the game after Castellanos' third-inning blast.

The bump up in the order came a day after Schwarber doubled, walked and hit an absolutely monstrous grand slam off Brewers reliever Drew Pomeranz:

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"It's real. That was real tonight," Maddon said Thursday. "That's a tough lefty and that ball was beyond properly struck. The back wall's not there, that's somewhere over, shoot, I don't know, what's on the other side of the lake? That ball was kilt. It was k-i-l-t. It was kilt. And that's against an elevated fastball and if they can't go there no more, heads up."

It was apparently the highest pitch Schwarber ever hit for a homer and historically, he's had trouble laying off balls above the strike zone and doing damage on pitches at the top of the zone.

What's more is the grand slam came against a left-handed pitcher. Over his career, Schwarber has performed significantly worse against southpaws (.671 OPS vs. .860 OPS), but with his recent resurgence, he has become more of a neutral splits guy.

His season splits after Thursday's game:

vs. LHP: .236/.327/.494 (.821 OPS)
vs. RHP: .240/.333/.532 (.865 OPS)

"I think it's confidence, but I also think it's a better physical approach at the plate," Maddon said. "He's done a lot of nice things with the swing. It's a much more controlled swing - hands-ier, stay behind the ball. If he maintains what he's doing right now for the next several years, it's gonna get real dangerous. 

"It's better than it was in the beginning of the year. It's as good as I've seen him approach a thrown baseball and he's had some nice moments. He looks really good to me at the plate right now."

Schwarber acknowledged he feels good at the plate and is simply aiming to consistently hit the ball hard, regardless of whether it's in the air or on the ground or to any specific area of the field. 

In regards to that homer Thursday night, Schwarber said he watched Rizzo's at-bat earlier in the inning against Pomeranz when the Cubs first baseman stayed on top of a high fastball and lined a go-ahead sacrifice fly to right field. 

"I saw Rizz, he was very flat to the ball there," Schwarber said. "That kinda told me, like, hey, be able to stay on top of the ball here. Work on top of it. Great job by Rizz there getting the run in and it kinda hinted to me that that's what I needed to do there."

Schwarber's blast drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches - Rizzo called it an "incredible swing" - and Maddon firmly believes the Schwarber we saw in April and May of this year would not have hit that same pitch 442 feet into the right-center bleachers.

Count Ben Zobrist among those blown away by Schwarber's improvements, as the veteran sees a different hitter now than the one he saw a few months ago.

"I've seen him before miss those pitches in past years and he was so short and quick to that ball," Zobrist said. "Just really, really impressive watching him the last few games - line drives, but hitting the ball to all fields and taking a pitch like that on a lefty, bases loaded, was really impressive."

Kyle Schwarber ascending at pivotal point in Cubs season: 'It's as good as I've seen him' originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago