The incredible comeback of Kyle Schwarber, World Series hero (and secret draft-room weapon)

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·MLB columnist
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CLEVELAND – In the week leading up to June’s amateur draft, a familiar face showed up every day at Wrigley Field in an unfamiliar place. Surrounded by hard-boiled scouts and cross-checkers, analytics wonks and the Chicago Cubs’ crack executive brain trust, Kyle Schwarber ping-ponged about the team’s draft room, rendering opinions on hitters’ swings and giving reports on players he knew from his college days. Whatever superlatives people want to lavish on Schwarber – and there were plenty after he played World Series hero Wednesday night – there may be no greater validation of what the Cubs think of him than an invitation into the draft room, a holy sanctum for any baseball team.

It was there, two years earlier, that the Cubs drafted with the fourth overall pick a burly outfielder out of Indiana, one without a natural position, thus inducing the slings and arrows of an industry that did not understand what they did: Everything about Kyle Schwarber rendered his lack of a position moot. His left-handed stroke, a complete anomaly, so short yet so powerful. His makeup, which drew the be-all, end-all of makeup comparisons for Cubs president Theo Epstein: Dustin Pedroia. And his determination, something that at the time they understood would behoove him as time wore on but didn’t know would prove vital so quickly.

Schwarber spent that week in the Cubs’ draft room only because an April crash in the outfield wrecked his left knee, tearing two ligaments and seemingly shelving his 2016 season. If he couldn’t help the organization on the field, he was determined to lend a hand otherwise. Of course, neither Schwarber nor anyone else in the room recognized his knee was healing at an extraordinary rate, that by August and September it started feeling good enough to dare to dream about a return by the World Series, something at which no one chuckled, even if the Cubs and the World Series hadn’t found themselves in the same plane of existence in 71 years. Then came October, and Schwarber was staring at 1,300 breaking pitches thrown off a machine to retrain his eyes, darting every which way to test the knee, swinging and swinging some more and swinging some more after that, swinging so much eight blisters covered his hands.

And still, this – the Cubs actually making the World Series and Schwarber actually being here and Joe Maddon actually penciling him in the Cubs lineup’s fifth spot and his teammates actually setting him up to whack a pair of RBI singles in their first World Series win in seven decades – exceeded every expectation, which, actually, plays to type, because Kyle Schwarber’s entire career lives on the premise of him exceeding expectations.

Kyle Schwarber had two hits and drove in two runs in the Cubs' Game 2 victory over the Indians. (USA Today)
Kyle Schwarber had two hits and drove in two runs in the Cubs’ Game 2 victory over the Indians. (USA Today)

The giddiness inside the Cubs’ clubhouse following their 5-1 victory in Game 2 of the World Series that sent them back to Chicago tied with the Cleveland Indians exceeded the typical zeal of a Cubs postgame celebration. This one felt special, because with every borderline pitch he read with his eagle eyes, every ball he barreled, every moment he spent contributing to the Cubs’ victory, Schwarber justified the faith and trust placed in him. Not just by the doctors, who declared his knee suited for competition, or the front office, which understood the risk in handing Schwarber at-bats at designated hitter after more than six months off, but the other 24 players on the Cubs’ roster, who envisioned the potential reward rather than question the wisdom of the choice.

When he wasn’t in the draft room, Schwarber was in the weight room, on the trainer’s table, doing everything in his power to rehabilitate his knee with the vigor he attacks pitchers. If he showed his mettle last year in arriving midseason and finishing the year as a hitter on par with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the two linchpins of the Cubs’ offense, he reinforced it to his teammates without taking an at-bat since April 7, a Herculean feat itself.

“He’s going to be the leader of this clubhouse and the leader of this team,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. “Because his personality, his demeanor, just the way he handles himself in the clubhouse. With all due respect to Rizzo and KB and whoever is on the team, I think he’s going to be the leader of this club. Simple as that.”

To place a 23-year-old on such a pedestal, in a clubhouse as filled with present and future stars as the Cubs’ no less, offers some insight into what Schwarber means to the Cubs. Like Pedroia, the Boston Red Sox’s feisty heartbeat, Schwarber is the Cubs’ super-ego, the balance between their animalistic and logical tendencies. He’s not simply their hitting archetype, a 40-homer monster with the ability to spit on a pitch that paints the outside corner. Schwarber fits into the culture the Cubs want to build so 2016 is the beginning of a dynasty, not merely the year that laid waste to 108 empty ones.

The Cubs used Kyle Schwarber as their DH in the first two games of the World Series. (AP)
The Cubs used Kyle Schwarber as their DH in the first two games of the World Series. (AP)

“He’s a different cat,” Maddon said, and there is perhaps no greater compliment he could offer. In his second at-bat Tuesday, Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box against Corey Kluber, one of baseball’s best pitchers, and ripped a double off the right-field wall. He followed Wednesday by jamming the gas with a green-light 3-0 pitch and rocketing it to center field to push Chicago’s advantage to 2-0. The Cubs had been so eager for Schwarber’s arrival they chartered a jet to ensure he arrived for the series. If he hadn’t warranted the expense already, that run more than paid for it.

“I can see why Theo sent a plane for him,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I would, too. That’s a lot to ask, but special players can do special things.”

To call Schwarber special not even 250 at-bats into his career sounds like an exaggeration. It’s a word reserved for a select few. Like, maybe, the guy who blows out a knee, obliterates the rehab timetable, reappears in the biggest moment imaginable for a franchise devoid of such moments, grabs it and makes it his. His teammates forced seven Indians pitchers to throw 196 pitches, worked them silly in a game that stretched beyond four hours, did everything they were supposed to. Each stood in awe of Schwarber, though, as he tattooed another single to center field in the fifth inning to extend the Cubs’ lead to 4-0, as he drew a walk the time up after that, even as he stared at a called third strike in the eighth inning and had the chutzpah to turn around and question home-plate umpire Chris Guccione’s call, like he wasn’t seeing major league pitching for, oh, the second time in half a year.

“It’s not that easy, first off,” Schwarber said. “Baseball’s a crazy game. It will do crazy things to you, but this is the moment that we all look for when we were little kids, to play in the World Series and win it.”

Win a World Series in Chicago. It’s what all the Cubs are here to do and why they’re all embracing this as fully as they did a regular season in which their camaraderie shone through. Perhaps nothing in the postseason illustrated it better than Schwarber’s reaction after his first RBI, when he stared into the dugout while running to first base, turned the corner, then wheeled around and screamed a most unpleasant – and unprintable – request of a teammate that involved an anatomically sensitive area.

“It was me,” catcher David Ross said. “And I loved every second of it.”

Ross, you see, is not just the lovable grandfather figure in the Cubs’ clubhouse, a 39-year-old hoping to ride into retirement with a ring. He is also a habitual line-stepper. After Game 1, he rode Schwarber hard. “One hit? That’s all?” he said. “Do something to help the team. Drive in a run or something.”

Schwarber did. And he made sure Ross and the entire Cubs’ dugout knew about it.

“I almost passed out laughing,” Ross said. “I love that guy. He is so tough mentally. He’s stayed with the team and been in every at-bat with us. That’s why he’s having success. He’s a natural-born hitter. But he has stayed engaged.”

To Schwarber, the game was about more than every day. It is today, yes, but it is also tomorrow and the day after that and on and on for years. He’s going to be a Chicago Cub for a good, long while, and his investment in their success isn’t just about what he does, what he accomplishes, what he means. He is a cog. The machine can run without him. It just runs smoother and cleaner and better with him.

“Hey, man, I’m living the dream,” Schwarber said. “We’re playing in the World Series. What else can you ask for? I’m just going to keep riding the wave ’til it ends.”

He rode it long and strong Wednesday night, rode it to the disdain of the 38,172 at Progressive Field and the giddiness of millions of Cubs fans across the country, rode it like the boss he is, all the way back to Chicago, where he may well one-up himself again. There is no DH for Games 3, 4 and 5, and now the question is whether doctors will clear Schwarber to play left field and whether the team will throw him out there. If there’s one thing the Cubs know by now, one thing the world knows, it’s that if Kyle Schwarber does anything, it’s exceed expectations. Doubt him at your peril.