The World Series is returning to Chicago's North Side for the first time since 1945. That's the lead storyline ahead of Friday's pivotal Game 3, which is scheduled to be aired at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
Here's an intriguing subplot: Unlikely Cubs offensive catalyst Kyle Schwarber will be on the bench.
Schwarber was not medically cleared to play the field Thursday, nearly seven months after tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee, per the Cubs' official Twitter feed.
He served as the designated hitter in the first two games of the World Series, and he did so with distinction.
Specifically, Schwarber went 3-for-7 with a double, two walks and two RBI. If you want the small-sample slash line, that equates to .429/.556/.571.
Not bad for a man who hadn't seen big league pitching since April 7 and had only a brief Arizona Fall League stint and reps in the cage to prepare.
After delivering an RBI single in Game 2, Schwarber delivered the expletive heard 'round the world (warning: link contains NSFW language). The dude is hot, plain and simple.
"He should just skip spring training next year," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said, per the New York Times' Tyler Kepner. "He'll be fine. Just jump right in the World Series and have success. No big deal."
Naturally, there was noise about Schwarber's strapping on a glove as the scene shifted to Chicago. He hasn't been a plus outfield defender in his limited MLB experience, as his negative-0.3 ultimate zone rating attests.
But slotting him in left field—particularly in Game 3 with ground-ball specialist Kyle Hendricks on the bump—seemed like a worthwhile trade-off. Factor in the five home runs he hit in the 2015 playoffs, and Schwarber is emerging as a nascent Mr. October.
Now, he'll be glued to the pine, available only as a pinch hitter until and unless the series returns to Cleveland.
It makes sense. This kid is 23 years old and a major piece of the Cubs' long-term plans. They refused to move him at the trade deadline, even for top-shelf talent like Indians bullpen wizard Andrew Miller. Why would they jeopardize his future now?
Still, Schwarber's presence was a literal game-changer for Chicago—one of those autumn miracles that defies explanation.
He's moving the needle in the batter's box and in the clubhouse, as Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan noted:
Jeff Passan @JeffPassan
In no way does this impugn Rizzo or Bryant. Clubhouses loaded with alphas will have multiple leaders. But Schwarber will be the heartbeat.10/27/2016, 3:20:42 PM
Does that mean his absence will dull the Cubs' momentum?
Chicago has plenty of weapons. Bryant has just one hit in the World Series but boasts a combined .845 postseason OPS. Javier Baez is hitting .319 in the playoffs while flashing ludicrous leather at second base. After a slow start, first baseman Anthony Rizzo has six RBI and eight hits in his last five playoff games, including two home runs and three doubles.
Overall, Chicago paces the postseason field with 53 runs scored. Cleveland, by contrast, has scored 34.
At the same time, this Cubs offense has been mercurial. They've been shut out three times in the playoffs, including in Game 1 against the Indians.
Losing Schwarber's power and plate discipline stings. Right fielder Jason Heyward is hitting a paltry .067 in the postseason. Chris Coghlan and Jorge Soler, who started in his stead in Games 1 and 2, are hitless.
With Schwarber out, the Cubs will roll with Ben Zobrist in left, Dexter Fowler in center and some combination of the Heyward/Coghlan/Soler troika in right.
Again, that doesn't mean the Cubbies are doomed. They had the best home record in baseball during the regular season at 57-24. And if the Indians do win a game or more at Wrigley, Schwarber can DH for Games 6 and 7 if necessary.
This is the World Series, however, when every twist and wrinkle is magnified.
The Cubs got one of their best young hitters back in inspiring, dramatic fashion. Now, paradoxically, they'll lose him on their home turf.
It may not swing the outcome. But it's a subplot worth following.