Comeback Kid Kyle Schwarber Rewarding Cubs' Faith with Impact World Series

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 27, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Don’t worry. Hitting savant Kyle Schwarber isn’t Superman all down the line. In some respects, he’s just like you and me.       

Take the private plane that winged him back to the Chicago Cubs on Monday night, his first trip to the majors since the devastating knee injury in early April. OK, so the private plane part might not be like you and me. But the accompanying boredom was.

"It was a long three hours," Schwarber said.

Three hours and a million miles. That’s how long his trip back to the big leagues was this week. Private plane or no, the Wi-Fi was spotty and unworkable. He tried to watch one of his favorite television shows, The Blacklist, but no dice.

So what he had was plenty of time to think. As he reviewed his painful and laborious summer, there was no way he could envision what was up ahead.

But in one area, he had an idea.

Whack!

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After not facing major league pitching since April 7, Schwarber stepped into the World Series with aplomb. After rapping a Game 1 double Tuesday, he knocked in two Game 2 runs to key the Cubs to a 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night to even the 2016 World Series at one game apiece.

Thwack!

The man who went 0-for-4 during the regular season before blowing out his knee against the Diamondbacks in Arizona is 3-for-7 with two walks and two RBI in nine plate appearances in these two games.

"I can see why Theo sent a plane for him," Cleveland manager Terry Francona quipped, referring to Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "I would too.

"That’s a lot to ask. But special players can do special things."

It’s absurd, is what it is. You have a 23-year-old kid who has only played in 71 career MLB games at this point, essentially missed an entire season, missed the first two rounds of the postseason, and Chicago ushered him straight into a World Series.

"Most teams wouldn’t even do that," Cubs second baseman/left fielder Ben Zobrist said. "No one else in history has done that, right?

"And to get hits in the World Series? It’s just crazy. It really is."

Oct 26, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Cubs player Kyle Schwarber (12) hits a RBI single against the Cleveland Indians in the third inning in game two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Schwarber envisioned this. Well, sort of.

"You want to visualize what it’s going to be like when you come back so you’re not thrown off by what happens when you’re there," he said. "You want to put yourself in good situations in your head, and hopefully they play out in the field.

"Visualization is a very powerful tool, and I believe in that."

So instead of watching The Blacklist as he became the first player in history to jump from the Arizona Fall League’s Mesa Solar Sox straight into a World Series, he envisioned hits. He pictured success. He dreamed a thousand dreams over again, the ones he imagined when he was a kid, the same dreams other kids who get bored on plane rides dream. World Series, game on the line, runners on the bases, here comes Schwarber to the plate

Crack!

It was early April when Schwarber blew out his left knee, and it was mid-April when he had a full reconstruction of his ACL ligament and a repair of his LCL ligament. The surgery was performed by Dr. Daniel Cooper, the team physician for the Dallas Cowboys, and the upshot of it was, work hard and you’ll be good as new next spring, kid.

All summer, as the Cubs played, Schwarber worked. His goal, he said, was to "dominate the day."

"It was just constant grind," he said. "There were days when I wasn’t feeling it."

On those days, when the Cubs were home and in the clubhouse while Schwarber was rehabbing, players by the handful would look to pick him up. Led by reliever Pedro Strop, they would tell him, "You’ll be back by the World Series." You know, well-meaning things to boost a friend’s confidence. But stuff maybe both of you know is a long shot.

When the Cubs were in Los Angeles during Games 3, 4 and 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers, the long shot moved onto their doorstep. At his six-month appointment, doctors cleared him to hit. Schwarber immediately phoned Epstein and asked for a chance. The Cubs sent him to the Arizona Fall League to see some pitching.

So now, Schwarber suddenly is locked in a battle with his second colossal problem of the year. Now, he faces reporters, and they ask him questions like the leadoff query following Game 2: Not to be disrespectful to anyone, Kyle, but is this game so easy that you can take six months off and do this?

Schwarber listened and grimaced.

"No, it’s not that easy, first off," he said. "Baseball’s a crazy game. It will do crazy things to you."

It will, and it has. Nobody outworks this kid. Ask any of the Cubs; they’ll tell you he was the first one in the clubhouse every day covered in sweat even though he had no chance of playing for months. For Schwarber, every day was Groundhog Day.

Work ethic? Check this out: During his brief time in Arizona, where he went 1-for-6 with one double and two walks for the Solar Sox, before and after the two games he played, he says he tracked roughly 1,300 pitches off of a pitching machine.

"I tried to set it to the nastiest setting that I could, to where it would be a really sharp break, just to train my eyes all over again," he said.

"He’s insatiable with his work," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs talks with third base coach Gary Jones #1 against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Man, it shows. In Game 1 against Corey Kluber, who threw some of the filthiest pitches the Cubs have seen all season, Schwarber worked a full count in his first at-bat before striking out, scorched a double to right field his next time up and then battled for six pitches to draw a full-count walk in his third plate appearance against Kluber.

He hadn’t faced major league pitching since April 7, yet against a man who won the 2014 American League Cy Young Award, Schwarber battled as well as any other Cub.

"You see how he’s taking pitches that are just borderline," Maddon said. "And that’s probably the most amazing part. Hitting the ball is one thing, but you can see he’s not jumpy. He’s seeing borderline pitches, staying off a ball, he’s not check-swinging and offering.

"That’s the part that’s really impressive to me."

You can see why in July, when many folks thought acquiring Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees would cost them Schwarber, among other pieces, the Cubs figured out a path to the trade to keep him.

In July 2015, he was the MVP of the Futures Game. His uncle, Thomas Schwarber, pitched for Ohio State and in the Detroit Tigers system. Kyle, though, opted to attend Indiana University because he knew, despite his success as a middle linebacker at Middletown (Ohio) High School and all the recruiters who were wooing him, he wanted to play baseball. At Indiana, he could.

As recently as August 2015, he told me he still missed playing football because of the "physical factor." Meaning: He missed hitting people.

But don’t think the football background contributed to his plow-forward determination through rehab this summer.

"No, I think it’s just my personality," the Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2014 told me Wednesday night. "That helps more than anything."

He’s a keeper, in so many ways.

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"You saw how he jacks everybody up," Maddon said of the two RBI Wednesday. "Those couple of big hits he got, again, really, Anthony Rizzo responded well to it. The whole group did. It makes your lineup longer. It makes it thicker. It makes it better.

"Ben Zobrist is seeing better pitches right now because of that, too, I believe."

The Cubs won 103 games this summer without Schwarber, so the natural question now is, how much better are they with him?

"Good question," Zobrist said, pausing for a moment to ponder. "I don’t know. I think he certainly adds wins to the team. You talk about that WAR statistic, whatever...he probably would have added some wins to the equation if we had him all year, but we didn’t. He worked his tail off, and it’s huge."

Third inning, Cubs clinging to a 1-0 lead with Rizzo on second and Zobrist on first. Schwarber got the green light on a 3-0 Trevor Bauer pitch and drilled it up the middle to score Rizzo.

"I was thinking, 'Please swing,'" Rizzo said. "On 3-and-0, the pitcher doesn’t want to walk you, so he usually throws it down the middle of the plate."

Said Kris Bryant: "Pretty much everybody here has the 3-and-0 green light, but it takes some guts to do that. It was awesome to see. I love when guys swing at 3-and-0."

Yes, as Maddon said, you can see how Schwarber jacks everyone up. So now as this World Series heads for Chicago, will the kid be in the lineup Friday night to help jack up a Wrigley Field crowd already salivating at hosting its first World Series game since 1945?

As of Wednesday, doctors hadn’t cleared Schwarber to play defense. Maddon said he has total faith that the kid can play defense. The questions are, what about lateral movement? Quick stops? Change of direction?

"Those are the kinds of things I don’t know anything about," Maddon said.

Best bet: The Cubs keep Schwarber out of the outfield at home, and Maddon picks a big moment to send him to the plate as a pinch hitter.

But that’s all for Game 3 Friday. As the rain poured down late Wednesday night, Schwarber and his teammates headed for their flight home, an airplane that certainly was going to have good Wi-Fi and better company for Schwarber. His long road back has delivered him into the World Series.

What a place to be.

"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 until it ends."

               

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.       

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