Kyle Schwarber has been ahead of the pack throughout his brief pro career, and now he's being issued his biggest challenge.Don't be surprised if the kid from Indiana University pulls it off.• World Series Game 1: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. ET air time | 8 ET game time on FOXThe 23-year-old,
Kyle Schwarber has been ahead of the pack throughout his brief pro career, and now he's being issued his biggest challenge.
Don't be surprised if the kid from Indiana University pulls it off.
• World Series Game 1: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. ET air time | 8 ET game time on FOX
The 23-year-old, who became the franchise's all-time leader in postseason home runs last October, joined the Cubs on Monday night in Cleveland, only two Arizona Fall League games removed from the reconstructive surgery on his left knee that caused him to miss almost the entire season.
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Now Schwarber is officially on the World Series roster the Cubs submitted Tuesday morning, replacing left-hander Rob Zastryzny (who warmed up but wasn't used against the Dodgers). He is expected to serve as the designated hitter in Game 1 against Corey Kluber.
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Is this nuts?
While Schwarber will be at a huge disadvantage having only been cleared by doctors to start hitting in the last week, he's a left-handed-hitting version of Kris Bryant. You can question the level of pitching he faced in Arizona, but he had some good at-bats in the AFL, with a double and two walks in eight plate appearances (and another possible double taken away on a good fielding play).
The only way the Cubs will have made a mistake giving Schwarber a shot is if he reinjures his knee and is set back for 2017. He was medically cleared to start running before the clearance to hit, and Theo Epstein puts his confidence in the team's doctors and athletic trainers.
Schwarber hasn't played since April 7 in Arizona. He walked in his only plate appearance that night before colliding with Dexter Fowler on the warning track in deep left-center and underwent surgery April 19 to reconstruct his anterior cruciate ligament and repair his lateral collateral ligament. He was on crutches until July but has been using the team's enhanced facilities at Wrigley Field to make a quicker-than-expected recovery.
His return would provide a lift for the Cubs, who have gone 7-3 in the postseason after winning 103 games in the regular season.
"We missed him all year," Jon Lester said last week, after the Cubs had been shut out in Games 2 and 3 of the National League Championship Series. "Even for a young guy, [with] his heart and competitiveness and his desire to play, you know, he's there every day at the field working his butt off. You see him coming in from the weight room and he's drenched and we know how hard he's working to try to get back to help us. ... I can only imagine what our offense would have been like this year. He definitely would have helped in the situation now."
Now he can.
With no designated hitter in their lineup, the Cubs outscored the Indians by almost a run and a half per game in October. They're averaging 4.8 runs per game after a burst to close out the Dodgers, scoring 23 runs in the last 24 innings of the NLCS. Their pitchers have helped, going 4-for-21 with two home runs and six RBIs in the 10 games, but last season Schwarber hit .333 with five homers and a 1.308 OPS in the postseason.
No one's going to expect him to do that again, but Schwarber arrived last season with advanced skills. He combines bat speed with a short stroke and a ridiculously fine understanding of the strike zone. And while he has the power to hit the ball on top of the Wrigley Field video board -- see Game 4, 2015 NL Division Series -- he's also a strong situational hitter.
The Cubs might not be as quick to put Schwarber into the lineup against Kluber and Trevor Bauer, but right fielder Jason Heyward is in a 2-for-28 funk and the three guys most likely to receive consideration for the DH spot in the lineup -- Jorge Soler (0-for-8), Albert Almora Jr. (0-for-9) and Chris Coghlan (0-for-4) -- are hitless in 21 at-bats in the postseason.
With David Ross catching Lester in Game 1, Willson Contreras would be a good choice at DH but adding Schwarber gives Joe Maddon the option of using Contreras in left field and moving Ben Zobrist to right. He also could hold on to Contreras for a big at-bat off the bench against Andrew Miller. The versatility of the Cubs roster, on display throughout the regular season, gives Maddon a plethora of options for working Schwarber into the lineup without unduly adversely affecting the defense.
Why not see if Schwarber can provide a spark in the lineup? It's possible his timing won't be as sharp as he'd like, which could allow Kluber to make him look silly. But Schwarber has the ability to lengthen the lineup by having good at-bats, regardless of whether he gets a hit. He led the 2015 Cubs (minimum 100 at-bats) with 4.3 pitches per plate appearance.
A classic Jason McLeod/Jed Hoyer/Epstein pick as the fourth selection in the 2014 Draft, the Indiana University product from Middletown, Ohio, reached the big leagues one year after he was drafted. He played only 147 games in the Minor Leagues, hitting .333 with 34 homers, a .429 on-base percentage and a 1.042 OPS.
The kid can hit a little.
Aside from the fact that he wasn't returning from a knee injury, his debut with the Cubs came in similar circumstances. Epstein wanted to add a DH for a week of games at Cleveland and Minnesota. Schwarber came out blasting, going 6-for-10 with a triple, home run and four RBIs in the series against the Indians.
His friends and family were conspicuously present and rowdy on the night of June 17, when he had four hits to lead the Cubs to a 17-0 victory in his first start.
There were 15,572 fans at Progressive Field that night. The buzz will be a whole different level tonight, but Schwarber's the same hitter. He just needs to knock off some rust. If anyone can pull this off, he's the one.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.