The inside story of how Cubs' Kyle Schwarber returned in time for World Series
- Kyle Schwarber's season was supposed to be over after he blew out his knee in April. Instead, he's back in October, improbably and incredibly leading the Cubs' World Series charge. Here's how he and Chicago did it—and what's next for both.
Watch Game 3 of the 2016 World Series live on Fox or stream the game here on Fox Sports Go.
CLEVELAND—Sometime Thursday, doctors in Chicago will re-examine the left knee of the freakiest hitter since Roy Hobbs. Cubs front office executives by telephone will loop in his Texas surgeon, the one who fixed the two torn ligaments that resulted from an outfield collision on April 7. Then those executives will have 24 hours to determine whether Kyle Schwarber will be the team's starting leftfielder Friday when Wrigley Field hosts its first World Series game since Oct. 10, 1945.
Assuming Schwarber is cleared to play defense—he has already hit and run the bases and is cleared to slide, so playing leftfield is hardly a stretch—expect him to be in the lineup when ground-ball specialist Kyle Hendricks starts Game 3. The Cubs will place him under orders to manage the risk of another collision, be it with another fielder or a wall—in short, to “play smart.” Schwarber, according to team sources, then is more likely to be deployed as a pinch-hitting specialist in Games 4 and 5 at Wrigley, when fly-ball pitchers John Lackey and Jon Lester are on the mound.
Even a fully healthy Schwarber, never mind one recuperating from knee surgery, is a defensive liability. Compromising what could be a busy defensive position behind fly-ball pitchers—with second baseman-turned-leftfielder Ben Zobrist having to move to right—is a risky strategy.
But as Chicago catcher David Ross said about this combination of Babe Ruth, Roy Hobbs, Willis Reed and Henry Rowengartner all rolled into one: “To use ‘shocked’ and ‘Kyle Schwarber’ in the same sentence is probably a bad combo. The legend of Kyle Schwarber ... the guy is a legend already.”
In Game 2, the Cubs became the first team in World Series history to start six position players younger than 25 years old: Third baseman Kris Bryant, catcher Willson Contreras and rightfielder Jorge Soler are 24; Schwarber and second baseman Javier Baez are 23; and shortstop Addison Russell is 22. They won the game, 5–1, to even the World Series at one game each, thanks in part to two RBI singles from Schwarber, who also had a walk and is now 3-for-7 with two walks and a double in the Fall Classic.
In 1945, three days after being discharged from World War II service, Virgil Trucks pitched the pennant-winning game for Detroit, then beat the Cubs with a complete game in Game 2 of the World Series. Until now, that’s the closest anyone has ever come to walking right into the cauldron of the World Series with virtually no prep work.
Schwarber’s story is even more amazing, given his injury and the demands and speed of the modern game. On April 7, he was laying in the outfield at Chase Field in Arizona with his left knee mangled after a collision with teammate Dexter Fowler. Doctors told him he’d be lucky if he were healthy enough to play the second half of the winter league baseball season.
All summer, Schwarber made himself a part of the team as much as he could. He sat in on scouting report meetings and game planning meetings. He sat in with president Theo Epstein as an advisor of sorts for the amateur draft. He also circled Monday, Oct. 17 on his calendar. That would be the day of his six-month, post-surgery checkup.
When the day arrived, the Cubs were in the NLCS against the Dodgers, and right before Schwarber headed to the Los Angeles airport for a flight to Texas, he told Ross, “I’m going to see the doctor and he’s going to tell me I’m good to go. I’ll see you at the World Series.”
The World Series was eight days away.
Schwarber did pass his checkup; the doctor was surprised at the stability of his knee. Schwarber flew back to Los Angeles and took batting practice that night at Dodger Stadium. He hit again in Los Angeles the next day, then flew the one after that, Thursday, Oct. 20, for the Cubs’ training facility in Mesa, Ariz.
The World Series was just five days away.
Over the next four days, Schwarber played in two Arizona Fall League games (he went 1-for-6) and faced live pitching in two simulated games at the Mesa facility. His hands opened up blisters on the very first day. Schwarber hit or tracked 1,300 pitches in four days—many out of a pitching machine that fired major-league quality breaking pitches, some from two Class A pitchers the Cubs brought in to pitch to him in the simulated games and some from coaches assigned to assist the AFL team, which is a co-op team involving several organizations.
One of the AFL coaches throwing batting practice to Schwarber, unwittingly helping in this crash course to get him ready to face the Indians in the World Series, was Larry Day, a coach from Lynchburg, a Class A minor league affiliate of the ... Indians.
On Monday, Schwarber drilled a double, slid into second base and scored a run in an AFL game. He also lined out to second base on a ball hit with an exit velocity of 110 mph. Epstein took in this information, including a live feed of the game, on his phone.
Epstein and his staff thought about the benefits lined up to have Schwarber in the batting order. The American League had won homefield advantage from the All-Star Game, so the designated hitter would be in use for the first two games of the World Series. Cleveland’s Progressive Field favored lefthanded pull hitters, and the Indians had an entirely righthanded pitching staff except for über-reliever Andrew Miller and spot starter Ryan Merritt. It was too good to pass up.
After the AFL game Monday, a private plane was waiting for Schwarber to fly him to Cleveland. The next day, Schwarber was batting fifth in Game 1 of the World Series.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if he ran into one,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon gushed.
Schwarber had not seen major league pitching for 200 days. His knee still was in a brace. He had just six at-bats in the AFL. And now ... he might “run into” a home run in the World Series against Corey Kluber, a former AL Cy Young Award winner?
“His bat and his intangibles are why we drafted him,” Epstein said of Schwarber, the No. 4 pick just two years ago out of the Indiana University. “He’s a complete impact hitter with the bat, but more than that he’s the perfect player to have as a franchise player because he can be one of your best players who everybody else wants to follow because of his character. He’s a special player and a special person.”
Over the next two nights, Schwarber had to face Kluber; Miller, the best reliever in baseball; Trevor Bauer, a pitcher who allowed a .125 batting average off of one of the best curveballs in baseball; and specialty relievers Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero. All Schwarber did was bat .429, and he nearly did run into one against Kluber, smashing a double off the rightfield wall in just his second at-bat.
“People have no idea how hard it is to do what he just did,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Only someone who is a freak of nature could do this. He’s a natural born hitter. This is the stuff of legends as the World Series goes on.”
Said teammate Kris Bryant, “To do this, especially with the stuff that staff has? No way. I couldn’t do it.”
Said GM Jed Hoyer, “I asked Rizzo, ‘How long would it take you to get ready?’ He said, ‘Thirty at-bats.’ And Anthony Rizzo is a great hitter. But that’s in spring training after you’ve been hitting since January. What he just did is crazy.
“How could anybody have expected this? We couldn’t. But because of who he is, he gets the benefit of the doubt. He’s just a freakishly good hitter and a genuinely great guy.”
The two-night stunning performance left Schwarber atop this admittedly small-sample-size (but fun) list:
The at-bat his teammates kept raving about was a seventh-inning walk against Miller in Game 1, when Schwarber simply spat on a nasty slider just off the plate, taking it for ball four. Miller had faced 74 lefthanded batters during the regular season and walked only one of them.Yet here was Schwarber, in his first day seeing major league pitching since April, working a walk with the cool acumen of a grizzled safecracker. Schwarber saw 40 pitches in nine plate appearances in the two games.
“I’m just trying to put in team at-bats right now,” Schwarber said. “I want to help this team get to the ultimate goal. That's why I did all of this was for these guys in the clubhouse and for our organization. It wasn’t for me. So, like I said, I just want to put in good team at-bats every time I go to the plate and take that result.”
Three months ago, while Schwarber still was rehabbing from his wrecked knee, the Yankees asked Epstein for Schwarber in trade talks about Miller. Epstein immediately and emphatically rejected such an idea, calling Schwarber an untouchable franchise player. (He did likewise when the Yankees brought up Baez. The Cubs shifted the focus to trading for Aroldis Chapman in a deal in which they surrendered shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres.)
Too good to be true? Wait, there’s more. Consider this, too: Schwarber played in the World Series with a green wristband to honor Campbell Faulkner, whom Schwarber identified as a kid with a rare genetic disease he befriended in spring training last year.
“Really young, smart kid, and he’s just always got a big smile on his face,” Schwarber said. “You know, that draws your attention to him. He’s living life to his fullest, even though he’s got something to overcome. We’ve grown a relationship over the last two years, and I actually got to see him when I was in Mesa playing in the AFL, and it was great to see him … that's a person you want to look up to right there.”
On Friday night, the first World Series game in 71 years will be played at Wrigley Field, the first one held there under the lights. It’s already an historic enough occasion. But now, based on the absurdist events of the past two days, more history awaits. The Legend of Kyle Schwarber is to be continued.