Is Kyle Schwarber really the straw that stirs the drink around here? The key to the whole offensive operation? The one bat the Cubs’ can’t get the job done without?
It sure seemed like it throughout a frustrating 1-0 defeat against the Indians in Game 3 of the World Series.
Which, yes, we understand, is a preposterous notion to begin with. The Cubs won 100-plus games without Schwarber, who missed essentially the entire regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs after severely injuring his left knee at the start of April. Schwarber isn’t Superman, or even an off-brand superhero. But even if he were, the Cubs were the best team in baseball without him.
Yet as the innings passed by and the tension mounted Friday night, fans and media all over Wrigley Field were asking one another, “When is Kyle coming out to play?” Rarely, if ever, has the anticipation of a single pinch-hitting appearance been such a gripping subplot.
“He was ready the whole game, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He was ready.”
A promising script was being written after the first two games of the series in Cleveland, in which Schwarber — a surprise insertion into the lineup at designated hitter — had three hits, drove in a pair of runs and reached base five times in nine plate appearances. Coming from a player who’d been out of action for over half a year, it was surreal and magical and felt like it could be the start of something big.
Everyone looked forward to seeing Schwarber in left field in Chicago, which would’ve meant a whole bunch of at-bats for the guy who jacked five home runs in last year’s playoffs. Instead, he wasn’t cleared by doctors to play the field.
At least, that should’ve been the prevailing attitude about it.
And it better be the attitude starting with Game 4, or else the Cubs can kiss this golden opportunity for a championship goodbye.
As a pinch-hitter only in Chicago, Schwarber really isn’t in any kind of position to save the Cubs. The guys actually in the lineup will have to do all the heavy lifting and save themselves.
That means Javy Baez, hero of the first two rounds of the playoffs, will have to stop swinging like it’s 2015. Leadoff man Dexter Fowler can feel free to start a rally. Addison Russell should consider himself encouraged to channel his big-hit moments in Los Angeles during the NLCS.
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Completely losing sight of the strike zone isn’t the way to go.
“We were just out of the zone way too often,” Maddon said. “We’ve got to get our strike zone organized offensively, and if we do we’ll be fine. Just watching the replay, a lot of our (eight) strikeouts obviously were us chasing pitches. We’ve got to do better than that.”
Yet that was the nature of a fairly maddening evening in which the rubber never met the road for the Cubs. There never was that perfect time for Schwarber to be called upon, to stride into the batter’s box, make the Indians sweat and put his stamp on a critical swing game in the series. The rest of the Cubs — who had only five hits — didn’t put together any real rallies.
Isn’t adjusting from an American League park to a National League park supposed to be a problem for the team that played with a DH in its lineup allseason?
Maddon sent Miguel Montero in to hit for the pitcher with two outs and a runner in scoring position in the bottom of the fifth inning, a decision that got many in the crowd talking amongst one another. Would Schwarber have been the way to go there? Probably not. It would’ve burned him for the rest of the game — with a bigger moment hopefully to come.
But it didn’t come. Maddon finally turned to Schwarber in the eighth inning, with one out, no one on base and the pitcher’s spot due. It wasn’t the big moment everyone had been waiting for, and Schwarber went with perhaps appropriate quietness — a mere broken-bat pop-out to short —into that disappointing night.
“I was just trying to hit the ball hard,” Schwarber said.
As it turned out, it would’ve been nice to have Schwarber available in the ninth inning, which began with an Anthony Rizzo single. Oh, well. Nothing was stopping Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward or Baez, the three hitters who followed Rizzo, from being heroes.
The Cubs need to remember what got them here. And, more important, who got them here.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.