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Kyle Schwarber tunes up for playoffs as Cubs beat Cards 6-4

Kyle Schwarber celebrates his three-run homer in Thursday's seventh inning, with Jon Jay (right) and Matt Szczur (left)

ST. LOUIS — When Kyle Schwarber got done with the first pitch he saw from left-hander Brett Cecil in the seventh inning Thursday, the Cardinals — and anyone else watching — knew what the Cubs were talking about when they touted Schwarber as their new-age leadoff hitter all spring.

‘‘There’s a lot of lineups that are probably bunting right there with their leadoff guy,’’ Cubs right-hander John Lackey said. ‘‘Our guy’s trying to hit it in the seats. It’s a little bit different.’’

Schwarber turned on Cecil’s pitch for a three-run home run down the right-field line to give the Cubs the lead in a 6-4 victory at Busch Stadium. The result completed a rain-extended season-opening series against the rival Cardinals that set a tone for how the Cubs hope to go about their business in defense of their World Series championship.

Schwarber is a big part of that because of his mere presence, never mind his presence as Dexter Fowler’s replacement in the leadoff spot.

That much was made clear by what manager Joe Maddon called a ‘‘raucous’’ postgame celebration, with teammates singling out Schwarber for more than just his mammoth homer.

‘‘It was exciting,’’ Schwarber said. ‘‘Someone yelled, ‘You made it past Game 3,’ then we all went crazy.’’

It was in the third game of last season that Schwarber collided with Fowler in left-center field in Phoenix, suffering a knee injury so severe that it required reconstructive surgery and sidelined him for the rest of the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.

He became a World Series hero by returning to start at designated hitter in the Cubs’ four road games against the Indians.

If he was playoff-ready then, imagine what he would be ready to do if the playoffs started tomorrow.

‘‘I know, right?’’ a laughing Schwarber said after reaching base seven times in 14 plate appearances, including three walks, against the Cardinals. ‘‘I turned the horseshoe around, too. I turned it up so I could make it through.’’

That was a reference to the horseshoe he was given by the Budweiser Clydesdale crew after one of his batting-practice homers hit one of the horses on the butt as the team pulled its wagon alongside the Cubs’ practice field in spring training. Until Thursday, Schwarber had hung the horseshoe in his locker ‘‘upside down,’’ with the luck allegedly spilling out.

Schwarber’s return and position in the order is the most significant change for the Cubs from last season — and what some suggest makes the lineup better.

‘‘It’s really cool,’’ he said. ‘‘From Day 1, I was really looking forward to this. There’s a long way to go, but it was definitely a good win for the team and to get momentum going into the next series.’’

It didn’t look quite so good for much of the game after second baseman Ben Zobrist dropped shortstop Addison Russell’s throw on the pivot of what should have been an inning-ending double play in the first. A run scored on the play, and after two more singles against Lackey, the Cubs quickly trailed 3-0.

‘‘You can’t do much about it once it’s over,’’ said Lackey (1-0), who allowed only one run and two hits in the rest of his six-inning stint and got 10 consecutive outs at one point. ‘‘You’d like for it to look a little different. After that, you just try to battle and try to keep your team in it and try to win the game.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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