DES MOINES, Iowa — The big man waved and missed at a pitch as it swept low and across the plate. The next offering — a crush-me curveball in the heart of the hitting zone — settled into the catcher’s mitt for a strikeout looking.
So began Kyle Schwarber’s second stint at the Class AAA level.
The first one, in 2015, lasted all of 17 games during Schwarber’s rapid ascent to the major leagues. He got to Chicago that summer and made an instant splash, and his performance in that year’s postseason — a .333 average and five home runs — anointed him something akin to a superstar.
Yet it was early — so early — for the outsized praise and expectations that have been heaped upon the 24-year-old Schwarber since then. All of it only kicked up a notch after Schwarber, coming off a major knee injury that cost him seven months on the field, suddenly appeared in the lineup for the 2016 World Series and hit .412.
“Maybe we should not have expected that much,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Monday, while his team was in Washington D.C. to face the N.L. East-leading Nationals and Schwarber, wearing No. 22 instead of his customary No. 12, was in Iowa getting ready to take on the New Orleans Baby Cakes. “Even me, I’m guilty of that kind of narrative and dialogue also.”
Who among us can say that we aren’t? I figured I owed him a trip here to see him after all the ridiculous Babe Ruth comparisons I’d lazily made.
How long will stint No. 2 at Iowa last for Schwarber? A handful of games? Dozens of them? Hundreds?
Even he knows he can’t argue with the Cubs’ decision last week to send him down. A .171 batting average, .673 OPS and strikeout rate of 28.7 percent this season wasn’t going to the lefty slugger at the major league level forever.
“The numbers spoke for themselves,” Schwarber said. “Obviously, you don’t ever want to come back down here. But it’s an opportunity to relax, get back to being myself and try to get back up [with the Cubs].”
Schwarber met a small group of reporters, most of them locals, before Monday’s game. Seated on the upper row of the home dugout at Principal Park, he wore tinted sunglasses that at least provided him a buffer during a conversation that couldn’t have been enjoyable for him.
What was hiding behind those shades? I couldn’t help but wonder in light of comments made the other day by Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer.
“I do think a lot of the problems are mental, stem from that,” Hoyer said. “I think that these struggles have kind of beat him up a little bit. And I think like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger and he needs to get that back.”
That sure was a heavy dose of honesty. But does Schwarber feel that way, too?
His jaw clenched when asked if the setbacks of this season — first the slump, then the demotion — had laid him low.
“A demotion’s a demotion,” he said. “It’s something you don’t ever want to happen. It ticks you off a little bit, but you also can’t press [or] anything like that to try to make things happen. You’ve got to go back to what you successful.”
Yet even Schwarber’s success in 2015 was mitigated by a prolonged slump; from August 1 through the end of that regular season, he hit just .216. Schwarber is a career .207 hitter in the big leagues. Is this about rediscovering himself or reinventing himself?
“I want to be one of the best in the game,” he said. “This is just a step. This game is always a continuous learning curve. I learn something new every day in baseball. I want to be one of the best out there. I want to help the Cubs get back to the championship.”
First, he’ll have to find his way back to them. It might take a while. Not to make too much of one minor-league game, but Schwarber followed that strikeout in his first at-bat with two more, flailing limply on breaking balls out of the zone.
But hear this:
“I ain’t a guy to back down from the challenge,” he said. “We saw it last year, being able to try to help my team win the World Series and everything like that. I’m not going to back down at all — trust me.”
Cubdom is counting on it.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.