Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber gets second chance at first impression

Two years after failed experiment, Cubs give Schwarber another shot to earn regular leadoff role.

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Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals

Schwarber homers on the 13th pitch of his eighth-inning at-bat Friday.

Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Cubs have used 15 players in the leadoff spot since Dexter Fowler left for free agency after the 2016 championship.

Is it possible their first choice to replace Fowler was the right one, after all, but it just needed maybe two years to ripen?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon seems determined to find out, especially with switch-hitting veteran Ben Zobrist on indefinite personal leave.

That’s why Kyle Schwarber was leading off for the third consecutive game Saturday.

“I thought coming into this series, it might be a good time to give him another shot at it,” Maddon said of a series against three right-handed Nationals starters. “He had a tough time that one year, but he’s different now. The at-bats have gotten better, and he’s removed from that moment a couple years ago.

“I think he’s better suited to handle it right now. I think when we did it a couple years ago, he probably pressurized himself a little bit to really be all of that. Now he’s able to take it in stride a little bit better and just go play.”

Schwarber is hitting just .220, but thanks to a walk rate that has increased in recent weeks, his on-base percentage is 122 points higher.

On Friday night against the Nationals, Schwarber drew a four-pitch walk off Max Scherzer to open the game, and went on to see 34 pitches in six plate appearances, including two more walks and a game-changing home run in the eighth inning on the 13th pitch of that at-bat.

“One of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen in person,” teammate Kris Bryant said.

Schwarber has said for the last year that he’s open to taking another shot at a regular leadoff role despite the failed five-week experiment to start the 2017 season that spiraled into a slump, eventually leading to demotion to the minors.

“I know he’s really into it right now a lot,” Maddon said. “So we’ll see. I’m not making any commitment either way. I need to keep an open mind with all of this, and I am. Right now, where he’s at with his game, I think it plays pretty well.”

Schwarber, 1-for-4 Saturday with a single in the fourth for the Cubs’ first hit against Stephen Strasburg, has drawn 17 walks in 17 games.

Look for Schwarber to stay in the leadoff spot until at least Wednesday, the next time the Cubs are expected to face a left-hander.

Maddon acknowledged the search that led the team back to Schwarber wouldn’t have happened if Zobrist was still available for the mix-and-match leadoff rotation.

Zobrist left the team May 8.

“Under the circumstances, with the candidates we have, if you really break it down, [Schwarber] might suit the bill as well as anybody,” Maddon said. “If he can stick with this, it would be awesome.”

Notes: Before Kris Bryant homered in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings Friday, the only Cub who had done so was Sammy Sosa in 2002. Bryant is the 12th to do it in major-league history.

• Reliever Junichi Tazawa, who rejoined the organization last month after being released late in spring training, has retired all six batters (three strikeouts) he has faced since joining Class AAA Iowa.

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