Kyle Schwarber as a leadoff hitter looks like a typically polarizing Joe Maddon whim. There’s little about Schwarber that suggests he’s right for the part.
He’s built like a linebacker. He doesn’t hit for average. He’s not fast. His greatest strength is his tremendous power.
But Maddon likes him there, and that’s where he has been the last nine games. And it’s working.
Schwarber ignited the Cubs’ offense Friday against the Reds with the kind of versatility not many classic leadoff batters have. He homered to the back rows of the right-field bleachers — a Sheffield Avenue shot in the old days — to lead off the first inning. And he walked with two outs in the third inning to spark a three-run outburst when Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo followed with back-to-back home runs to give the Cubs a 4-0 lead.
Schwarber grounded out to third, struck out looking and flied out after that to finish 1-for-4, but Maddon likes what he sees.
In his nine games as the leadoff man, Schwarber is hitting .265 (9-for-34) with three home runs and seven RBI and has a .372 on-base percentage and .990 OPS. Since going 0-for-4 in his first game at the top spot, Schwarber is hitting .321 with a .421 on-base percentage and 1.057 OPS.
It’s a small sample but still encouraging. When Maddon first tried Schwarber at the leadoff spot in 2017, Schwarber hit .190 with a .693 OPS in 147 at-bats.
“I liked it back then,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘But he did not react to it at the moment. But if you look at his overall abilities . . . for me that’s a perfect spot for him, especially in our lineup.
“He’s made some adjustments recently. He’s more mature as a hitter. He’s understanding it better. I like it. I could have done it earlier this year, but he really wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now earlier in the year. I think the last three weeks, he’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he can be. The timing was right to give it a go.”
Hendricks’ fast start
Starter Kyle Hendricks retired the first 10 batters he faced Friday and allowed only one run in the first five innings before Yasiel Puig hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning. In his last five starts, Hendricks has allowed three total runs in the first five innings — a 1.08 ERA.
“I thought I threw the ball well,” Hendricks said. “[Victor] Caratini and I were on the same page, worked really well. I just made one bad pitch — the one to Puig. Pulled a sinker that I was trying to go in there deep with. Other than that, all their hits were on really good pitches.”
Zobrist still out
Maddon said he has not been in contact with Ben Zobrist, who has been on a leave of absence for personal reasons since May 8.
“I texted him a couple of days ago, but I have not [been in touch] since,” Maddon said.