CLEVELAND – When Kyle Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box in the second inning of the first game of the World Series Tuesday night, it was so unlikely it bordered on absurd. The Chicago Cubs’ slugger played in two big-league baseball games, the most recent 202 days earlier. His live preparation for this moment consisted of eight plate appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League.
So there were a series of questions about how the Cubs decided not just to activate Schwarber for their first World Series appearance in 71 years, but to hit him fifth in the first game. The overarching question, though, for a team that won 103 games and barreled through the National League playoffs: Why?
“We think there’ll be a moment where he does something special for us,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations.
The World Series is just a game old, and Schwarber has already impacted it. He went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk in the Cubs’ 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians in Game 1, and afterward Cubs Manager Joe Maddon committed to him even further.
“What I saw today is that he absolutely will start” Wednesday, in Game 2, Maddon said.
The road Schwarber and the Cubs took to get to this point couldn’t have been envisioned. After Schwarber tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on April 7, and had surgery on April 19, Cubs officials would occasionally allow themselves to think about what it might be like to insert his powerful left-handed swing into their already stacked lineup.
“We talked about it, and we basically said, ‘It’s too bad it can’t happen,’” Epstein said.
And now it’s happening in large part because at Schwarber’s six-month checkup, doctors reported his knee looked as if it was seven months removed from surgery.
“I tell you what,” right-hander Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever been around. … I saw him in and out of the gym three, four, five hours a day with our trainers doing everything he physically could to get to this point.”
Schwarber, 23, came up as a rookie midway through 2015 and had what Epstein called “a postseason for the ages,” clubbing five homers in just nine games. After he collided with center fielder Dexter Fowler during the team’s third game of the season, in Arizona, the Cubs declared him out for the season. Typically, baseball players need seven months to be able to hit after a knee injury of that nature.
“At first, I didn’t think I was ever going to have a normal knee again,” Schwarber said.
For six weeks, he was not allowed to walk, and had to keep his knee straight at all times. “No anything,” he said. He then had to work on getting his range of motion back. He would be strapped down on a table, and athletic trainers would push on his leg, trying to increase strength and flexibility.
“That was probably the toughest part for me mentally,” Schwarber said. “You’re going to the field every day and trying to get your knee to bend, and it just won’t. It’s painful.”
From there, Schwarber had to work on strengthening his leg muscles. Finally, he was allowed to run.
“Running was like trying to learn as a kid again,” he said. “You’re limping all over the place. You can’t figure out why you’re limping.”
All this time, when the Cubs were at home, Schwarber sat in on scouting meetings to go over opposing pitchers. “He’s missed the entire year physically,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “But he has not missed the entire year mentally. So when he had his checkup Oct. 17 in Dallas, and the doctor – surprisingly — said he was free to hit and run the bases, Schwarber called Epstein immediately.
“He told me he was cleared, and then said, ‘You got to give me the chance to try to do this,’” Epstein said. “I think anyone who saw how hard he was working behind the scenes for six months would have given him that chance.”
Getting the chance and then being activated for a World Series game are two different things. The Cubs had Schwarber come to Los Angeles, where they were facing the Dodgers in the NLCS, to take batting practice. They then sent him to Mesa, Ariz., where he tracked 1,300 pitches from a pitching machine, a process that helped him recognize breaking balls. He faced live pitching from a Cubs prospect. And then he played in two games. He walked twice, and his only hit was a double, but Epstein said in his second game, on Monday, “he smoked three balls.”
And the next night, he played in a World Series game.
“He’s definitely not afraid,” Maddon said.
Schwarber is a catcher by trade who also plays left field, but to this point he has not been cleared to play defense. His first half-season in the majors produced 16 home runs, and he showed that his legs are back under him in the fourth inning Tuesday, when he drilled a double to right-center off Cleveland right-hander Corey Kluber.
“His first hit of the year,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Congratulated him on that. I’m happy to have him in our lineup again.”
In an odd way, Schwarber’s later at-bats were just as impressive, if not as productive. Facing left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, he drew a walk in the seventh, part of what became the Cubs’ biggest threat. And in the eighth, he faced Miller again, this time as the tying run.
“He battled through,” Maddon said, “and pretty much missed a hanging slider there at the very end.”
The strikeout ended the inning. But the night just started Schwarber’s season – on Oct. 25.
“He definitely passed the eye test for me,” Maddon said.