Smith, you see, was Schwarber’s head coach at Indiana University. He used to throw batting practice to the college catcher. Long before the Nationals’ 7-3 win over the Marlins — another win fueled by Schwarber’s bat — Smith challenged Schwarber before a home game in Bloomington, Ind. It wasn’t just to hit a homer off his coach. That was far too easy. But if Schwarber could crush one past the back wall of the stadium, what separated the baseball field from the next-closest facility, Smith promised to take the whole team for a nice dessert that night, tight budget be damned.
That’s how the Hoosiers wound up at Janko’s Little Zagreb, ordering cheesecake by the bucketful. Now Schwarber is 28, a left fielder for the Nationals and still swinging like a hungry teenager.
“All you had to do was motivate Schwarber by food because he went deep and the whole team went out on that,” Smith recalled. “That was kind of a legendary shot.”
Schwarber has spent this month adding to that legend. With his first homer Thursday, a second-deck bomb on the sixth pitch at LoanDepot Park, a 2-2 curveball from Poteet, Schwarber became the first player in major league history to smack 11 homers out of the leadoff spot in a span of 13 games. That total was bumped to 12 by the night’s end, extending his record. He also joined Frank Howard, Manny Ramirez and Shawn Green as the four players to notch eight homers and 15 RBI in a five-game span. He even passed the Marlins’ home run total since June 12 — 12 for Schwarber, 11 for their whole team — and it took just two at-bats across two innings.
His second homer, on Poteet’s 0-2 curveball with two outs in the second, was a three-run shot that gave the Nationals a 4-0 lead. Trea Turner followed with a single, and Juan Soto doubled him in. Joe Ross cruised for seven innings, striking out eight and yielding no runs on 101 pitches. Soto added another RBI double in the seventh. The offense was without Josh Bell, a late scratch with right side soreness, yet didn’t miss a beat. The early production was enough to cover for reliever Justin Miller getting tagged by Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s three-run homer in the eighth.
Call it the Kyle Schwarber Effect. At 36-36, the Nationals are at .500 for the first time since they were 12-12 on May 2.
“It’s a little bit more satisfying that we’re going out there and we’re winning baseball games,” Schwarber said of his hot streak coinciding with the Nationals’ surge up the standings. “It makes it a lot more satisfying, actually. Trust me, I wouldn’t care if I was doing this and we’re going out there and losing.”
Martinez put Schwarber atop the order June 8, and he went 0 for 3 with a walk against Tyler Glasnow and the Tampa Bay Rays. Martinez tried it again that weekend, in the first game of a doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants, and Schwarber led off with a homer. He hit two more the next day. That afternoon — the afternoon of June 13 — Schwarber looked into the camera during his postgame news conference and said: “Remember, this is a good team. You guys stay with us now, all right? Stay with us.”
It could have felt a bit forced for a club that was still 27-35, still in last place in the National League East, still a half-game behind the Marlins, let alone the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. And Schwarber had slumped through April, slugging .365 before bashing seven homers in an otherwise bumpy May.
But he has backed his words and then some … and then some and then some. He has played through a sore right knee, having hurt it June 2 on a diving catch attempt, and found a serious, unshakable rhythm. The Nationals, in turn, have won five straight and 11 of 13. They now trail the Mets, who didn’t play Thursday, by 3½ games in a division race that was racing past them two weeks ago.
“I’m not the only component of this. Trust me,” Schwarber said. “This is a team game. This is not a one-person game. You need your pitcher, you need your catcher calling a good game, you need the defensive guys behind, and you need everyone to keep putting in key at-bats, passing that baton to whoever it is that’s going to drive in runs.”
“It helps when it’s 1-0 after the first batter,” Ross deadpanned, nodding to Schwarber’s five recent homers in the first at-bat of games. “It’s fun to watch, and it’s kind of hard to believe. I don’t know what’s going through his mind, if anything at all, really.”
In his third plate appearance Tuesday, a third chance with Poteet, Schwarber struck out swinging at a 3-2 change-up. In his fourth, facing lefty reliever Ross Detwiler, he struck out whiffing on a low cutter. Then in his fifth, once the Nationals had a big lead in the eighth, he walked on six pitches, dropping his bat to trot to first — and first only — instead of the full 360 feet around the bags.
Those results didn’t quite balance the universe. But they did seem fair.
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