CLEVELAND — Even as the Cubs went through their World Series workout and media-day responsibilities here, team officials kept their eyes on Kyle Schwarber in the Arizona Fall League, watching his at-bats on a live video feed from their spring-training complex.
The Cubs clearly didn’t use Schwarber as a distraction for their anxious fan base or a misdirection play against the Cleveland Indians. This is all about maximizing the chance to win the franchise’s first world championship since 1908 — and the Cubs believe Schwarber’s thunderous left-handed swing could be the X-factor.
Schwarber planned to fly to Cleveland on Monday after going 1-for-3 with a double, a walk and a run scored for the Mesa Solar Sox, another giant step in his recovery from what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.
“He looked really good,” said team president Theo Epstein, mentioning that Schwarber did the necessary running/sliding/diving drills pregame — and then hit a ball with 110-mph exit velocity.
The rotating images on the big video board at Progressive Field even showed a dummy Game 1 lineup with Schwarber batting ninth as the designated hitter against Corey Kluber. It’s a long way from the Arizona Fall League to facing a Cy Young Award winner, especially after going more than six months without seeing live pitching. But if anyone can do it, well, the Cubs would never bet against Schwarber.
“He’s a pretty special person and a special hitter,” Epstein said.
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One week ago, Dr. Daniel Cooper, the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL, surprisingly green-lighted a return to baseball activities. The Cubs had been focused on getting Schwarber ready for winter ball and Opening Day 2017, a more realistic timeline after that brutal outfield collision with Dexter Fowler on April 7.
The Cubs still won 103 games — even with Schwarber making only five plate appearances during the regular season and spending his time working on scouting reports, analyzing video and observing in the draft room.
“We’ve seen first-hand the work that he’s putting in and how hard he’s been going,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Honestly, I saw him out — maybe a couple weeks after his surgery — and he’s moving around, walking. And I’m like: ‘Dang, this guy’s not human. How? I saw your leg bend in half, and you’re walking around. This is unbelievable.’
“(It’s) watching him dripping with sweat every single day. Every single day, this guy is drenched. I feel like he’s in the best shape of his life (now). There was no doubt in my mind that he could do it. It was just a matter of if they let him.”
Schwarber is such a presence that Cubs executives left their seats and moved to the back of their Wrigley Field suite on Saturday night to watch his at-bats on the Sloan Park SpyCam — even as the best team in baseball eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers from the National League Championship Series and won the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years.
Everyone around the Cubs remembers how Schwarber starred during that wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ball he smashed off the St. Louis Cardinals onto the top of a Wrigley Field video board, putting up five homers and a 1.308 OPS during last year’s playoffs, which happened to be the end of his first full season in professional baseball.
“You see when he gets introduced how much everybody loves him,” Game 2 starter Jake Arrieta said. “He’s a legend already at such a young age. That’s awesome. It just speaks to the importance of what he was able to do last year for us.
“I think he’s going to be here. He wouldn’t have been playing in the Fall League if they weren’t seriously considering him being here. And not having to put him in the field is huge. If he hits a ball over the fence, he can trot around the bases. If he happens to line out or ground out, then he can just kind of jog to first.
“That just speaks to how special of a bat he is — and how hard he worked these past six months to put himself in the position to be ready to play in the World Series.”
At the age of 23, Schwarber is positioned to become yet another young Cub who wants to own this October. Jason McLeod — the senior vice president of scouting and player development heavily involved in the decision to draft Schwarber with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft — joked about how Fowler’s one-year, $13 million deal came together during this unreal year.
“We have to one-up Dexter’s entrance into spring training,” McLeod said.