CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber is a freak of nature, a hitter with the hand-eye coordination, explosiveness and guts to do what should be impossible. But it’s a bad sign for the Cubs when a guy who hadn’t seen big-league action in 201 days looked like he might have been the toughest out in their World Series lineup.
Now you know why the Cubs believed Schwarber could help get them that championship parade down Michigan Avenue — and how the Cleveland Indians won’t just fade into history’s background as The Other Team. After a 6-0 loss, the question now becomes: How soon will Schwarber be medically cleared to play the outfield?
Schwarber walked into the Progressive Field interview room at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, becoming the biggest Game 1 story after his stunning recovery from major surgery on his left knee. He didn’t have a hit all season — a brutal collision on April 7 was supposed to knock him out until Opening Day 2017 — but there was his name in the No. 5 spot as the designated hitter against Corey Kluber.
“Once I hit that line, a lot of emotions will come pouring out,” Schwarber said. “I’ll probably cry at some point today. It was a long road, but once we step in between those lines, it’s game time. I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be ready to go (and) try to win this.”
Schwarber had tracked roughly 1,300 pitches off a machine at the team’s spring-training complex and gotten eight plate appearances with the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League, where about 100 people might watch those games.
Now Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box in front of a sellout crowd of 38,091 and a national-TV audience, a “Let’s go, Cubs!” chant starting in the second inning. Schwarber struck out swinging — Kluber notched eight strikeouts through the first three innings — but got acclimated against the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.
Schwarber just missed a home run in his next at-bat, slamming Kluber’s first-pitch fastball off the right-center field wall for a two-out double in the fourth inning. That’s why the Cubs arranged for a private plane to fly him on Monday from Mesa to Cleveland, where he could change franchise history with one big swing, the way he drilled five homers during last year’s playoffs and became a Wrigleyville folk hero.
“With him, anything is possible,” said manager Joe Maddon, who thought it was an easy call to put Schwarber in the lineup.
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It’s hard to overstate how much the Cubs love his energy, presence and powerful left-handed swing, ever since they saw his hard-charging style at Indiana University and recognized the football mentality that made him an All-Ohio linebacker in high school. Theo Epstein’s front office drafted Schwarber fourth overall in 2014, back when it almost looked like a reach for a DH with an unclear defensive future behind the plate or in the outfield.
After getting a better-than-expected progress report last week from Dr. Daniel Cooper — the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL — Schwarber went full speed ahead. That’s really his only gear.
“I called Theo right away and I was like: ‘Hey, I’d love the opportunity to try,’” Schwarber said. “Knowing that I had the opportunity to try and get back, it would kill me deep down inside if I didn’t. And I knew going into it there were no guarantees.
“I didn’t want the media attention. I didn’t want any of that. I did it for my teammates. I did it for me, too. That’s the competitor in me.”
The Cubs made Schwarber untouchable in any trade talks, even as the New York Yankees dangled Andrew Miller, who now looms as another World Series X-factor in the Cleveland bullpen.
Schwarber worked a six-pitch walk against Miller in the seventh inning before the dominant left-handed reliever escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam by getting Willson Contreras to fly out to shallow center field and striking out Addison Russell and David Ross.
Miller won the battle again with two runners on in the eighth inning, striking out Schwarber swinging at an 84-mph slider to end the threat. But the Cubs can feel it coming, and they will need Schwarber against a Cleveland team that isn’t just happy to be here.
“He had a postseason for the ages last year,” Epstein said. “He’s only had four or five days of live pitching. But some things transcend standards and routine and we think he’s capable of some special things. He’s going to face great pitching, so he’s going to make outs, just like all our guys. But we think there’ll be a moment where he does something special for us.”