Chicago Cubs

Amid roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber once again looks like an answer for Cubs

Amid roller coaster season, Kyle Schwarber once again looks like an answer for Cubs

Roughly three hours after rocking out to "Born in the USA" as his new walk-up song, Kyle Schwarber strutted out to his locker wearing American flag shorts and dripping with sweat after a postgame weight-lifting session. 

He's not saving the world like Captain America or anything like that, but Schwarber is no stronger to the role of hero, having played it for the Cubs in each of the last two postseasons.

And now with the team fighting through a recent offensive slump, Schwarber is once again emerging as a possible answer for this Cubs lineup down the stretch.

The young slugger battled so hard to get his average back up over .200 after a stint in the minor leagues over the summer, but he hit his own slump in late August and early September. 

Those woes led to Schwarber riding the bench over the weekend as the Cubs scored just three runs in three games against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Schwarber normally starts against right-handed pitchers and Milwaukee threw three righties out at Wrigley Field over the weekend yet Schwarber didn't see his name in the lineup once. He came in late Saturday in a 15-2 loss, drilling a homer and drawing a walk.

That little hot stretch rolled into Tuesday as Schwarber reached base all four times up, including his fourth three-hit game of the season as well as his 26th homer. For all the adversity he's faced throughout a roller coaster season, Schwarber is still tied with Kris Bryant for the second-most homers on the Cubs behind Anthony Rizzo.

Tuesday's big game raised Schwarber's 2017 average to .207, the highest it's been since April 29 when he was hitting .211.

Joe Maddon said he's encouraged by the steps Schwarber has taken to get his groove back, which included going to the opposite field and getting a pair of hits off left-handed pitchers.

"Shorter movements to the ball," Maddon said. "Much more hand involvement. I loved the line-drive to left-central. I thought it was big. And then good at-bats against both lefties.

"The homer, he stayed on that pitch really well. If he's getting out too far with longer movements, that doesn't happen. It just looks shorter and quicker, foot down sooner."

Schwarber refused to acknowledge any sort of frustration or show any cracks in the exterior from getting the weekend off. 

"It doesn't really change anything at all," Schwarber said. "I still go about my routine. Trying to keep making adjustments here and there."

Since the All-Star Break, Schwarber has a .908 OPS, slashing .255/.349/.559 in 166 plate appearances.

As the Cubs continue to search for their offensive rhythm down the stretch, Schwarber can play a huge role in a tight division race. 

The Cubs are slated to face right-handed starting pitchers in the next four games through Saturday, which should lead to lots of playing time for a guy who loves hitting when the lights are brightest (career .364 hitter with 1.178 OPS in the postseason).

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”