Kyle Schwarber’s proper introduction to the Cubs-Sox rivalry came in the summer of 2015 when a fan on the South Side threw a half-empty “tall boy” at him in left field. A little more than a year removed from college, Schwarber didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t finish all the beer first.
David Ross chimed in, raising his voice loud enough so Schwarber and a group of reporters could hear him inside the visiting clubhouse: “You should have shotgunned it and then went over there and found him.
“I tell you what: I’d hate to try to wrap up Kyle Schwarber. I guarantee you that whoever threw that beer doesn’t want (any) part of Kyle Schwarber. I promise you that one.”
That was the rookie orientation before Schwarber: blasted five playoff home runs that October; suffered a devastating knee injury that almost wiped out his entire 2016 season; made a dramatic return to the World Series; and experienced newfound fame and fortune that would change his life forever.
Mess with Schwarber? That aura of invincibility is gone after his detour to Triple-A Iowa before the All-Star break. But the first-place Cubs will take Thursday night’s 6-3 win over the White Sox as another sign that he is almost back, yet another reason why the defending champs look ready to continue this second-half surge.
“I told him that if he had a couple more push-ups in there, he would have had three homers tonight, but we’ll take a triple,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said afterward. “Schwarber’s been swinging the bat great since he’s been back.”
No doubt, the Cubs caught the sell-mode White Sox at the right time during the final days leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Even in going 3-for-4 and blasting his 16th and 17th home runs – which traveled 814 feet combined at Guaranteed Rate Field – Schwarber is still only hitting .191 with 90 strikeouts in 79 games this season.
But the Cubs have always given Schwarber the benefit of the doubt and will point to his big personality and encouraging numbers since his Triple-A reset ended on July 6, getting on base almost 37 percent of the time and hitting safely in 10 of 13 games with five homers, three doubles and that triple.
“Retrospectively, we should not have expected that much,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “I’m guilty of that kind of a narrative or a dialogue also, because I was really eager to watch him play a full season of Major League Baseball.
“But the guy missed the whole season and did really well in a small window of time at the end of the year. So maybe my expectations exceeded what they should have been.
“I do believe he is that good. I do believe you’re going to come back and see him play at the level we anticipated. But he might have just needed more time. And we just didn’t recognize that.
“I might have been as guilty as anybody regarding the promotion of that. But I believe in him fully. I know it’s going to happen. There’s been some really good major-league hitters that have gone through the same thing.”
At this point, the Cubs (54-47) would love to see what kind of wrecking ball Schwarber could be for a half-season. To his credit, Schwarber has been the same throughout all the ups and downs, someone who looks and sounds like a guy you would drink tall boys with.
“I just want to worry about putting the barrel on the ball,” Schwarber said. “I’m just trying to stay within myself, be short (with my swing) and it’s paying off.”
The White Sox got close enough to a potential Jose Quintana deal that they almost pulled their ace from his July 8 start at Coors Field. The next day, Theo Epstein got a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, suddenly reviving a trade discussion the Cubs president assumed was dead after a post-draft check-in that sounded like a formality in June.
If the Chris Sale asking price started at reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant, why would the White Sox want to help the defending World Series champs now?
The New York Yankees at one point felt close to landing Quintana, the minor-league free agent who left them after the 2011 season and then blossomed into an All-Star on the South Side. The Milwaukee Brewers also had active talks with the White Sox, doing extensive research and background work on one of the game’s most underrated pitchers.
The Brewers will get an up-close look at what they missed on Friday night at Miller Park, where Quintana will stand out as the move that may have changed the entire trajectory of this Cubs season and the future of the NL Central.
“I think it figures in more than you think or may even realize,” manager Joe Maddon said before Thursday’s 6-3 win over the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.
While the Cubs have gone 11-2 since the All-Star break, regaining sole possession of first place for the first time since late May, the Brewers endured a 15-2 loss to the Washington Nationals that showed the crash may be coming. With Matt Garza and Chase Anderson on the disabled list, Michael Blazek gave up six home runs in his first career big-league start – at the age of 28 after getting drafted in 2007.
While Quintana’s presence stabilized the rotation and gave the Cubs a shot of adrenaline, the Brewers have seen their 5.5-game lead vanish after a first half where they played way above expectations and projections and ahead of their rebuilding schedule.
“Getting a new guy, he comes out and he pitches great,” Maddon said, referencing Quintana’s July 16 debut against the Baltimore Orioles where he put up 12 strikeouts and zero walks in seven scoreless innings. “He also set a standard the way he did it – strike throwing, aggressive (and a) calm demeanor. Everything he did out there that day was what you want everybody else to watch.
“So that has a lot to do, I think, with how our starting pitchers have settled down a bit. And then beyond that, just the thought among the group that Theo and (GM) Jed (Hoyer) went out there and got somebody like that.”
The Brewers (54-50) still have more than three full business days until the July 31 trade deadline, one of the industry’s best farm systems and 10 games left against the Cubs. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have also stayed in the picture, hovering around .500 in a weak division that could wind up being very entertaining in September.
Epstein insisted that trading for Quintana shouldn’t be interpreted as an overreaction to three-and-a-half months where the disappointing Cubs didn’t have the same edge, because his team-friendly contract made this a long-term play through 2020. But the Before and After pictures are striking.
“The trade should be read as a vote of faith in this group,” Epstein said in Baltimore on the first day back from the All-Star break. “Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in what’s happening at the moment – the tough first half that we had – that you fail to take a step back and realize that not only can this be a winning group, it is a winning group.
“These guys just won a World Series. Our goal is to win more World Series with this team. We all felt like to do that there’s a significant rate-limiting step: We had to add starting pitching.
“It looked for a while like there might have to be a trade-off – we might have to take away from this group in order to add the starting pitching. But to be able to make this trade and add a significant starting pitcher without touching the core of this major-league team – or the major-league team at all – should be read as a show of faith and support in this group.”
It’s also impossible to miss the big smile on Quintana’s face. He called the video tribute here “amazing” and said he “almost cried” watching it. He wanted to say thank you to the fans and the entire White Sox organization.
Without this assist from the White Sox, where would the Cubs be now?
“I miss those guys,” Quintana said. “Now I have to focus on trying to help my team here and try to do my job. It’s a really good opportunity for me to be in first place. I want to do the best I can.”