Kyle Schwarber

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).

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

Hard to believe this Cubs offense will be ready for prime time

The Cubs have enough high-end talent, layers of depth and big-game experience to hang on and win the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are also flawed teams that didn’t really expect to be here, either, only two games behind the defending World Series champs on Sept. 11.

But it’s harder to believe this offense will be ready for prime time and able to beat Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals three times in a five-game series — or wear down Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers again — much less generate the sustained pressure to win three playoff rounds.

Just listen to manager Joe Maddon, who sounded like he was running out of ideas after watching his team score three runs total while the Brewers pulled off a three-game sweep over the weekend: “All of a sudden this series, we chose not to hit.”

After getting shut out in the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history, the Cubs got two garbage-time runs on Saturday after the Brewers built 15-0 lead, and then needed Hernan Perez to misjudge a flyball to right field on Sunday to score their only run.

Look at this offensive snapshot against Milwaukee: The Cubs struck out 32 times while drawing only six walks; went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 21 men on base; and hit .196 overall with only three doubles and a solo home run.

“We’re definitely in the hunt,” Maddon said. “It’s up to us to mentally rise to that moment. It’s a mental challenge as much as anything. Yes, this time of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good arms every night. You have to beat the better pitching to be the team you want to be. I love the challenge. I think our guys do also.

“It’s up to us now to respond properly.”

This isn’t overreacting to a small sample size or overlooking a franchise that’s made so many big investments in hitters or underselling a Brewers team that shrewdly uses defensive shifts and advance scouting reports and hired a pitching coach (Derek Johnson) who used to work for the Cubs.

The Nationals (748), Colorado Rockies (733) and Arizona Diamondbacks (710) are the only NL teams that have scored more runs than the Cubs (707) so far this season. And the Cubs have averaged 5.7 runs per game since Aug. 1. But that stat is skewed by the stretch where the Cubs played 13 games in a row against last-place teams, and six wins where they put up football scores: 16, 15, 13, 17, 17 and 14.

“Every day, (Joe) sends us the lineup in the morning and he’s kind of tried every combination to find that consistency, and we really haven’t found it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have scored a lot of runs, but it seems like we’re blowing a team out once a week and scoring more than a dozen, but then having plenty of nights where it’s not there.

“It has been inconsistent, and I think Joe has been as frustrated as anyone trying to find that right combination. Hopefully, we’ll find it.”

Without Dexter Fowler’s name to put at the top of his iPad, Maddon has used 10 different leadoff hitters this season and gone through 129 lineup combinations (including pitchers) in 143 games.

Ben Zobrist — the other switch-hitter who saw so many pitches and made this feel like an American League lineup last year — has gone from being the World Series MVP to a part-time player. It’s impossible to know how much of that is Zobrist’s age (36) or injuries or fatigue after back-to-back championship runs with the Cubs and Kansas City Royals — or a new reality with two more seasons left on his $56 million contract.

After becoming a Chicago legend, Kyle Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer and has also morphed into a kind of platoon hitter, though his numbers have spiked since that minor-league reboot (13 homers and an .876 OPS).

Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder, a clubhouse leader and a more productive offensive player, but his .702 OPS is still 47 points below the league average.

Remember when Maddon protected Addison Russell during his 2015 rookie season by batting him ninth in 117 games? Switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ — two years removed from his draft class and with only 26 Triple-A games on his resume — has gotten more than 90 percent of his plate appearances between the leadoff and sixth spots in the lineup and delivered 21 homers.

Russell didn’t make the leap to superstardom he hoped for after a 21-homer, 95-RBI season, and the Cubs have to be prepared for the possibility that he might not come back this year as he deals with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Javier Baez has proven that he can be an excellent big-league shortstop who can hit for power (21 homers) and average (.282 since the All-Star break). But a scout tracking the Cubs also made this observation: “He’s going back to that Hail Mary swing now.”

“It’s just working the good at-bat, going up there and getting into the count if you can,” Maddon said. “It’s about squaring up more baseballs. It’s about hitting the ball hard more consistently.

“Beyond that, when you get chances to score runs with outs — when the runner needs to be moved — move him. When you have a chance to score a run with a runner on third and less than two outs, score that run somehow. (Against) good pitchers, you have to take advantage of all those different moments. And on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to beat them.”

The good news for the Cubs is that the New York Mets look nothing like the team that swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series with their power pitching and precise game plans. Instead of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Cubs will face Robert Gsellman, a decimated Matt Harvey and Seth Lugo in a three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Maybe Anthony Rizzo — who now has three straight seasons with more than 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs — is right when he says: “It’s kind of the flow of the season, the ups and downs.”

But no one would have predicted Jon Jay having to be such an important part of this offense, or Tommy La Stella starting this often in a pennant race after taking his New Jersey sabbatical last year and going 1-for-3 in playoff rosters, or the Cubs being this inconsistent when Kris Bryant’s OPS (.924) is not far from where he finished his MVP campaign (.939).

“I’ve always said with each player here: ‘You are who you are,’” Bryant said. “And I think at the end of the year, that’s how things will turn up. I believe that as a team, too. I think we’re a winning team. We’re a playoff team. And I think at the end of the year, that’s where we’ll be.”

One swing by Ian Happ set Cubs and MLB record

One swing by Ian Happ set Cubs and MLB record

The Cubs made MLB and franchise history on Wednesday night.

Ian Happ belted his 20th home run of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which made the Cubs the first team in MLB history to have five players hit 20 or more homers at the age of 25 or younger in a single season.

Check out the record-setting dinger at Wrigley Field:

The previous record was four, held by the 2007 Milwaukee Brewers and 1979 Montreal Expos, according to CSN stats guru Chris Kamka.

The Cubs also set a franchise record by having six players with 20 or more home runs this season: Anthony Rizzo (30), Kris Bryant (24), Kyle Schwarber (22), Willson Contreras (21), Javier Baez (20), and Happ (20).

In case you were wondering, the next Cubs player(s) to 20 home runs are Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist, who have 10.