Less than seven months after tearing his ACL, Kyle Schwarber will be the Chicago Cubs’ designated hitter in Game 1 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. The news came in Monday, adding some extra intrigue to a historic matchup that hardly needed any more of it.
This is an incredible development for Schwarber and the Cubs, who had not been planning for this just months ago. He was supposed to continue rehabilitation on his left knee in order to be ready for spring training in March. As recently as June, the team stuck to the line that Schwarber wasn’t an option, no matter how far Chicago got in the playoffs.
“No, he’s ruled out, and we’re getting him ready for spring training next year,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Schwarber’s chances of returning for the postseason. Fans’ expectations were being managed.
Fast forward to Monday, the day before the opening of the 2016 World Series, and Schwarber is penciled into the lineup for Game 1. Here’s how we got here, and why Schwarber’s return is such a big deal for Cubs-Indians.
Schwarber was on top of the baseball world when he collided with center fielder Dexter Fowler on a fly ball during the Cubs’ third game of the 2016 season. He tore up his left knee on the play (both the ACL and LCL), and had to undergo surgery to repair the tendons.
The injury was a heavy dose of reality after Schwarber’s miraculous rise over the previous year. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, Schwarber was called up midway through the 2015 season and immediately became one of Chicago’s best players. In 69 games through the end of the season, he hit 16 home runs and posted a .355 on-base percentage. In the 2015 playoffs, he hit .333 with five homers and became a fan favorite.
For a team that already boasted Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Addison Russell, among others, this was an absurd collection of talent. So much so that when Schwarber got hurt in April, the response wasn’t one of anger or desperation. Weirdly enough for a team trying to win its first World Series in 108 years, they exuded confidence. A little early adversity wasn’t going to break the swagger of a team this good.
Without Schwarber, the Cubs went on to 103 wins during the regular season. It’s hard not to wonder how many more they might’ve won if he was there. In the playoffs, Chicago dispatched the Giants and Dodgers to set up their meeting with the Indians.
‘Whatever happens, happens’
Schwarber’s recovery really started on April 19, when he underwent surgery with Dr. Daniel Cooper. The operation was described as a “full reconstruction” of Schwarber’s ACL and a “repair” of his LCL. Just days later, he was back at Wrigley Field to begin the process of getting back to playing condition.
From the beginning, Schwarber was less certain about his absence from the playoffs than his bosses. While Epstein was insistent that the team wasn’t considering bringing him back early, his player left the door open.
“I’m going to work my butt off to get back as soon as I can, whatever the timetable is,” Schwarber said in early July. “I want to do more, do more [than advised sometimes]. I think that’s only a good mindset to have. And whatever happens, happens.”
Schwarber was singing the same tune when asked about his potential return during a radio interview on Aug. 18, more than a month later. “There’s no comment on that — most likely probably not,” he said. “So we’re shooting for spring, but I’m going to push myself as hard as I can to come back as soon as I can. It sounds like it’s going to be spring.”
Each time, the 23-year-old left the possibility out there, and as the months passed he kept progressing. Schwarber was no longer wearing a walking boot in the middle of June. By mid-September, he could be seen doing jogging drills in the Wrigley Field outfield before some games.
Still, even then, the tentative plan was for him to potentially do some prep in winter ball with an eye toward spring training. Nobody really thought that Schwarber would be playing for the Cubs in the World Series, if they even got that far.
From fall league to the World Series
The Cubs making the World Series was the first bit of truly spectacular news to hit Chicago last week. But before the team could even clinch in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, word came out that Schwarber had been added to the Cubs’ fall league roster with the idea of potentially playing him in the World Series.
Suddenly, what had been a running joke among some Cubs fans was an actual possibility.
Schwarber headed to Arizona to join the Mesa Solar Sox on Saturday, and went 0-for-3 with a walk in his first game in over six months. In another appearance on Monday, he hit a double and scored a run as part of a 1-for-3 effort. With Epstein watching through a video feed at Progressive Field, he apparently saw enough to be sold that Schwarber could help his team.
"He ran the bases before the game really well, slid, dove back in, went first to third, second to home," Epstein said about Schwarber on Monday. “He's running pretty well. He's saving his hits, apparently, because he keeps hitting the balls at guys."
As pointed out by Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ director of scouting and player development, it’s asking a lot of Schwarber to produce in such big situations after so much downtime. He may still have some rust to shake off, and with Game 1 on Tuesday, there’s little time to do that. There’s also little margin for error in a seven-game series with history on the line.
But Schwarber showed last year that he wasn’t like most other baseball players, and by returning weeks ahead of schedule from a torn ACL, he’s shown it again. Don’t be surprised if the next part of his incredible journey is smacking a World Series homer right after a half-year layoff. The Cubs are clearly ready to have him back.
"To have another young guy here who has a track record of hitting home runs, who is a threat, who, when you see his name in the lineup, there's some scariness to that -- we can't wait to have him back," Russell said Monday. “I'm a big Kyle Schwarber fan. I love what he does; I can't wait until he gets here."
That Schwarber is even back is fairly amazing. If he’s really healthy enough, he’ll be a difference-maker, too.