The ramifications of perhaps the most electrifying series of baseball I’ve experienced in my adult life have been innumerable.
First, and immeasurably, the Chicago Cubs are the champions of the baseball world after a 108-year gap. Generations of present, past, and forgotten yesteryears no longer wallow in sorrow. They finally did it, and as Kris Bryant grinned a grin so capable of bringing a collective peace to this shaken world, we knew the Cubs had finally attained the unattainable. Grandpa David Ross retires a champion. Joe Maddon has equaled his genius with a ring. Theo Epstein is now the unmatched keeper of oaths.
Though most significantly, I cannot for the life of me get “Go Cubs Go” out of my head. Steve Goodman’s song has always been catchy even for those unassociated with the Cubs or any part of Chicago, but I find myself sneakily whispering “Hey Chicago what do you say, the Cubs are gonna win today” under my breath everywhere and anywhere. I’m not even mad. It’s a damn good song.
Helping to foster these outcomes were the immortal performances of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist, to name a few of the Cubs’ heroes. But as glowing as their seven games were, Kyle Schwarber’s indelible imprint on this epic World Series, though perhaps not as profound, may have been even more titanic.
Of course, the improbability of Schwarber’s heroics stem from suffering both a torn ACL and LCL in early April, a diagnosis that immediately prevented him from playing during the regular season. Preliminary discussions The hope was that Schwarber would be a full-go in spring of 2017. Even as we doubted Schwarber’s vicious approach to his rehab, the notion of him actually playing any meaningful baseball in 2016 was, and should have been, scoffed at.
But wouldn’t you know it, poof! There he was. Thrust into the five-hole as the Cubs designated hitter in Game One of the World Series. When Rizzo caught the final out of Game Seven and stuffed the baseball into his back pocket en route to the rapidly forming mosh pit at the mound of Progressive Field, Schwarber’s unlikely presence in the Chicago lineup had been proven not to be a detriment, but a gift worth 108 years of wait.
Despite 170 games between big league at-bats, Schwarber’s transition into baseball’s biggest stage afforded us the opportunity to revel in his innate hitting abilities. While we missed him all summer, our patience was rewarded in October.
Schwarber did the best he could to mimic the experience of facing big league pitching in his rehab, even tracking over 1300 pitches off of a pitching machine prior to his arrival. Nonetheless, eight emergency plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League wouldn’t be enough to adjust him to what would surely be his most pressing issue: hitting a big-league fastball.
The Indians, aware of Schwarber’s rust, made sure to crowd him with fastballs throughout the series.
In his first meaningful plate appearance since April 7, Indians’ starter Corey Kluber immediately presented Schwarber with the intended blueprint. Mixing sinkers and sliders, Kluber painted Schwarber’s belt in an attempt to not only disrupt what little comfort he may have had in the biggest moment of his baseball life, but to test his bat speed as well. Schwarber’s awesome, but Kluber ain’t so bad either.
Schwarber was eventually burned by a 91.8 MPH two-seam fastball, the kind of running fastball that Kluber had used to carve through the Cubs the majority of the evening. A night in which he tossed six scoreless innings, Kluber pitched with little angst, though there was one baseball that gave him a scare.
The hitter that he is, Schwarber probably had an idea how he was going to be pitched after his first appearance. Where Kluber started the previous at-bat pitching a tad backwards, he initiated Schwarber a little bit more straightforward the second time around. Up two runs with none on and two outs, Kluber could afford to take a bit of risk, and challenge Schwarber with a fastball. It didn’t work.
Needing only two at-bats versus a potential AL Cy Young candidate to get into gear, Schwarber turned around a 93 MPH fastball, missing a home run by a bat’s length. Looking fastball, getting fastball and exploding on a fastball, Schwarber flashed the hands-to-hip qualities that’ve garnered his untouchable reputation.
Kluber, who had harnessed some of the best glove-side fastball movement he’d ever had in Game One, used the same pitch on lefties Dexter Fowler and Anthony Rizzo as the driving force behind a combined 0-6 between the two in that first game. Still, no matter the missed time or the enormity of the moment, Schwarber’s sweet lefty swing wasn’t to be lost.
As hard as it is to hit a baseball after six months away, the process of reframing the strike zone as well as determining the spin of the baseball is no less tedious. After a Ben Zobrist single in the top of the 7th inning, Schwarber had conceivably his finest showing of the seven games.
Zobrist’s single meant the end of Kluber’s night, and down only 3-0, the Cubs were still in realistic striking distance. Indians’ manager Terry Francona didn’t hesitate to call upon the services of Andrew Miller, proven mutant. The ultimate lefty-on-lefty boogyman, the ALCS MVP had surrendered all of zero runs in 11.2 postseason innings to that point, including a combined 51.2% strikeout rate in the division and championship series.
Welcome to the World Series, Schwarbs.
Schwarber more or less spits on Miller’s first slider, a near flawless offering in hopes of inducing a first pitch whiff. Miller would come at him again, this time finding perfection.
In a 1-1 count, Miller has flashed back-to-back sliders, a sequence leaving Schwarber in a rut. With 95-97 MPH in the back of his mind, Miller has not only geared down Schwarber’s bat, but thrown two pitches on the border of the strike zone. Miller has effectively set up the fastball on Schwarber’s hands, but he opts to stay away with the slider.
And again, Schwarber watches it like he knew it was coming.
As Joe Buck said every other hack throughout the World Series, this was a good swing from Schwarber. Miller’s slider leaks back just enough towards the middle of the plate for the Hoosier to put a big rip on it, and having seen three sliders already, he had it timed up, only to foul it back towards the netting
Given the multitude of strike zones we saw throughout the series, this may very well have been called a strike by someone else, but Schwarber gets his first fastball in a 2-2 count, and refuses Miller’s enticement. One hell of a bystander, Schwarber stays within himself, and is rewarded for it. Somehow, it wasn’t even the best take of the plate appearance.
In a 3-0 game, with a runner on first, in a full count, in your first game back in 201 days, with Andrew Miller on the mound, with his stuff, and you take THAT pitch?
Miller throws Schwarber the ultimate disappearing act, and like he did with the preceding few. Schwarber sees it, he shrugs, and goes about his business and heads to first. Though his base on balls didn’t result in any further fortune for the Cubs, Schwarber’s mildness in the face of bearded calamity provided yet another “wow” moment. And the biggest was yet to come.
Fastforward to Game Seven. Among the twists and turns, highs and lows, and outright madness that made the final game of the 2016 World Series one of MLB’s grandest showings, there was Schwarber. He and his reconstructed left knee were greeted by Bryan Shaw to lead off the rain-delayed 10th inning. Shaw’s preeminent feature is a cutter hovering around 92-97 MPH, a pitch that could very well have given Schwarber trouble.
After purposely drifting high for effect with a 94 MPH offering, Shaw located a cutter precisely where catcher Roberto Perez’s glove sets up, low and inside. Just as the Indians had hoped to do for the majority of the series, questioning Schwarber’s ability to manipulate his side of the plate, Cleveland forced that cobwebbed ol’ bat to do what it does best. In the end, there never seemed to be a doubt.
Schwarber connected on a 92.9 MPH cutter crashing in, sending a 105.0 MPH line drive single past a shifted Jason Kipnis into right field. Eventually, Schwarber would be lifted for pinch runner Albert Almora, who would score the go-ahead run. Soon after, the bottles popped. Bill Murray cried. Theo Epstein was drunk. The Cubs were champions.
Schwarber finished the World Series going 7-17, walking three times, and driving in two runs with only four strikeouts. In his first 20 plate appearances since April, Schwarber managed a .500 OBP with a WPA of .132 in five games. Though one extra-base hit is atypical, he hit the baseball hard. As encouraging a sign as any, the Schwarber we knew provided a glimpse of what could’ve been had this year. Nonetheless, we saw what we needed, and what the Cubs and 108 years of futility desperately needed. We were once again presented with the reality that Kyle Schwarber is truly a spectacular baseball specimen.
Because who in their right mind had any business doing what he did?