CLEVELAND – The doctors told Kyle Schwarber the day after the Chicago Cubs slugger tore two ligaments in his left knee on April 7 that his season was over.
Funny how months of relentless rehab and a chance to play in the World Series can speed up the healing process.
Schwarber batted fifth and picked up his first hit of the season – a double off the wall in right field in the fourth inning – for the National League champions in Game 1 of the Fall Classic against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber.
The line shot by the Cubs’ designated hitter came 201 days after Schwarber’s frightening collision with teammate Dexter Fowler while chasing down a fly ball against the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was Schwarber’s first time on base since homering in Game 3 of the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets.
Yes, even Schwarber is surprised he’s here.
“I took regular visits to the doctor every month or two, and he kept telling me, `It’s going to be spring training,’” Schwarber said a few hours before Game 1. “Then this past doctor’s visit I had right before we went to LA for the (NLCS) he looked at my knee, he’s like: ‘Man, it’s great. You’re strong. I’m not going to hold you back from doing anything.’”
Certainly not the chance to end Chicago’s century-plus championship drought. Schwarber played two games in the Arizona Fall League, going 1 for 6 with a double and two walks, before flying to Cleveland late Monday. One last checkup later, the guy who blasted a club-record five home runs during the 2015 playoffs found himself on the World Series roster, giving the Cubs another powerful left-handed bat and making Chicago reliever Pedro Strop’s prediction come true.
“He said all along, ‘Man, you’re going to be back for the World Series,’” Schwarber said. “But the process was a long time. I mean, at first I didn’t think I was ever going to have a normal knee again.”
Schwarber struck out in his first at-bat before doubling off Kluber.
While Schwarber is healthy enough to swing the bat, it’s unlikely he’ll have much of a role outside of pinch hitting when the series shifts to Chicago for Games 3-5. Manager Joe Maddon said he was keeping an open mind and will see how Schwarber’s knee responds, but he isn’t counting on throwing Schwarber into the outfield at Wrigley Field.
“Regardless of how much you practice and attempt to simulate a game in practice, you cannot,” Maddon said. “That quick movement, that sudden burst that you derive in a game, you cannot simulate that in practice. It’s impossible.”
Maybe, but the fact that it’s a decision Maddon even has to ponder is remarkable.
Schwarber spent the first six weeks of his rehab off his feet completely, his surgically repaired knee ramrod straight. Then he had to learn to walk again, careful to not push things too hard, too fast. Not exactly an easy thing to do for a 23-year-old desperate to get back and join the summer-long party that ended with the Cubs posting a major league-best 103 wins before rolling through the Giants and the Dodgers on their way to their first World Series appearance since the end of World War II.
The easy part, the fun part, came when he was allowed to put a bat in his hands and swing away. The self-proclaimed “baseball rat” would arrive at the ballpark well before his teammates and spend hours in the cage, to the point where first baseman and good friend Anthony Rizzo jokingly urged Schwarber to get a life.
“I’m like: ‘Schwarbs what are you doing? Just watch baseball and enjoy it,’” Rizzo said.
No chance. His biggest issue in the final days of his rehab came from the blisters on his hands, collateral damage from working in the cage. He estimated he tracked 1,300 pitches off a machine trying to get his timing back while in Arizona. He’ll get a chance to see if all that cramming paid off on the biggest stage of his life.
Schwarber predicted he’d tear up before the first pitch and credited his teammates as his “rock” while he worked his way back. Unlike many injured players, Schwarber would stick around to watch the games. Watching Chicago put together a dream season without him wasn’t easy.
Then again, the season isn’t over, is it? The proof came in a text from first base coach Brandon Hyde that included Schwarber’s name in the roster for the first time in more than six months. And in the World Series. Top that.
“It was a long road, but once we step in between those lines, it’s game time,” Schwarber said. “I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be ready to go and go out there and try to win this.”
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