WASHINGTON – It would be inaccurate to call Kyle Schwarber a “secret weapon” for the Cubs heading into the postseason.
After all, everybody knows what Schwarber has done in October: Big home run in the 2015 wild-card game, monstrous home run in the ’15 division series and a frantic rush to get ready for the World Series last year, leading to seven hits in 17 at-bats and helping the Cubs to their first world championship since 1908.
He has been compared to Babe Ruth. And just this week, he was asked about being Mr. October.
“Ha,” he said. “Hey, I always love this time of year. It’s a fun time of year. I’m sure everyone else does. It’s just that time of year when things get a little bit to the wire, adrenaline starts coming out to play. It’s always going to be a close ballgame. It’s a fun time of year, and I really enjoy it.
“I’m already getting goosebumps thinking about it because it’s just that time of the year again. It’s a lot of fun.”
That the 24-year-old Schwarber is able to talk about “fun” again is a credit to his own perseverance.
Things weren’t much fun in the first half of the season, when the Cubs’ left fielder put up a line of .178/.300/.394 with 13 homers and 29 RBIs. A trip to Triple-A Iowa from June 22 to July 6 seemed to get Schwarber right again.
His post-All-Star break line was .253/.335/.559 with 17 homers and 30 RBIs. He had an OPS of .938 in September and October, and he hit his 30th homer of the season last Saturday.
“He handled everything so properly,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I remember sitting there with him and telling him he was going back [to the minor leagues]. He was fine. He knew he needed to. He knew he had earned the ‘right’ to go back.
“And then he went there and he worked very hard to get back to where he’s at. There’s a lot more in there. And going into next year, we get a full offseason under his belt, another spring training, another full season.
“Right now the batting average is the part that is skewed. Even if he was hitting .250, which he’s absolutely capable of, his on-base [percentage] would be over .350. It’s just that tough start that he had to work through, but it’s really coming back to him now.”
For Schwarber, hanging his head was not an option.
“My goal, hopefully through a career in baseball, I just want to be a good teammate,” he said. “Being able to learn from some of the best guys that we’ve got in this clubhouse, with [former catcher] David Ross, John Lackey, [Jon] Lester, [Anthony Rizzo], [Kris Bryant], all these guys.
“I just want to be a good teammate. You see a guy like David Ross, who was a backup catcher, no knock on him, but he stayed around this game for a long time, and he’s still in the game.
“I love this game of baseball. I want to be in it for as long as I can. I feel like that is only one thing that’s going to help. That’s why I never wanted to hang my head. I didn’t want to be a negative guy. I’m always going to come in here with a positive outlook and keep grinding at it.
“I obviously knew this was something I did to myself. It was no one else’s fault. It was me. I had a choice. I could either be Mr. Pouty Pants or I could go out there and do something about it. I wanted to do something about it. That’s why I never hung my head one day.”
If there was one bit of controversy surrounding Schwarber, it was Maddon batting him leadoff to begin the season. Schwarber led off 36 games and batted .190.
Maddon, however, said Schwarber’s inexperience rather than the leadoff spot contributed to his early struggles. Schwarber still only has 764 big-league plate appearances, thanks to him missing virtually all of the 2016 regular season with a serious knee injury.
“It’s easy to draw those kinds of conclusions, but it had nothing to do with hitting leadoff,” Maddon said. “Zero. When I hear about that, that indicates to me a total lack of understanding of what he was going through.”
As he stood in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium in St. Louis the night the Cubs clinched the National League Central, Schwarber talked of entering his third postseason in three years.
“It’s been a crazy season for me; the last two seasons have,” he said. “Just to be here right now in this moment, I’m not taking it for granted. There’s a lot of guys in this room who have only been in a few and have been playing for 15-plus [years].”
The possibility of what might come this October has Schwarber and his teammates excited.
“What he’s done this year is a tremendous developmental year for him,” Rizzo said. “He’s been the same person every day, which is not easy to do in this game. He’s done a really good job at it.
“When the light’s shining brightest, that’s when you seem to get the best out of Kyle. I don’t see it any different coming playoff time when he gets an opportunity.”