Cubs need their folk hero back

Sch­war­ber hasn’t been able to match his play­off bril­liance, and he was re­cently de­moted

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

On the same night the de­fend­ing World Se­ries cham­pion Chicago Cubs opened a com­pelling, four-game se­ries at Na­tion­als Park in Wash­ing­ton against one of the top chal­lengers to their throne, Kyle Sch­war­ber — their Open­ing Day left fielder and lead­off hit­ter and post­sea­son folk hero of 2015 and 2016 — got dressed in the home club­house of the Iowa Cubs, at Des Moines’s Prin­ci­pal Park, and pre­pared to face a team called the Baby Cakes.

The news last week­end that the Cubs had op­tioned Sch­war­ber, their 24-year-old leg­end and a fix­ture of na­tional Ga­torade com­mer­cials, to Class AAA was stun­ning in ev­ery way ex­cept one: He de­served it. At the time of the de­mo­tion, he was hit­ting .171 with a .295 on-base per­cent­age and a .378 slug­ging per­cent­age, and no man­ner of reme­dies — drop­ping him in the or­der, putting him through ex­tra bat­ting prac­tice, giv­ing him a week­end off — was work­ing.

“He was foul­ing his pitch off a lot,” Cubs Man­ager Joe Mad­don said. “Pull heavy, as op­posed to us­ing side of the field more. Strik­ing out more than we thought. Chas­ing a lit­tle bit. Just not his nor­mal pat­terns at the plate . . . . But I be­lieve in him fully. I know it’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

It’s only a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the di­rec­tion of the Cubs’ tee­ter­ing 2017 sea­son — af­ter split­ting four games against the Na­tion­als and los­ing to the Reds on Fri­day and Satur­day, they are 40-41, three games be­hind first-place Mil­wau­kee in the NL Cen­tral — de­pends upon the de­gree to which Sch­war­ber gets him­self straight­ened out.

It doesn’t all rest on Sch­war­ber’s shoul­ders, of course. The Cubs have a glar­ing need for at least one start­ing pitcher — which you can all but guar­an­tee they will ac­quire by July 31 — and will be hop­ing for the healthy, timely re­turns of in­jured lineup fix­tures Kris Bryant, Ben Zo­brist and Ja­son Hey­ward in the com­ing days.

But Sch­war­ber’s sit­u­a­tion may be more im­por­tant than any other. At his best, he is ca­pa­ble of trans­form­ing a lineup, car­ry­ing an of­fense and elec­tri­fy­ing an en­tire sta­dium with his sheer power and mag­netism. For ev­i­dence, look no fur­ther than the 2015 post­sea­son, when he smashed five homers in nine games, or last year’s World Se­ries, when he bat­ted .412/.500/.471. The lat­ter, of course, came af­ter he had missed all but two games of the 2017 reg­u­lar sea­son with a dev­as­tat­ing knee in­jury.

What kind of 23-year-old player gets ac­ti­vated for the World Se­ries af­ter miss­ing the pre­vi­ous 61/2 months? A hit­ter like Sch­war­ber, who be­came the first po­si­tion player in his­tory to col­lect his first hit of the sea­son in the World Se­ries.

As 2017 ap­proached, with more than one pun­dit won­der­ing whether the Cubs — with their tal­ent, youth and fi­nan­cial re­sources — might be on their way to build­ing a dy­nasty, the prospect of hav­ing Sch­war­ber for a full, six-month reg­u­lar sea­son — af­ter be­ing with­out him for al­most all of 2016 — was seen as the equiv­a­lent of adding a 40-homer free agent slug­ger to an al­ready loaded lineup.

But it be­came clear early on, cer­tainly by May, that Sch­war­ber was not him­self. An 0-for-4, fourstrike­out game against San Francisco on May 25 dropped his on-base per­cent­age be­low .300, where it has re­mained. A player who slugged .606 as a mi­nor lea­guer (in only 531 at-bats) was slug­ging un­der .400 for most of this sea­son. His strike­out rate of 28.7 per­cent was the same en­ter­ing this week­end as New York Yan­kees rookie Aaron Judge, but Judge had nearly 21/2 times more home runs (27 to 12).

“I thought I was re­ally go­ing to watch him play a full sea­son of ma­jor league baseball, and I’ve not had that chance to,” Mad­don said. “But the guy missed the whole sea­son. He did re­ally well in a small win­dow of time at the end of the year. So maybe my ex­pec­ta­tions ex­ceeded what they should have been also. I do be­lieve he is that good. I do think you’re go­ing to see him come back and play the way we an­tic­i­pated, but he might have just needed more time, and we just didn’t rec­og­nize that. So give him his time right now.”

The Cubs’ strat­egy in send­ing Sch­war­ber to Iowa, while un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous and jar­ring, was a sound one, backed by plenty of his­tor­i­cal prece­dent. Alex Gor­don, Mike Mous­takas, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Blake Snell, Michael Con­forto, Mar­cell Ozuna and Brian Dozier are among the ex­am­ples of play­ers who played them­selves into mi­nor league de­mo­tions as young stars, only to re­turn and (to vary­ing de­grees) con­tinue their as­cents.

“Is that young star player re­ally a star? Or has that young star player been hyped to be a star?” Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker said when asked about the ex­am­ples of Sch­war­ber and oth­ers. “Be­cause th­ese young star play­ers some­times that we deem as stars have less than a year in the big leagues . . . . It de­pends on the per­son and the men­tal strength of the player, whether they run and hide and get up­set about it, or they get up­set about it and do some­thing about it. It’s a very del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion. You have to be care­ful be­cause some of them don’t re­spond or re­bound be­cause this is the first time in their life they’ve ever felt like a fail­ure.”

At least pub­licly, the Cubs ex­press lit­tle or no con­cern over Sch­war­ber’s men­tal well-be­ing. Since ar­riv­ing in Iowa on June 26, he has said all the right things — “Ad­just­ments are be­ing made; I like where I’m at,” he told re­porters Thurs­day — and was 5 for 15 with two RBI, one walk and eight strike­outs in his first four games at Iowa. The Cubs have put no timetable on his po­ten­tial re­turn, but it could still be a mat­ter of weeks, not days.

“We talk daily. He’s as pos­i­tive as I’ve ever heard him,” said cen­ter fielder Albert Almora, one of Sch­war­ber’s clos­est friends on the Cubs.

“I’ll be tex­ting him shortly,” Mad­don said Thurs­day. “I just don’t want to bother him con­stantly. From what I’m hear­ing . . . he’s go­ing about it the right way, which you would an­tic­i­pate.”

With Sch­war­ber’s de­mo­tion, the spate of in­juries and the ig­no­min­ious re­lease of vet­eran catcher Miguel Mon­tero fol­low­ing some in­del­i­cate re­marks crit­i­cal of his pitch­ing staff, the Cubs th­ese days give the im­pres­sion of a team barely keep­ing it to­gether, spared from fur­ther soul-search­ing only by the medi­ocrity of their di­vi­sion.

It was telling that, in a con­fer­ence call with Cubs beat re­porters fol­low­ing Mon­tero’s re­lease, team Pres­i­dent Theo Ep­stein im­plied the Cubs lack “a cer­tain edge” — a com­ment that made Mad­don sound de­fen­sive in re­sponse.

“We’ve never been able to get on a roll. And with that comes that edgy kind of feel­ing,” Mad­don said. “We’ve un­der­achieved of­fen­sively, and our start­ing pitch­ing’s not as good as we thought. It’s hard to cre­ate edgi­ness un­der those cir­cum­stances. We’re miss­ing some folks from last year, and we’ve been in­jured a lit­tle bit. So I un­der­stand the com­ment, and to a cer­tain ex­tent I to­tally agree with it, but it’s not for lack of ef­fort [or] lack of car­ing.”

Edge cer­tainly can come in the form of, say, a six-game win­ning streak, a 9-1 home­s­tand or just a cou­ple of dou­ble-digit blowout wins. But it can also come in the form of a goa­teed, swag­ger­ing, 24-yearold slug­ger launch­ing 450-foot home runs to the top of the Wrigley Field score­board.

What the Cubs re­ally need is Kyle Sch­war­ber — not the June 2017 ver­sion but the Oc­to­ber ver­sion, the one who de­stroyed fast­balls and pos­sessed edge to spare. And they need him soon.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Cubs’ Kyle Sch­war­ber was sent down to Class AAA af­ter an ugly start to this sea­son in which he bat­ted .171 and struck out 75 times in 222 at-bats.

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