Published January 30, 2017
CLEVELAND (AP) 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 got his first hit of the season - a double off the wall in right field in the fourth inning - for the NL champions in a 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians in Game 1 on Tuesday night.
The designated hitter's lined shot came 201 days after a frightening collision with teammate Dexter Fowler while chasing down a fly ball against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Tuesday was Schwarber's first time on base since homering in Game 3 of the 2015 NLCS against the New York Mets.
He hardly looked rusty while going 1 for 3, getting his money's worth in two showdowns against Cleveland uber reliever Andrew Miller with a walk in the seventh then a swinging strikeout in the eighth with two on and two out in a 3-0 game. Schwarber's final at-bat included a massive swing at a meaty 2-1 slider that Miller uncharacteristically left over the plate. Asked if that swing in particular had a little extra on it, Schwarber couldn't suppress a laugh.
''I mean, that's a normal swing,'' he said.
And precisely why manager Joe Maddon put Schwarber in the lineup in the first place.
''He definitely passed the eye test for me regarding swinging the bat at the plate,'' said Maddon, who added Schwarber will ''absolutely'' play in Game 2 on Wednesday.
Heady territory for a guy who was convinced he wouldn't see a batter's box until 2017.
''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. The only rust he showed was on the bases, when he sprinted away from second without tagging up on Willson Contreras' flyout to center in the seventh - Rajai Davis threw home with a man on third, giving Schwarber time to get back to the bag.
While Schwarber is healthy enough to swing the bat, it's unlikely he'll have much of a role outside pinch hitting when the series shifts to Chicago for Games 3-5. Schwarber hasn't been cleared to play defense.
''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.
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. Game 1 didn't provide a magical finish. Considering the path to this moment, Schwarber is hardly complaining.
''I could beat myself for not getting that knock against Miller in the eighth with two guys on,'' he said. ''But it's baseball, whatever. It's going to happen. We've just got to move on to the next day.''