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Schwarber keeping Cubs' spirits, hopes up

3d

CHICAGO -- At a quarter to 11 a.m. on a no-hitter hangover kind of Sunday morning, a bright-eyed Kyle Schwarber moved around the clubhouse shaking hands and giving fist bumps.

He hit up relievers Pedro Strop, Yoervis Medina and James Russell and shortstop Starlin Castro, then moved back to his end of the room to talk to more teammates before chowing down on a banana.

There wasn’t a lot of activity in the home clubhouse the day after Cole Hamels pitched the first no-hitter against the Cubs in 50 years, but Schwarber was buzzing before his first home start, and only his fifth start as the Cubs' catcher.

“It’s just me. It’s just my personality,” he said. “I like to be a guy who’s not going to be shy. I’ll keep my head down when I need to, but I like to be social. I like to see how everyone’s doing. It’s just how I am.”

About a half-hour before the game, Schwarber, the Cubs’ 2014 first-round draft pick, was in the bullpen in left field to work on quick-trigger throws and corralling short hops.

In the first inning, Schwarber found himself trotting to the mound to talk to his pitcher, Jason Hammel, who had given up three runs to the Phillies and walked the cleanup hitter, Ryan Howard. Hammel got out of the inning.

After a 28-pitch top half of the first, Schwarber, an Ohio native, walked to the plate to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and promptly cracked a single to right on Aaron Nola’s first pitch, which moved Dexter Fowler to third. Kris Bryant scored Fowler with a deep sacrifice fly, but Schwarber got doubled off first on an Anthony Rizzo lineout.

The Cubs lost 11-5 Sunday and were unceremoniously swept at home by the last-place Phillies.

With two-plus months to go, the Cubs are 2½ games behind San Francisco for the second wild card. The non-waiver trade deadline is this week, but one assumes Schwarber, who rejoined the team July 17, represents the bulk of the cavalry. Maybe the Cubs will add a starting pitcher and a utility hitter, but if they return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, salvation will likely come from within.

Just 22 years old and one year away from playing Big Ten baseball, Schwarber has raced through the minors and finds himself in a unique position, as the part-time catcher for a team that desperately needs his full-time presence in the lineup. He has to ameliorate (to use one of his manager Joe Maddon’s favorite words) the complications of being a rookie with the demands of handling a pitching staff and hitting high in the order.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Schwarber said. “Just to think about last year, I was in college still and playing baseball. Now I’m up here trying to help contribute. I’m up here trying to do a job and help these guys win, and you know, my goal is to be here and stay here.”

In 16 games (five starts at catcher and five starts at designated hitter in two separate call-ups), Schwarber is hitting 19-for-48 (.396) with 11 RBIs. He has walked five times and struck out 14. He is not going anywhere.

“He’s really fun to watch hit,” fellow rookie Kris Bryant said.

Before Sunday’s game, Cubs manager Joe Maddon reiterated that he is not going to overuse Schwarber, despite the frigid lineup’s need for his hot bat.

“When someone comes up and they doing extremely well, everybody wants a taste of that on a daily basis,” Maddon said. “When he came up, we talked to him about specifically how he’s going to play here, and that’s what we’re doing.

“He’s got two-plus months to play here, so just keep him healthy, keep him well, keep his mind and his body good, and he can help you when it really matters too. You can’t take a young guy like that and just wring him out to dry. I’m telling you: It goes away.”

Maddon makes a cogent point, especially given the demands of playing catcher. Schwarber is spinning plates right now.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into it,” Schwarber said. “We get a scouting report, but for me, I’ll rewrite it to get going in my mind. That’s how I remember things. Just preparing for any situation that goes on day-of-game. Just run situations through your head: if it’s first and second, nobody out, who’s up, who’s on deck. Always be aware of the situation.”

Then there’s dealing with the pitching staff. Even though Schwarber doesn’t catch staff aces Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, the rookie is trying to get to know the other starters and the bullpen.

“You’ve got to know all the personalities around you. You got to know your pitching staff, what they can do in certain situations, what they can’t,” he said. “That’s what makes this position fun -- all the intangibles. You’re always thinking about the next step. You’re always trying to think one step ahead.”

Then there's the hitting. Schwarber recounted his pinch-hit at-bat against Hamels with vivid clarity a day later. He definitely went up there with a plan.

The Cubs are scuffling right now, 4-6 since the All-Star break. Bryant is 5-for-40 with 17 strikeouts and five walks. Rizzo is 6-for-39 with seven strikeouts, four walks and one extra-base hit. Castro is 4-for-37 with 10 strikeouts and one walk. Jorge Soler, who glided into the outfield on a PhunkeeDuck before Sunday's game, could've used it later in right field.

In five starts since Schwarber rejoined the Cubs after the break, he is 11-for-22 with four walks. (He is 0-for-5 as a pinch-hitter or late-game replacement.) The sample size is small, and certainly he will have adjustments to make as his scouting report gets out.

There has been a lot of talk about moving Schwarber into the outfield. He played in left field for the first time in the majors late in the game Sunday, after catcher David Ross came in to pitch the ninth. But making Schwarber learn a new position is exactly what Maddon doesn’t want this season, and Maddon likes what he sees from his young catcher so far.

“He’s incredibly dogged about the whole thing,” Maddon said. “He really gets after anything that he wants to do. He sits with [coach] Mike Borzello when he’s not playing. He’s wide-eyed. He asks good questions. He’s into it, man. He’s definitely engaged mentally, and that’s what he has to be. Physically, he’s gotten better too. Physically, they’ve worked through some issues with his receiving, and he’s doing a really good job.”

For everything he has to worry about, Schwarber can at least feel comfortable in the clubhouse, where no one hassles the rookies. That's the good part about joining a rebuilding team coming into its own.

“It’s all about winning here,” he said. “That’s what we’re about.”

Creating a winning atmosphere was the challenge coming into the season, and it happened more quickly than anticipated. Few expected Schwarber to be in the majors already, and not many had the Cubs as true wild-card contenders.

“Everybody here makes you feel welcome, makes you feel like you belong,” said Bryant, who has a couple months' seniority over Schwarber. “He can be himself. He can walk around, even though he hasn’t been there that long. He can say hi to everybody, be a goofball -- that type of thing. That’s what everybody here promotes, and that’s what we want as a team. Be yourself, and that brings out the best in you.”

Although the Cubs won't play Schwarber every day, they'll need everything they can get out of him three out of every five games to have a shot at the postseason.