CLEVELAND —When it was over, it felt like watching "The Natural" meets "Casey at the Bat."
Kyle Schwarber waited six months between games. He'll have to wait a little longer to be a World Series hero.
The stage was set for the young slugger from Middletown, Ohio, in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night. Schwarber came to the plate in the eighth inning, Cubs trailing 3-0, two runners on with two outs, facing the Indians' shutdown lefty closer, Andrew Miller.
The DH nearly had a homer when he doubled off the right-field wall - his first hit of the season - in the fourth inning off right-handed starter Corey Kluber. If he could tag Miller - Schwarber had five postseason homers as a rookie last year - he could tie the game.
How ridiculous would that be?
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 26, 2016
Schwarber took a breathtaking swing at a one-strike slider that Miller left over the plate. But he couldn't connect.
Miller threw another slider that came in and dropped at Schwarber's feet.
Like mighty Casey,Schwarber missed and struck out, and the Cubs went on to lose the opener 6-0.
If there was no joy in Wrigleyville after the game, Schwarber took it all in stride. He couldn't suppress a laugh when asked if his massive swing at Miller's 2-and-1 slider had a little extra on it.
“I mean, that’s a normal swing,” Schwarber 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.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 25, 2016
Schwarber also walked off Miller on a 1-for-3 night with two strikeouts.
"It gave me definitely confidence," said Schwarber. "Those guys are two premier arms, and to feel comfortable at the plate was definitely a plus for me."
Although it wasn't a triumphant return for the World Series for the Cubs after 71 years, it was for Schwarber coming 201 days after a frightening collision with teammate Dexter Fowler while chasing down a fly ball on April 7. He tore two ligaments in his left knee, and doctors told him 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.
He may not be able to run full-speed on the basepaths - even when healthy, Schwarber appears to run in first gear - but his first game back appeared to show that the Cubs made a good decision in adding him to the World Series roster Tuesday morning.
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. After two games in the Arizona Fall League, 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 against Kluber and walked off Miller in the seventh. 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.”
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.
Unlike many injured players, Schwarber would stick around to watch the games, and sitting through a dream season wasn’t easy.
Then again, the season isn’t over, is it?
Game 1 didn’t provide a magical finish. Considering the path to this moment, Schwarber was 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.”