PITTSBURGH – Dubbed "Bam Bam" by his hitting coach, Chicago Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber lived up to his nickname, silencing any doubters who believed the Cubs were too young to succeed in their first postseason.
Schwarber sent a ball far over the right-field wall for a two-run home run off Pittsburgh Pirates starter Gerrit Cole two innings after driving in the first run of the game in the Cubs' wild 4-0 win over the Pirates in Wednesday night’s National League wild-card contest.
“That was one of the prettiest sounds I heard in a long time,” general manager Jed Hoyer said after the game in a champagne-soaked locker room.
Schwarber, 22, is known for his “loud” home runs as well as his maturity both on and off the field, which is a common trait for these young Cubs. The big hit by their most recent rookie to make his debut this season was a statement to the rest of baseball: The moment won’t be too big for a team full of young players.
“The nerves really hit last night when I was watching the American League wild-card game because I realized that was going to be us, and in less than 24 hours,” Schwarber said. “Then coming out to the ballpark there are butterflies, and listening to the national anthem and listening to the crowd roar, there is going to be butterflies.
"But once that first pitch happens, it's game time. It's time to go. Everything starts to slow down from then. You feel so sped up when you're spectating, and then once you step on to the field, you slow it down.”
For the rookies, it’s about preparation. The moment wasn’t too big because Schwarber knew what he wanted to do. The Cubs' game plan against Cole was to lay off the inside stuff and make the righty throw pitches over the plate. After twice getting behind both leadoff man Dexter Fowler and Schwarber, the Cubs had Cole where they wanted him.
“We executed the game plan to a tee today,” Schwarber said.
After Schwarber’s bomb, the Cubs simply needed to play defense behind the hottest pitcher on the planet. And again the rookies came up big as shortstop Addison Russell quickly forgot about a hot smash he couldn’t handle to grab another one two pitches later and start an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the sixth. The game was essentially over right there after the biggest play of the night.
“It meant everything to me,” Russell said of getting another chance. “You have to turn the page, you have to turn the page. [Starling] Marte barreled that ball, and I was able to grab it, and Starlin [Castro] made a beautiful turn.”
There’s more. Another rookie, Kris Bryant, started in left field then moved to third base just in time to snag a screamer that almost certainly would have gotten past the smaller Tommy La Stella, who started the game at the hot corner. Later, Bryant grabbed a hard-hit grounder to start a pretty 5-4-3 double play to end the seventh. The rookies came through in the big moments each time. It’s not a surprise Cubs manager Joe Maddon steered the postgame discussion to those guys.
“But defensively, man -- the first play Addison had a chance to make that ball was scalded and the second one even harder than that,” the manager said. “And how about the plays by K.B. [Bryant] at third, and the game called by Miggy [Miguel Montero]? All that stuff was exciting. So when I watch a game like that I'm focusing on those other ancillary kind of components, and our guys played a good game of baseball tonight.”
It might be surprising to see such poise out of young players -- or, as Hoyer called them, "young veterans" -- but this isn’t by accident. The benefit of having mature rookies is telling them something that can be immediately processed. And then of course there is the preparation. It’s really all that matters to Maddon.
“I really believe the process is fearless,” Maddon said. “If you're really focusing on outcome and just winning, then you can become fearful. But if you just focus on the process, the process is fearless. From Day 1, we talked process more than anything.”
The Cubs get it -- especially the rookies. They bought in a long time ago. So when they get to St. Louis in the early morning hours on Thursday in advance of their division series against the Cardinals, they’ll have an answer ready to the question they heard over and over again in Pittsburgh.
Can the young players handle the big playoff moments?
That question was answered in the affirmative Wednesday.