Cubs' outfield sizzling as Kyle Schwarber rocks Cleveland again

CLEVELAND -- Chicago Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber will grab the headlines after hitting two home runs at Progressive Field on Tuesday -- the same place where 18 months ago he returned from a knee injury to help the Cubs win a World Series. He likes to hit here. That much we know.

But the bigger picture with the team continues to be an offense that will use the opposite field more and more and is getting great production from its outfield, something that wasn't a sure thing when camp broke at the end of last month.

"Good at-bats up and down," manager Joe Maddon said after the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians 10-3. "We're still in that mode of utilizing the whole field. I hope that doesn't end until 2019 spring training ... because this is the approach you're looking for."

Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr. and even Ian Happ have carried the Cubs the past few days -- along with infielder Javier Baez -- while Anthony Rizzo has slumped and Kris Bryant is out of the lineup with an injury. That might be the best sign of all: The Cubs scored 19 runs in two games without their stars contributing.

"At the end of the day, taking what they give us is important," Heyward said. "I'm just trying to get good pitches to hit."

Heyward is on pace for over 100 runs driven in and is striking out at the lowest rate of his career. It has been a stunning start to his season after two subpar years in a Cubs uniform. He also threw a runner out at the plate on Tuesday and made a sliding catch.

Defensive gems might be few and far between for Schwarber, but when he's hitting the way he is now -- or the way he did in the World Series in 2016 -- then watch out. The exit velocity of his second-inning blast (117.1 mph) was the hardest-hit home run by a Cubs player since Statcast began tracking them in 2015 and fifth hardest in baseball this season. He's hitting .302 with a .414 on-base percentage.

"I always thought this was a good park to hit in," Schwarber said with a shrug. "It's been a good start so far. Always trying to get better. Had a guy on third with less than two outs and didn't get him in. That's a free RBI there. And I want to pick those up."

That's the kind of attitude the Cubs love about Schwarber. Back in 2016, while rehabbing from a devastating knee injury, the team began to look at the possibility of his returning if it made the World Series. It was a long shot, but one reason they allowed for it was Schwarber himself.

"If anybody was able to do it, we thought he could," Maddon said before Tuesday's game. "It wasn't even debated. It was like, 'Yes, he can.' So he goes down there [to Arizona] and does all that crazy stuff. Sees 1,000 pitches. He comes up here and contributes in the way that he does, which I think very few guys could have."

Schwarber hit .412 in the World Series with only days of preparation after missing nearly the entire season. It was the thing of legends, but his 2017 wasn't as kind, as he was eventually demoted to the minor leagues. His rebirth this year, after a body and swing makeover, has been a highlight for the Cubs so far.

"It's good to see him calm," Heyward said. "There are times when we want it too much or too badly and we get out of control. But he's just calm in there."

Schwarber and Heyward aren't the only ones. After a few days off to rework his own approach, Happ has returned looking great. He was 3-for-4 with an opposite-field home run Tuesday, while Almora has taken hold of the center-field job while hitting .315. All of a sudden, the Cubs have a dangerous outfield led by the Ohio native who might be giving the Indians nightmares considering the damage he already has done to them -- then and now.

"We have a lot of talent on this team," Schwarber said. "We're all going to pick each other up. Rizzo doesn't have to be hot all the time. Kris doesn't have to be hot all the time."

Look at Tuesday night's win for proof.