Ok, I’ll admit it. When Kyle Schwarber and Dexter Fowler collided in the outfield on Thursday, April 7, ending Schwarber’s 2016 season, my first thought was: “Yep. Here we go again.”
It’s part of the old Cubs fan conditioning. Expectations for the team this past offseason ran very high, justified by a number of moves that Theo and company made after the 2015 NLCS run. New position players and pitching reinforcements added to a roster of young returnees that promised greatness. Could this really and finally be our year? Sometimes it’s just too hard to fathom.
Then Schwarber was carted off the field. The 23 year-old lefty hit 16 home runs in 69 games for the team last season, and was anticipated to be an integral part of the Cubs 2016 offense. As he left the diamond with the help of trainers P.J. Mainville and Ed Halbur, you could hear the collective groans inside the park and out. This is how the implosion starts, right?
Wrong. As Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s self-help parody character on Saturday Night Live would have said, myself and others were guilty of “stinkin’ thinkin’.” Evidence was presented immediately by the Cubs’ win on April 7 after Schwarber left the game. The victory included six RBIs and a ninth inning three-run homer from the hotter than Hades Anthony Rizzo.
In a highly competitive NL Central Division, the Chicago Cubs are off like a shot with a 14-5 record that puts them ahead three and a half games over the Cardinals. It is but April and there’s much baseball to be played, but the Cubs are so stacked with talent, from the office to the dugout to bullpen and field, that the old cynicism model appears hopelessly outdated.
On April 20, Jesse Rogers, an ESPN Staff Writer asked, Is There Anything the Cubs’ Starting Staff Can’t Do? Evaluating the team’s hurlers, Rogers offered a question, followed by a definitive statement:
“Which is harder to believe: that a starting staff has pitched six or more innings in 14 consecutive games to begin the season, or that the same staff has driven in seven runs at the plate? That’s an average of an RBI by the No. 9 hitter every other game.”
And this was BEFORE ace Jake Arrieta burnished his legend by pitching his second no-hitter in as many seasons on Thursday, April 22. (Was this amazing feat dedicated to the untimely and tragic passing of Prince? Evidence exists, and this heartbroken fan of the Purple One would sure like to believe it.)
At the conclusion of a wonderful 2015 season, conventional wisdom had it that help on the mound was essential to supplement the consistent starts of number one and two guys, Arrieta and John Lester. I guess we need to start accepting that we have a management staff which listens. It’s been 106 years since the Cubbies launched a season with 14 straight outings of six or more innings pitched. That kind of century stat is a lot more fun to repeat than the tired, old championship-free numbers that were our ignominious legacy.
Of course any evaluation of the Cubs’ highly-promising start has to include a nod to the fearless leader of the boys in blue. Head coach Joe Maddon is the kind of class act who always puts the situation in perspective. Chicago Cubs Online characterized Maddon’s reaction to Schwarber’s season-ending injury as “concerned about Schwarber as a person and a teammate first and foremost, and [we] will figure out how to make things work on the field.”
In Maddon we trust, as the season continues its auspicious and exciting start. His brand of cool, calm and collected trickles through the ranks. The numbers tell the story. Though Schwarber is missed, it’s hard to view the casualty as a devastating loss. The talent on this team runs deep. It’s a smart bunch with intelligent leadership that hasn’t let a little adversity affect their mental game.
Nothing stinks about that.