GENEVA – Cougars catcher Kyle Schwarber smacked a solo home run well into the right field Leinie Lodge at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark Wednesday, more than 335 feet from home plate.
Unwinding and dressing after a matinee against Wisconsin, it was clear Schwarber beamed more about the 180 feet he saved his club defensively.
It wasn't that the homer came in a 3-2 loss to the Timber Rattlers, although that arguably had a bearing on the parent Cubs' modest first-round draft pick. It was more the breakthrough Schwarber saw unfold alongside 7,421 fans. He caught two runners stealing and made some other sound plays behind the plate to keep things close.
"It is exciting just being able to learn as much as I can while I'm with every team. I've learned a lot of outfielding stuff and I've learned a lot of catching stuff," Schwarber said. "And you know, it's definitely exciting because [catching] is what I like to do. And if I can improve more, it'll maybe give me a chance to stay back there. That'd be great."
The Cougars list Schwarber as one of five outfielders, not as one of four would-be catchers. While he played both positions at Indiana, Schwarber was predominantly behind the plate, where he'd like to remain.
Cubs executives have been clear in their plan to also develop him in left field, but considering his quick study with Cubs minor league catching coordinator Tim Cossins, who has been in Kane County this week, Schwarber is subtly speaking up.
Manager Mark Johnson, a major league catcher for parts of eight seasons – including five with the White Sox – sees it at just another part of Schwarber's savvy.
"If you don't want to catch, you won't make it back there. You've got to want to have it. And I tell you, it's a special breed that wants to do it," Johnson said. "It's odd, but Kyle, he's a smart kid, and he understands that there's a huge void in catching in the whole baseball industry. There's not a lot of catchers out there, not a lot of good ones.
"To be able to want to do it is one thing, you know, and then to get back there and if you're capable of doing it, he's got both of them. It's a special combination with a guy with a bat like that and then a guy that wants to catch. That's going to be interesting, you know. It's going to be good."
Oh, yes, the bat. Regardless of position, Schwarber keeps making his ongoing whirlwind tour look easy offensively. In 11 professional games with Short-A Boise and the Class-A Cougars, he's batting .513 with six home runs and 13 RBIs after his 2 for 4 day Wednesday.
Throw in the end of his junior season at Indiana, and Schwarber has hit safely in 18 consecutive games overall. The Cubs drafted him June 5, three days after the Hoosiers' season ended in a home NCAA Regional.
Still bemoaning two throwing errors he made in Boise, Schwarber erased Wisconsin's Taylor Brennan and Omar Garcia Wednesday, crediting Cossin's simple bit of advice regarding his release.
"It's the thing of getting it out of the glove, and then when you get up, just a little flick of the wrist and the ball carries more," Schwarber said.
Garcia, the Timber Rattlers' left fielder, entered the game ranked second in the Midwest League with 29 steals. Center fielder Johnny Davis has 21 steals, but his speed proved no match for Schwarber's reflexes with one out in the seventh, as Schwarber threw Davis out at first on a bunt attempt.
Davis recovered to corral a running catch in the right-center field gap to start the double play that ended the game. Representing the potential winning run after Jeimer Candelario walked with one out, pinch hitter Jacob Rogers lined a ball toward the fence. And, it turned out, a closing Davis.
"I knew I didn't get it enough to get out," Rogers said. "I was hoping I got enough to get over his head. He's a really quick outfielder, so he happened to run it down."
Wednesday's crowd included a sizable contingent of giddy day campers. While some might not have realized the prospects they were seeing, Schwarber rates warm ovations from those who know the score in the Cubs organization.
Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod suggested Schwarber should be in Kane County for a while longer, his prolific start notwithstanding.
"Nothing yet. Since the draft, it's all of maybe eight, nine, 10 games that he's played so far," McLeod said as he left Tuesday night's game in Geneva. "We'll just see how things go over the next few weeks. Still to be determined."
Schwarber's success, buoyed by a persistent approach, figures to force the issue. Now there's the matter of where to put him in the field if he keeps hitting.
"I like to catch, but at the end of the day, it's what the organization wants to do," Schwarber said. "And I'll do whatever they tell me."
COUGARS SHORT HOPS
Cougars (RHP Daury Torrez, 7-3, 3.48 ERA) vs. Wisconsin (RHP Tristan Archer, 2-2, 3.98 ERA)
'Skully' hits stride
Right-hander Tyler Skulina pitched five strong innings in his first start since the All-Star break, spacing one run, five hits, one walk and five strikeouts to earn a no-decision.
The Cougars elected to give Skulina and fellow top-of-the-rotation righty Paul Blackburn more rest for the looming stretch run as they dealt with various soreness. Blackburn pitched five innings of five-hit, three-run ball to get the win Tuesday.
"Maybe we can get some of those innings toward the end of the season, because once their innings get built up, they usually have a tendency to shut them down," manager Mark Johnson said. "And we've got the playoffs in mind. We've got to kind of watch that a little bit."
Roll out the barrel for Timber Rattlers manager Matt Erickson, an Appleton, Wisconsin native who is managing in his hometown for his boyhood team, the parent Milwaukee Brewers.
A Cougars infielder in 1998 when the club was aligned with the Florida Marlins, Erickson had two happy homecomings to discuss in the visitor's clubhouse this week.
One of his first Brewers memories came in 1982, when a young Erickson began charting The Crew's run to the American League pennant. Erickson played four games for the Brewers in 2004, going 1 for 6.
"Yeah, I was always a Brewer fan. In '82, I was 7 years old, and everybody was going crazy, you know, and cooking out every night and watching the Brewers," Erickson said. "And I was trying to figure out what was going on at the time.
"Started as a fan, then I was a player, and now obviously working for the club that I grew up cheering for. So very, very good setup for me and my family."
– Kevin Druley, email@example.com