Kyle Schwarber tunes up for playoffs as Cubs beat Cards 6-4

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ST. LOUIS – When Kyle Schwarber got done with the first pitch he saw from left-hander Brett Cecil in the seventh inning Thursday, the Cardinals – and anyone else watching – knew what the Cubs were talking about all spring when they touted Schwarber as their new-age leadoff hitter.

“There’s a lot of lineups that are probably bunting right there with their leadoff guy,” pitcher John Lackey said. “Our guy’s trying to hit it in the seats. It’s a little bit different.”

Schwarber turned on Cecil’s first pitch for a no-doubt, three-run homer down the right field line to give the Cubs the lead in a 6-4 victory at Busch Stadium that turned into a rain-extended, week-long, season-opening series victory over the rival Cardinals – setting a tone, if not painting a picture of how the Cubs hope to go about business in their championship defense this year.

Schwarber is at the center of that picture – by his mere presence, never mind his presence as Dexter Fowler’s replacement in the leadoff spot.

That much was made clear by what manager Joe Maddon called a particularly “raucous” postgame celebration Thursday, with teammates singling out Schwarber for more than just the mammoth home run.

The homer

“It was exciting,” Schwarber said. “Someone yelled, `You made it past Game 3,’ and then we all went crazy.”

It was Game 3 of last season that Schwarber collided with center fielder Fowler in left-center, suffering a knee injury so severe it required reconstructive surgery and sidelined him for the rest of the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs.

He became a World Series hero by returning early to start four road games as the Cubs’ designated hitter against Cleveland.

If he was playoff ready then, imagine what he’d be ready to do if the playoffs started tomorrow.

“I know, right?” said Schwarber, laughing, after reaching base seven times in 14 plate appearances this week, with a double, three walks and the big home run.

“I turned the horseshoe around, too,” he said. “I turned it up so I could make it through.”

That’s a reference to the horseshoe he was given by the Budweiser Clydesdale crew after one of his batting practice homers hit one of the horses on the butt as the team pulled its wagon alongside the Cubs’ practice field in spring training near the end of camp. Until Thursday, he had hung the horseshoe in his locker “upside down,” with the luck allegedly spilling out.

Schwarber’s return and position in the order is the most significant change for the Cubs since last year’s 103-win, World Series-championship success – and what some suggest makes the lineup better on paper.

Or at least in St. Louis on this third game of the season.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “From day one I was really looking forward to this. There’s a long way to go, but it was definitely a good win for the team and to get momentum going into the next series.”

It didn’t look quite so good much of the game after second baseman Ben Zobrist dropped shortstop Addison Russell’s throw on the pivot of what should have been a routine, inning-ending double play. A run scored on the play, and after two more singles off Lackey the Cubs quickly trailed 3-0.

Lackey rebounded after a tough first inning

“You can’t do much about it once it’s over,” said Lackey (1-0), who gave up just two hits and a run the rest of the way to get through six – recording 10 straight outs at one point. “You’d like for it to look a little different. After that you just try to battle and try to keep your team in it and try to win the game.”

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