As an offensive-minded catcher quickly improving the defensive side of his game, Kyle Schwarber has a lot on his plate every time he steps on the field. But like the circus performer who can keep a seemingly endless number of plates spinning on sticks at the same time, the backstop is making sure he doesn't miss a beat.
The No. 4 Cubs prospect homered twice, plated three runs and caught Frank Bautista's three-hitter in the Double-A Smokies' 5-0 win over the Jackson Generals in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader.
"It's hard. You have to put the time in on your own to work on things," said 22-year-old, who ranks second on the circuit with a .448 slugging percentage and sixth with a .333 average. "When you're stepping on the field every day, you might feel a little sore and you might not always feel good about your game, but that's when you still have to go and put the work in both defensively and offensively.
"You really have to find time for the defensive things, because there are not many times set aside just for that. You try to push yourself every day because you want to be boring back there. You want to have the same footwork, the same arm slot, the same exchange. In the offseason, I spent more time working on my defense than offense by far. Now since we're in the season and we have to find time, it's more 50-50 because if you're not good defensively, the game can change in a big way."
After grounding out to shortstop in his first at-bat, Schwarber clubbed a solo homer to right field to lead off the third inning against Jordan Shipers. An inning later, he took Shipers yard again, adding a two-run shot down the first-base line that barely stayed fair
The outing moved MLB.com's No. 47 prospect into a tie for third place in the Minors with nine homers behind Fresno duo Jon Singleton (12) and Preston Tucker (10) and Sacramento's Adam Duvall (10). Only one catcher in all of pro ball -- Oakland's Stephen Vogt -- has gone deep as many times as Schwarber, who is tied with Chattanooga's Adam Brett Walker for the Southern League lead.
It was the fourth multi-homer game of Schwarber's career, following three two-homer performances last season on June 17 for short-season Boise, June 28 with Class A Kane County and Aug. 24 with Class A Advanced Daytona. Schwarber said being a catcher gives him insight into how the opposition may try to work him.
"I got down two strikes, 0-2, on two curveballs," Schwarber said of the first homer. "I saw a fastball up and inside, and normally the tendency is that a pitcher will then throw a breaking ball down in the dirt. I wasn't really looking for a breaking ball and I was just trying to react, but I knew it was a good possibility it might happen.
"[Being a catcher] can definitely give you an advantage, but it can also give you a disadvantage if you overthink it. You don't want to overanalyze it too much. You want to be stupid in your approach. There are things you can take in and make side notes of in your head about what is happening, but you want to have an approach. When you [overanalyze it], that's when you get away from your approach."
The 6-foot Ohio native has been on a roll at the plate of late. He homered against Montgomery on Tuesday, went 3-for-5 against the Biscuits on Thursday and then fell a triple shy of hitting for the cycle in the series finale on Friday.
Schwarber continues to work hard on the defensive side of his game, and on Sunday, that manifested itself during Bautista's strongest start of the year. The backstop, who hit .344 with 18 homers and 53 RBIs in 72 games across three levels last year, said his growing familiarity with the hurler was the biggest contributing factor to his success.
Bautista (4-0) issued three walks, struck out four batters and threw 64 of 98 pitches for strikes in lowering his ERA to 1.28.
"He's a really mature pitcher," said Schwarber, selected by the Cubs fourth overall in the 2014 Draft out of Indiana University. "He's been in the league for a couple years and it's easy to catch a guy after a couple games. It's easy to call a game when you know what they want to do.
"He was lights-out tonight and he came up in big spots when he needed to. He got some ground balls in big situations. Overall, it was a great start. He was throwing everything for strikes and that really kept hitters guessing."
The 26-year-old right-hander has won every other game he's started this year while not factoring into the decisions in the other three. Sunday's game marked Batista's first career shutout and second complete game. It also represented the second time he has pitched seven innings this year and the sixth time in seven appearances in which he allowed two runs or fewer.
Bautista outpitched Generals starter Danny Hultzen (0-1), who allowed a pair of runs on three hits and a walk over two innings.
In the nightcap, the Generals earned a split of the doubleheader with a 1-0 victory in eight innings. Generals starter Misael Siverio scattered three hits and two walks while striking out four batters over 5 1/3 innings. Tennessee's Andres Santiago allowed two hits and a pair of walks while recording four strikeouts over five innings, but neither pitcher figured in the decision.
Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on twitter @AshMarshallMLB.