Cubs believe Fowler's return key to success

Outfielder collects 1,000th career hit Saturday vs. Reds

Cubs believe Fowler's return key to success

CINCINNATI -- The key moment in the Cubs' season may have happened before the first regular-season game was played, when Dexter Fowler surprised everyone with his return.

"No doubt," Chicago's Anthony Rizzo said of Fowler's comeback. "He just lengthens the lineup."

In his first season with Chicago in 2015, Fowler provided the spark at the top, batting .272 in the second half. Without him in 2016, the Cubs were projecting Jason Heyward in center and leading off. In Saturday's 7-4 loss to the Reds, Fowler reached a personal milestone when he notched his 1,000th career hit with a single in the seventh inning.

"I've still got some work to do," Fowler said. "I'm trying to get to 3,000. At this rate, I'll have to play 24 seasons. I've got to speed it up a little bit."

It was a nice bonus to what has been an historic season for the Cubs.

"Having him back simplified everything, and there was that much more depth," Heyward said of Fowler. "Who knows? With the injuries we had, we would've been looking for outfielders at the Trade Deadline. [Fowler] gave us that cushion."

Fowler decided to accept a one-year contract from the Cubs, but he didn't tell any of his teamamates. There were rumors he had agreed to a three-year deal with the Orioles, and Rizzo even sent a text to congratulate the outfielder. But Fowler didn't return the message and instead showed up during a Spring Training practice in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 25 and was greeted by hugs and cheers from his teammates.

Fowler signs with Cubs

"Bringing him, it boosted our morale for sure -- not that we weren't ready -- but he's such a good personality," Rizzo said Saturday. "You don't want to blame it on one person, but when he was hurt, we went into a little skid. It's good to have him."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon agreed Fowler's return definitely changed things for the better.

"Prior to getting him, we were trying to figure out at-bats -- how does [Jorge Soler] get enough at-bats, how does [Javier] Baez get enogh at-bats, how does [Kyle] Schwarber get enough at-bats," Maddon said. "You could make a solid case for what he did in the first half really got us off to that start. You could go back to Spring Training, and signing Dexter was a big part of our season."

What Fowler did this season was get things started, batting .347 in April, and followed by .295 in May.

"When I say to him, 'You go, we go,' it's true," Maddon said of his message before every one of Fowler's at-bats. "I say that to him sometimes. He'll walk up, and I'll point at him and say, 'It's true,' and he knows what I'm talking about."

What the Cubs didn't anticipate was losing outfielder Kyle Schwarber in the third game of the season to a left knee injury, which meant the addition of Fowler was even more important.

"When you look at Schwarber getting hurt and Soler not being as healthy, it gave us two steady outfielders, one in center and one in right field," Heyward said of himself and Fowler. "The biggest part is it gave us another switch-hitter and a switch-hitter batting leadoff, and he did it last year with this team. For those reasons, I feel that's the most important thing."

Heyward and Fowler used to live in the Atlanta area and would train together. They knew a lot of the same people. Being teammates wasn't something they'd considered.

"Because Georgia is how it is, and so many baseball players have come out of there, and so many guys we know, you're used to everybody going to a different team," Heyward said. "You never, ever, ever think you're going to play on the same team. This is a treat in itself that we got to spend this season together. It's been really cool."

Fowler's return may have been the key piece.

"I think everybody in here agrees, hands down," Heyward said. "It's not just because of what he does in the game, but his personality. It's great for this clubhouse and any clubhouse."

Rizzo is still amazed that he had no inkling Fowler was coming back.

"I was 100 percent shocked," Rizzo said.

And 100 percent happy.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.