David Haugh: Willson Contreras the emotional catalyst behind Cubs’ resurgence
As the Chicago media corps surrounded the city’s most exciting player this month before Monday’s Cubs-White Sox game at Wrigley Field, Willson Contreras widened his bleary eyes to adjust to the bright lights of the cameras.
The Cubs catcher better get used to the glare. It only will intensify if Contreras keeps playing like the most valuable member of a team that finally looks familiar. The Cubs’ post-All-Star-break surge has been fueled by Will power. Since proclaiming the Cubs were back after sweeping the Orioles, Contreras has backed up his bold words and emerged as an emotional catalyst.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Contreras insisted.
Sure, but at this rate, the Cubs could become Contreras’ team one day soon. Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester command the most respect in the clubhouse, and Kris Bryant remains the Cub most likely to pose for a magazine cover, but the impact of Contreras, 25, figures to sharpen the Cubs’ edge over time.
Catchers naturally evolve into leaders by virtue of the position, and the role suits the Venezuelan’s vibrant personality. Whether yelling around first base after a home run, as Contreras did Sunday night against the Cardinals, or pumping his fist after a successful pickoff throw, his authentic enthusiasm injects intensity his teammates have come to appreciate.
“It’s huge,” outfielder Jason Heyward said of Contreras’ energy. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
Doing the job in the clutch this season defines Contreras, who as of Monday night leads National League catchers with 15 home runs and the Cubs with 14 go-ahead RBIs, including eight game-winners. He struck out with the tying runs on base to end Monday’s 3-1 loss, an exception to the rule in July. The Cubs designated veteran Miguel Montero for assignment June 28, and Contreras has responded to the absence of his mentor by hitting .328 this month with six home runs.
“It changed everything, to be honest,” Contreras said of Montero’s departure. “Now I know I’ll be playing every single day and have nobody looking at me the whole time.”
With the baseball world watching Sunday night on ESPN, Contreras appeared to kiss both biceps as he crossed the plate after his home run – perceived by some as a flamboyant, look-at-me form of taunting. As Contreras clarified Monday, he was kissing his “flags,” the compression sleeves on his arms decorated like the Venezuelan flag as a tribute to family and friends back home enduring hardship under the current government.
“I am playing for my country every single day; we’re having a tough time down there,” Contreras said soberly.
Daily news reports provide enough reality checks for Contreras to keep the highs and lows of the Cubs season in perspective. Veteran pitchers such as reliever Hector Rondon who rely regularly on Contreras to keep a level head have noted how he has matured since the Cubs called him up June 17, 2016.
“Amazing difference – especially what he’s done with our starting pitchers to gain more respect,” said Rondon, also from Venezuela.
For example, Rondon credited Contreras for improving where he sets up behind the plate before each batter and how he calls a sequence of pitches, depending on game situations and hitters. But Rondon has detected the most noticeable change in how Contreras reacts to umpires – obviously a work in progress based on Contreras’ angry, bat-breaking outburst after striking out to end the game.
“He knows his place more now,” Rondon said. “Early in the season, he’d get emotional if the home-plate umpire missed a pitch and he’d show him up. So we had to tell him to be quiet, catch the ball, throw it back and maybe next time he’ll give you the call.”
The Cubs can help Contreras stay on an even keel by trading for a proven backup so he can get some rest. He needs a break. Nothing against rookie Victor Caratini, but rumored trade targets Alex Avila of the Tigers and Jonathan Lucroy of the Rangers would go a long way toward preserving Contreras for another productive October. Not that Contreras cares about stamina at his age.
“I don’t make those decisions,” Contreras said of possible trades. “I want to keep playing every single day, night games, day games. I can be tired, but once I cross the line, it’s about playing baseball.”
A few years ago, who knew Contreras playing regularly would mean so much to the Cubs? Not Sox manager Rick Renteria, who didn’t recall Contreras as a rising prospect when he managed the Cubs in 2014. Not the 29 other major-league teams who could have claimed Contreras for $50,000 in December 2014 after the Cubs left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft.
But Contreras, a converted third baseman the Cubs signed when he was 17, slightly adjusted his hand placement on the bat before the 2015 season and won the Southern League batting title. An ascent that has put him among baseball’s best catchers had begun.
“You’ve got to consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s hitting fourth, he’s handling a really good pitching staff, he’s throwing people out, he’s blocking the ball really well and he’s hitting homers. … He’s doing everything.”
Nobody on the Cubs has done more to pump life back into their season.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.