On fire: Cubs look unstoppable against Cardinals with young talent like Willson Contreras

On fire: Cubs look unstoppable against Cardinals with young talent like Willson Contreras

Willson Contreras walked into a mostly empty clubhouse around 10:20 a.m. on Friday, carrying a portable sound system and blasting his music throughout a quiet room. The rookie had already posted a 17-second video on his Twitter account, showing his car dashboard and the soundtrack (“Con Los Santos No Se Juega”) for his morning commute to Wrigley Field.

The Cubs don’t believe in eyewash, telling their players to be dressed by 12 p.m. for a 1:20 first pitch, the day after a night game and with thunderstorms predicted for that afternoon. That back-off message, less-is-more philosophy hasn’t really sunk in with Contreras, who danced to the music as he got dressed at his locker and walked off to the batting cage with a smile on his face.

The Cubs also don’t believe in the dog days of August, with Contreras becoming yet another energy source for the team with the best record in baseball, an 11-game winning streak and a 14-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

That’s where the rivalry stands after a 13-2 blowout in front of 40,848 on a gray, rainy afternoon in Wrigleyville, the Cubs coming at the Cardinals in waves and showing no signs of slowing down. As reporters waited for Joe Maddon’s postgame press conference to begin, the fog machine in the party room set off fire alarms throughout the underground clubhouse.

“It happens every night,” winning pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I’m surprised the alarm doesn’t go off more often.”

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Contreras delivered the knockout punch in the second inning, admiring the flight of a first-pitch Adam Wainwright fastball, watching it disappear into the left-center field bleachers for a three-run homer and a 7-0 lead.

The next inning, Contreras started hopping up and down in left field after almost throwing Wainwright out at second base and nearly erasing a soft double down the line. The next inning, with the bases loaded, Contreras grabbed a two-out Jeremy Hazelbaker line drive that almost flew over his head. The manager raved about the “Respect 90” approach Contreras showed on a groundball in his last at-bat.

“He plays with his hair on fire constantly,” Maddon said. “And I love it. I absolutely love it. He’s contagious. I don’t see him changing. He could be here for the next 10 years and I think – with good health – you’re going to still see him run like that to first base.

“Behind the plate, he’s so active and he’s talking in the dugout all the time. He gets to (coach Mike) Borzello in between innings: ‘Give me more information.’

“He’s done a good job everywhere we’ve put him. But, again, don’t forget, this is his baptism. This guy is going to keep getting better.”

That’s the scary thought for a Cardinals team (60-56) trying to gain traction in the wild-card race. On a day where Maddon rested Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist ($253 million combined in guaranteed money), it only took two innings before the Cubs wore out Wainwright, an Opening Day starter and a World Series champion.

Matt Szczur took over the leadoff spot and hammered two home runs and a double, scoring four times and driving in three runs. Jorge Soler – who crushed St. Louis pitching last October during a rivalry-changing playoff series – went 2-for-4 with a home run, a walk, two RBI and two runs scored. Javier Baez chipped in with another two-run homer.

The only drama became whether or not the Cardinals would retaliate for Matt Holliday’s broken thumb. Wainwright hit Szczur’s left shoulder with a pitch in the second inning, and mop-up reliever Jerome Williams drilled Chris Coghlan’s left knee in the seventh, but there were no real fireworks.

There’s only so much animosity the Cubs can generate when they wake up and the computers on FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus give them a 99.8- or 99.9-percent chance to win the division. The Cubs are 32 games over .500 and 10-0 in August, which is only the second time in franchise history they have done that (after winning 18 straight in August 1885).

“We have a lot of youth that’s continued to learn on a really fast pace,” Arrieta said. “But that’s what we need if we want to continue to play this well.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: