For all the mood swings around this team – and conflicting signals within the National League Central – understand that the Cubs doubled their division lead while Willson Contreras recovered from a strained right hamstring.
The Cubs held a 1.5-game edge on the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals on Aug. 9 when Contreras grabbed his right leg while running out a groundball and collapsed onto the outfield grass at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Contreras hit the optimistic end of a four-to-six-week projection and got activated before Sunday’s game against the Brewers at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs opened with a three-game advantage over Milwaukee and St. Louis.
“We have a goal to reach the playoffs and then go from there,” Contreras said. “This is a young team that never quits. This is a young team that plays nine innings, 27 outs. And no matter what injuries we have on the team, they’re going to stick it out and play hard.”
At the time, Contreras (21 homers, 70 RBI, .861 OPS) had been performing like someone who would get votes on the bottom half of the NL MVP ballot. In the meantime, the Cubs watched their top starting pitchers (Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta) walk off the field in the middle of starts with injuries, and kept waiting for All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) to come off the disabled list.
“(It’s) guys understanding their roles,” catcher Alex Avila said, “and the fact that when guys went down, it doesn’t have to be one person that has to do everything, just as long as you have contributions from everybody.
“Even guys just going into the game late – whether you’re pinch-running or pinch-hitting – all those types of things play (into that and) pick up the team when quite a few guys are injured.”
When the Cubs executed the Justin Wilson deal with the Detroit Tigers before the July 31 deadline, the assumption was Avila would be a backup who might play once a week while Contreras continued to established himself as one of the best two-way catchers in the game.
But the Cubs are always trying to think through worst-case scenarios and prepare accordingly. During the time Contreras spent on the disabled list, Avila hit .281 (18-for-64) with two homers and 14 RBI in 22 games.
So the Cubs will certainly take Contreras and his rocket arm, powerful swing and boundless energy. But near the end of an unexpected division race, that depth might ultimately be the separator for the defending World Series champs.
“The key is not trying to do too much,” Avila said, “understanding what you’re capable of, and just trying to take care of that and allow the talent to take over."