Willson Contreras watched last year’s playoffs from the Arizona Fall League, envisioning what October would be like with this team. The Cubs already had three catchers: a two-time All-Star (Miguel Montero); another veteran paired with $155 million pitcher Jon Lester (David Ross); and a rookie quickly becoming a Wrigleyville legend (Kyle Schwarber). But that didn’t stop Contreras from thinking big.
“I put myself behind the plate,” Contreras said. “I was thinking about this year.”
This group of young Cubs is all about the now, not burdened by history or intimidated by the spotlight, only one win away from playing for the franchise’s first National League pennant since 1945. Contreras made the leap from Southern League batting champion to starting Game 2 catcher in this NL Division Series, with only two-plus months of experience at Triple-A Iowa in between.
The Cubs chose Contreras to work with Cy Young Award contender Kyle Hendricks on Saturday night and think through this San Francisco Giants lineup. After Angel Pagan’s line drive knocked out Hendricks with a bruised right forearm in the fourth inning, Contreras caught five different relievers who combined for 5.1 scoreless innings.
Contreras pumped his fist after catching the last pitch – a 103-mph fastball – and leaped to high-five superstar closer Aroldis Chapman, celebrating a 5-2 victory in front of a raucous crowd of 42,392 at Wrigley Field.
“No, no, I’m not nervous at all,” Contreras said, as a group of reporters gathered around him during batting practice. “I’m so anxious to start the game, but I don’t need to put pressure on myself.”
All these young stars certainly help Contreras – who also went 2-for-3 and scored a run – blend into the clubhouse. Montero and Ross are good teammates, willing to share information and offer encouragement instead of getting territorial. Schwarber didn’t catch a single inning in the regular season, wrecking his left knee during an outfield collision in early April and creating more opportunities for Contreras.
To become a perennial contender like the Giants – a franchise that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 – the Cubs will need to maintain this kind of environment where a rookie like Contreras, 24, can step in and immediately contribute (12 homers, 35 RBI, .845 OPS) to a lineup already loaded with hitters through 2021 (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez).
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“Talent has a lot to do with it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The whole atmosphere with the veteran players has had a lot to do with that. The coaching staff has a lot to do with that. I think the approach that we take has something to do with it.
“We expect mistakes. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re not going to be perfect. Our coaches do a great job of explaining situations and physical mistakes to our players. One of the things we talk about from Day 1 is: I want you to be yourself. I also think by not fatiguing them with a lot of extra work matters, too.
“If the mind is good, you’re going to play well, if you are good. If you’re not a really talented player, I don’t care. We could have all the best social sports psychologists, or the best planned work, whatever. That’s not going to matter. You have to have good players. And then around that build an atmosphere or a situation that’s conducive to learning and not being afraid of making mistakes.”
During spring training, the Cubs purposely matched up Contreras with their veteran pitchers, sending the message that he would be catching meaningful games, sooner or later. But Contreras – who gave a classic “As soon as I get there, I will never be back” quote to The Des Moines Register this season – already sensed that.
“Of course,” Contreras said, “I thought about the playoffs. Now that we’re here, I’m going to try to enjoy every single day, every single game. I will do my best to help my team.”