Vinnie Duber

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

It might have been just another dinger in homer-happy All-Star Game, but Willson Contreras will remember it forever

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Willson Contreras’ third-inning home run might not have ended up standing out too much in an All-Star Game featuring a jaw-dropping and record-shattering 10 dingers.

But, obviously, it will always stand out to the guy who hit it.

“I enjoyed every single second that I spent out there.”

Remarkably, Contreras repeated his feat from two seasons ago, when he hit his first big league homer on the first big league pitch he ever saw. Ditto on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, when he launched the first pitch he saw as an All Star out over the wall in left field.

“When I hit the ball and thought it was gone, I went back to 2016, playing in Chicago. It was the same thing, first pitch for a homer,” Contreras, all smiles, said following the American League’s 8-6 victory. “I’m really blessed with these kinds of situations. Those moments, they’re going to be history and they’re going to be in my mind and my heart.”

Contreras’ long ball was the highlight of the evening for fans watching back home in Chicago. Javy Baez got a hit in his first All-Star at-bat but was outdone by his teammate. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu was hitless in his two trips to the plate.

And while it will be a highlight on this night for Cubs fans, it will be a highlight forever for Contreras, who enjoyed the heck out of his first All-Star experience.

“‘I did it, I did it,’” he said when asked what was going through his head. “I knew it was something special. And I wasn’t trying to do too much because these guys are nasty, throwing 98 in the first inning. I just tried to get the hit out.”

The nasty guy he went deep against was Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, whose 2.27 ERA on the season made him a very worthy inclusion on the AL roster. But Contreras was more impressed with the guy who started the game for the National League, raving about Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer after the game.

“He was great, man. Great stuff, he gets so into the game,” Contreras said. “I would like to have him one day on my team or play with him for a few years. That guy is amazing.”

That’s not the current Nationals star Cubs fans are dreaming about, Willy, but point taken.

But it wasn’t Snell or Scherzer or even Baez or Jon Lester, also in the NL dugout, who Contreras was thinking about the most during his home run trot. Instead, Contreras was thinking about his grandfather, Ernesto, who passed away a few years ago.

“My grandpa, he died in 2015,” Contreras said. “I grew up with him.

“He didn’t play ball. But I feel like every time I go out there and step into the box, he’s at my back. It just feels amazing when you hit a homer or do something special, look at the sky and you know that he’s there smiling somewhere.”

It all made for a pretty incredible night for Contreras, who has officially and loudly taken his place among baseball’s best on the game’s biggest stage.

The only thing that was missing? The ball.

Yeah, Contreras didn’t get the ball, not that he really expected to. But if you’ve got it, he wants it.

“I don’t think they’re giving it back,” he said with a grin.

We’ll see. Social media’s a powerful tool. So reach out.

Jose Abreu didn't come to White Sox looking for leadership role, but he's the face of the franchise on the All-Star stage

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu didn't come to White Sox looking for leadership role, but he's the face of the franchise on the All-Star stage

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jose Abreu didn’t come to the White Sox to be a leader. But that’s what he is as he took his spot among the best in baseball at Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.

Abreu is the face of the South Side baseball club and he’s had a stellar-enough first four and a half seasons in Major League Baseball to earn the distinction of a starter in the Midsummer Classic. But Abreu, unsurprisingly, doesn’t look at himself as one of the best in the game. He looks as himself as a hard-worker.

“I don’t believe that I’m the best,” Abreu said through a team translator on Monday. “I’m just a person who likes to work hard every day and try to do my best.”

That humility is nothing new to folks who follow the White Sox on a regular basis. And neither is talk of Abreu’s work ethic, the admiration of everyone involved with the team and a constant talking point from Rick Hahn, Rick Renteria and all Abreu’s teammates.

Abreu has become as important for his off-the-field roles as he has for his on-the-field production for this rebuilding White Sox team. He’s been described as a role model for all the young players in the organization, whether they’re on the big league roster right now or coming up through the system.

“None of them have told me that yet,” Abreu joked. “But I know that. It’s definitely a compliment, and I take it as something that makes you feel good, something that makes you keep moving forward and to keep trying to help the guys to improve and get better as a team. You feel like that is a big honor, that people think that way of you.”

As good as he feels to be held in such esteem, Abreu didn’t set out to be one of this team’s leaders when he came to the United States. And to be honest, he might not be in his current position if it weren’t for the team’s rebuilding effort. Abreu is one of the few veterans on this team.

“That was something that happened. I didn’t look for it,” Abreu said. “I was always trying to help people and trying to give advice to help people to improve. But I never tried to be a leader. If people say that because of what I do, that’s good, but that’s not something that I’m trying to force or something that I say, ‘I want to be a leader.’ No, that’s not who I am. I am just the kind of person who likes to help people, who likes to give advice.”

Abreu is seemingly the definition of what the White Sox want their next winning roster to be full of. And whether it’s the special relationship he has with fellow Cuban Yoan Moncada or the role-model status he holds in the eyes of his other teammates, both current and future, he’s helping the White Sox develop those kinds of players.

Oh, and he’s generally — though this season has seen an extended slump and atypical numbers — one of the most consistently productive hitters in the game.

Who wouldn’t want all that as the face of the franchise?

“It’s all a blessing. I can’t ask for anything else,” Abreu said. “I’m a true believer that if you work hard, good things are going to happen. That’s why I work hard every day, I try to do my best, I try to improve every day and just to be a better person. Not just a better player, but a better person.”

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.