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.”

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

The Cubs lost an entirely forgettable game on Tuesday night, dropping the second of their four games against the NL East-leading Braves by a score of 3-2. They left four men on base, only managed four hits, ran into two outs, and made one error in a game that was over well in time for a Clark Street nightcap, or three. 

What was memorable about Tuesday night was the performance of Adbert Alzolay, the Cubs’ top pitching prospect who was making his first major league start. The final line: 4.2 innings pitched, one hit, one run, four walks and four strikeouts. It’s certainly not the prettiest line you’ll see in tomorrow’s box scores, but the 24 year old passed the eye test with flying colors. 

“Everything was good - he was outstanding,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “I just think he hit a well there at the end. We just have to get him more used to that. Listen, he’s been injured in the past, he’s coming back - you’ve got to be real sensitive to the number of pitches and workload you put on him, because you can see how good he’s going to be.”

Things got off to an inauspicious start for Alzolay, whose first pitch of the game was crushed 413 feet into the left field bleachers for a leadoff homer, courtesy of Braves’ outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. It would prove to be the only hit and run that Alzolay allowed on the night. 

“It’s just one pitch,” he said. “You have to keep working - the game continues. I was just starting the game, so if you lose your mind in that situation than you’re not going to last a lot of innings.

“Even after the home run, he came right back and said, ‘I’m fine’,” Maddon added. “Then he went up and got three really good hitters out. I liked the mound demeanor, we’ve just got to get him a little further along in regards to being stretched out.”

After coming out flat with his secondary pitches during his 4-inning relief appearance on June 20th, Alzolay flashed better command and execution of both his curveball and changeup. Half of his strikeouts came on the curveball - one to get left fielder Austin Riley in the 2nd and one to get Acuña in the 3rd. After throwing 13 changeups in his debut, Alzolay double that number on Tuesday (27). 

“I’m feeling really confident throwing the pitch in any count,” Alzolay said of his changeup. “Tonight I threw it a couple times when I was behind in the count and I got a good result after that, so I’ll just keep on throwing it.

“For us to get confident at something, you have to practice, you have to execute it, and you have to use it in the game,” said catcher Willson Contreras, who plated both of the Cubs’ two runs with a double in the 4th. “For him to be able to throw the changeup for a strike, and strikeout people, it’s really good - especially at his age.”

Maddon couldn’t answer when Alzolay would make his next start. With Kyle Hendricks eyeing a return around the All-Star break, there would seemingly be a few more opportunities ahead of the rookie. Given what he showed on Tuesday night, it’d be hard to argue against it.

"He can be really good in the big leagues," Contreras said. "He still needs to make adjustments like all of us, but with the confidence he has, the ability he has, and the way he prepares before the games, it's going to take him a long way."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1


Cubs Talk Podcast: Ryne Sandberg: Part 1

Luke Stuckmeyer sits down with Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg for a wide-ranging conversation centered around the infamous "Sandberg Game."

Ryne gives insight into his feelings upon being traded to the Cubs (2:00), and discusses the reason he ended up with the No. 23 (5:00). Plus, how the 1984 season changed everything and raised his personal expectations sky-high (9:00) and the "Daily Double" dynamic between him and Bob Dernier (16:00).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast