How Willson Contreras earned respect in Cubs clubhouse and has even more room to grow

How Willson Contreras earned respect in Cubs clubhouse and has even more room to grow

The overall tone of the coverage in spring training slanted more toward who Willson Contreras wasn’t — David Ross — and how the Cubs catcher would work with Jon Lester in particular and a veteran pitching staff with some quirky personalities.

When even Ross — who did “Good Morning America” on Wednesday to promote “Dancing with the Stars” and his new book — would admit Contreras is a more naturally gifted player. Grandpa laughed along with Lester saying “it’s about time we got an offensive catcher,” and John Lackey telling reporters “we got rid of Rossy” as a reason why the 2017 Cubs should be better on paper than the team that ended the 108-year drought.

One-fifth of the schedule has shown that it won’t be quite that easy, the Cubs hovering around .500, not running away with the National League Central and probably getting tired of the comparisons to last year. But the relative struggles have underlined what made 2016 so unique beyond the historical significance.

As a rookie catcher, Contreras delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single that helped erase the possibility of facing Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in an elimination game. Contreras homered off Clayton Kershaw the night the Cubs beat the Los Angeles Dodgers for their first NL pennant in 71 years. Contreras notched an RBI double off another Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber) in a World Series Game 7.

Contreras, who turns 25 this weekend, was born in the same year as Kris Bryant and is older than Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr.

“They’re gonna get better, man,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Anthony) Rizzo’s gonna get better. KB’s gonna get better. They’re all gonna get better. They’re really novices in this game. To do what we did last year with the lack of experience — I’ve said it 1,000 times — it’s pretty incredible what our guys have been able to do.

“Just keep putting them out there, keep their heads screwed on properly, keep them well and they’re going to keep getting better. That’s the point where they really feel like they belong in the major leagues. And when they get to that point, then you actually see how good a player can be.

“You get young guys that will be teetering between survival and belonging, and Willson’s just dripping with self-confidence. That’s part of his allure, too.

“That’s why he runs out and has meetings with John Lackey on the mound. Most young catchers aren’t going to do that. They’re going to avoid John Lackey at all costs.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Contreras followed the game plan against the Colorado Rockies during Tuesday night’s win, when Lackey became the second visiting pitcher ever to put up seven scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts at Coors Field. (Pedro Martinez did it with a complete-game shutout for the Montreal Expos in 1997.)

“He’s a baseball guy,” Lackey said. “He wants to get into the film. He wants to learn the scouting reports. It’s fun to work with a young guy that really is all-in. He’s obviously very talented.”

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi — a one-time All-Star catcher for the Cubs who lasted 15 seasons in the big leagues — watched Contreras catch all 18 innings as Sunday night turned into Monday morning at Wrigley Field and came away with this impression:

“That’s the most energetic catcher I’ve ever seen play 18 innings,” Girardi said. “I give that kid a lot of credit. He’s blocking balls, he’s all over, smiling, playing his rear end off.”

With Contreras — who didn’t reach the Double-A level until his seventh season in professional baseball after signing with the Cubs as a teenager out of Venezuela — it’s always been about channeling that emotion in the right direction.

But the Contreras who flips his bat, pounds his chest and plays with so much passion on the field comes across differently in the clubhouse, rarely drawing attention to himself and following his routine with a sense of purpose.

“I’m kind of a quiet guy,” Contreras said. “I respect everybody’s space. And the most important thing is that I care about them. I care about winning. And I care about learning something different every single day.

“Once I go out there, I just forget about everything. I even forget about my family, because I know that I have to win this ballgame.

“I just care about my pitchers. I just want them to feel comfortable with me, and try to figure out how to approach them, how to talk to them.”

As the Cubs head toward this weekend’s showdown against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, Contreras is hitting .219 with one homer since Opening Night, five errors, a 30-percent caught-stealing rate, a 3.66 catcher ERA and a pickoff move that has minimized Lester’s throwing issues. The learning curve for Contreras — and whether or not he can come close to being the rivalry’s next Yadier Molina — will be a central part of the larger story for the 2017 Cubs.

“He’s made such tremendous strides behind the plate,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said, “knowing every arm that we have, all their stuff, all the lineups we face. (It’s) his ability to break down hitters, know which guys we don’t want to let beat us and develop a game plan accordingly.

“He’s just a tremendous young player who shows up every night.”

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

USA Today

Why what Mike Montgomery did against LA could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs' rotation

Joe Maddon needed Mike Montgomery to get through at least six innings given the circumstances presenting the Cubs' manager before Game 2 of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Not only were the Cubs short a man in the bullpen (thanks to Brandon Morrow’s pants-related back injury), but Maddon had to use four relievers — including Pedro Strop for two innings — after Tyler Chatwood managed only five innings in Game 1 earlier in the afternoon. 

So when Montgomery — who had only thrown over 100 pitches once in the last two and a half seasons before Tuesday — saw his pitch count sit at 40 after two innings, and then 63 after three, he knew he needed to regroup to avoid creating a mess for the Cubs’ bullpen. 

What followed was a start that, statistically, wasn’t the most impressive of the five Montgomery’s made since re-joining the Cubs’ rotation earlier this year. But it was an important start in that the 28-year-old left-hander didn’t have his best stuff, yet didn’t give in to a good Dodgers lineup. And holding that bunch to one run over six innings was exactly what the Cubs needed in what turned out to be a 2-1 extra-inning win. 

“Especially when you don’t have have your best stuff, you always gotta — that’s when you really learn how to pitch,” Montgomery said. 

It’s also the kind of start that could be a major point in Montgomery’s favor when Maddon is presented with a decision to make on his starting rotation whenever Yu Darvish comes off the disabled list. Knowing that Montgomery can grind his way through six innings when his team needs it the most without his best stuff only can add to the confidence the Cubs have in him. 

Montgomery didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday, issuing more walks (four) than he had in his previous four starts (three). He threw 48 pitches between the second and third innings, and only 25 of those pitches were strikes. Of the nine times the Dodgers reached base against Montgomery, six were the result of fastballs either leading to a walk or a hit. 

Even though the Dodgers were able to bother Montgomery a bit on his fastball, Maddon said that’s the pitch of his that’s impressed him the most over the last few weeks. 

“He never got rushed,” Maddon said. “In the past he would seem to get rushed when things weren’t going well, when he spot-started. Overall, fastball command is better — even though he was off a little bit tonight, the fastball command still exceeds what I’ve seen in the past couple of years on a more consistent basis. The changeup, really, good pitch. He got out of some jams but I think the fact that he knows where his fastball is going now is the difference-maker for him.”

Darvish will throw a simulated game on Wednesday after throwing two bullpen sessions last week. Maddon still doesn’t have a timetable for the $126 million right-hander’s return, and said he’s not entertaining what to do with his rotation until Darvish comes off the disabled list. But Maddon did mention Montgomery’s relative lack of an innings load — the most he’s thrown in a season in 130 2/3, which he did in 2017 — as a reason to perhaps not rush him into a permanent starting role the rest of the season. Going to a six-man rotation is a possibility, too, Maddon said. 

But the over-arching point is this: Montgomery will remain in the Cubs’ rotation as long as he keeps earning it. That can be the product of strong outings in which he has good stuff, or games like Tuesday in which he shows the Cubs the kind of resiliency most starters need to get through a full season. 

“I pitch well, good things happen,” Montgomery said. “I’ve always thought that. Opportunities, you just gotta make the most of them.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 28th + 29th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

For the second time in 1998, Sosa went back-to-back games with multiple home runs. After going yard twice on June 19 of that season, Slammin' Sammy again sent two balls into the bleachers on June 20.

He singlehandedly beat the Phillies that night, driving in 5 runs in a 9-4 Cubs victory.

But that wasn't the most impressive feat of the day from Sosa. His second homer was actually measured at a whopping 500 feet! It was the longest of the season, but not the longest of his career. On June 24, 2003, Sosa hit a homer at Wrigley measured at 511 feet.

The back-to-back big games raised Sosa's season OPS to 1.083 with a ridiculous .685 slugging percentage. He began June 1998 with a .608 slugging percentage.

Fun fact: Kerry Wood struck out 11 batters in 7.1 innings on June 20, 1998 to pick up his 7th big-league victory. As Wood marched to the National League Rookie of the Year that season, he finished with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts in only 166.2 innings for a career-high 12.6 K/9 rate.