Cubs

Shining on playoff stage, Willson Contreras a billboard for The Cubs Way

Shining on playoff stage, Willson Contreras a billboard for The Cubs Way

SAN FRANCISCO — Holding two aluminum Budweiser bottles in his hands, Willson Contreras walked up to Theo Epstein and poured beer all over the Cubs president’s head in the middle of a TV interview.

Uh, yeah, Contreras acts like he belongs in The Show, with a big smile and Oakley goggles perched atop his head. That raucous scene from inside AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse late Tuesday night on the West Coast showed how this team responds to all the noise about curses, panic and the indestructible nature of the San Francisco Giants in an even year.

The Cubs had just staged an epic comeback, winning a National League Division Series with a ninth-inning rally that saw them wipe out a three-run deficit — and the dreaded possibility of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 — by scoring four runs against five different Giant relievers.

Contreras delivered the game-tying, two-run, pinch-hit single in that 6-5 victory, driving the pitch from lefty Will Smith past diving second baseman Joe Panik into center field. Contreras pointed toward the visiting dugout and punched his chest with his right fist as he ran up the line. At first base, Contreras screamed and pounded his chest again, this time with both fists, a billboard for The Cubs Way.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Contreras said. “I was trying to have a good at-bat and make a good swing. That’s what I did. We don’t have to put pressure on ourselves. Once you start enjoying the game, you’re going to enjoy the playoffs.”

Be free. Be loose. Be yourself. That’s what Joe Maddon and his coaching staff kept telling this team, backed by a group of clubhouse enforcers with World Series experience.

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In an NLDS where Javier Baez showed off his defensive wizardry, pimping at home plate and absolute joy for the game, Contreras proved that he could channel all that adrenaline, too, handling his catching responsibilities in a tense playoff series and going 4-for-6 with a walk in seven plate appearances.

“He’s a winner,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our young guys, they’re excitable, but I love that. Look at Javy and Willson — they’re going to do that stuff. Listen, it’s just the postseason. I have no problem with teams celebrating against us. I like the fact that our guys celebrate. They’re excited. They should celebrate. There’s no showing anybody up in October.”

At this time last year, Contreras watched the playoffs from the Arizona Fall League, picturing what he would do for the 2016 Cubs and how he would build off a season that saw him win a Southern League batting title at Double-A Tennessee.

The Cubs envisioned Contreras being this year’s Kyle Schwarber, the midseason shot of adrenaline to the lineup, behind the plate and in the outfield. It became more of a necessity when Schwarber wrecked his left knee during an outfield collision in early April.

The Cubs will return to the NL Championship Series and battle the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers with a deep roster accented by versatility, premium young talent and fearless personalities. Contreras is the 24-year-old rookie who only spent a little more than two months at Triple-A Iowa — and has the rocket arm to help control the running game the New York Mets exploited during that 2015 NLCS sweep.

“I don’t have the words to say how big this year is for me and for the team,” Contreras said. “But we got to keep on. We got to keep working to the next series.”

The Cubs needed that burst of energy to overpower a Giants team that had won 10 straight postseason elimination games. This didn’t look like a random playoff moment for Contreras, who loves performing on the big stage.

“We play 27 outs,” Contreras said. “You got to give credit to the San Francisco Giants. That’s a really nice team. They never give up. But we did the little things. We never give up.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.